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BigLaw: Top 10 Email Etiquette Tips for Large Firm Lawyers

By Marin Feldman | Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Originally published on January 25, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Gentleman Ladies and Gentleman BigLaw Subscribers,

During firm orientation, you learn how to opt into your dental plan, where to locate the bathrooms, and, if you're lucky, how to track your hours. These items are important, especially if you eat spicy meals, gnaw on tin foil, or develop bruxism. But orientation not to mention internal CLE programs nearly always omit another crucial skill — professional email etiquette.

You would think sending polished, professional email would be an obvious skill among associates. Large law firms apparently agree, so they don't bother teaching the basics and instead let new associates (and luddite partners who begrudgingly agree to start using email) fall on the swords of accidental reply-alls, overly informal language, and other faux pas. If your law firm does not have an email etiquette training program, relax. Just forward this issue of BigLaw around your firm as it contains the top 10 email etiquette tips for large firm lawyers.

1. Subject Line

Keep your subject lines short yet explanatory and joke-free (no matter how hilarious your pun). Use title case or else it will look too informal. In long back and forth chains, make sure it doesn't get to the point of "Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Fwd." When this happens, edit it back to a single "Re:" or start fresh. Aon's Chief Counsel for Litigation and former Jones Day partner Mark Herrmann has some additional subject line tips.

2. Salutation

As someone with a gender-neutral name that brings to mind a county in Northern California (Marin), I have been the victim of "Gentlemen" more than once during my biglaw tenure. And Greg, a female friend of mine, certainly commiserated. The point is, unless you've spoken to all parties on the phone or seen them in person, "Gentleman" is risky. While "Ladies and Gentleman" solves that problem, using it makes you sound like you're a traveling minstrel hawking peep stones. I suggest using everyone's first name if feasible or the completely neutral "All:" or skipping the salutation altogether and starting with a "Good Morning/Good Afternoon."

3. Signoff

Most lawyers use some form or "Regards" at the conclusion of email. But which "Regards" to use? There's of course the plain vanilla "Regards," the effeminate "Warm regards," the passive aggressive "Kind regards," and finally "Best regards" for when you really want to knock their socks off. If you're going to use "Regards" — and it is a fine signoff — just pick one and stick with it forever. "Thanks" is also a good one. Steer clear of "Sincerely" and "Respectfully," and never write "Truly" because it means nothing and sounds creepy.

4. Attachments

If you write "Please find attached …" for the love of God make sure to attach the attachment. Triple check it if you must. Nothing says "amateur" more than sending a follow-up email 30 seconds later with an apology and an attachment. Software utilities such as SendGuard can scan your message for words like "attachment" and warn you if there's nothing attached when you click "Send."

5. Non-Work Related Mass Email

Do you need the number of a good plumber? How about a recommendation for a reputable DUI lawyer in the DC Metropolitan area for "a friend"? Conduct Google searches, call friends, but whatever you do, don't send around mass email messages at work (except of course for this issue of BigLaw). Your toilet may be clogged and your "friend" may have breathed a 0.42, but you don't want your entire firm gossiping about you. Don't even offer up the Yankees tickets you can't use. Keep your personal problems anonymous.

6. Signatures

Always include a signature with your contact information — except your email address since that's redundant. Your signature should be plain and all black. Don't use a cheesy script font for your name, don't get fancy and place the firm's name in a different color. And definitely don't append "Please be considerate of the environment … think before you print this message!" unless you want people to never email you again. You should also remove the "Sent from my iPhone" advertisement because it tips partners off that you're not at your desk 24/7. Don't give them an excuse to give you more work.

7. Abbreviations

No matter how many abbreviations ("thx"), misspellings ("tonite"), or other syntax and grammatical errors clients and partners include in their hastily-written email, resist the urge to reply in kind. You may be in a rush too, but dig deep and find the time to write a proofed and polished message, even from your mobile device … which means deleting "Sent from my iPhone" as noted above.

8. Return Receipt

As tempting as it is to know — definitively — that someone has read the very important email you just sent him or her, nothing enrages people more than receiving return receipt messages. Why should it be your business to know when and if someone reads your email? It's not. The whole deal with email is that you take a leap of faith that the recipient will receive it and respond. If you can't live with that anxiety, use the phone instead. Don't play dirty by spying on other peoples' inboxes.

9. Recalls

Email is unforgiving. Once sent, that's a wrap. You can't go back. Recalling an email sent in error that has undoubtedly already been read by the unintended recipient(s) only calls more attention to the original message, your mistake, and your feeble attempts to undo it. Just don't make this mistake. Ever. Pay attention. Turn off address auto-fill if necessary. Or use Outlook's Defer Delivery setting.

10. Personal Email Sent From Your Work Account

You've all read the legendary email accidentally sent by a Skadden summer associate from his work account to the firm's entire underwriting group. Nuff said.

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Email/Messaging/Telephony
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