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Use E-Mail Wisely: Don’t Make These Common Mistakes!

Email has become ubiquitous in both our personal and professional lives. You probably use it repeatedly every day in the course of your practice, but if you’re like most of us you probably don’t put much thought into the ways in which you use email. However, during the course of my practice I’ve witnessed thoughtful, smart attorneys make mistakes that they regretted because they didn’t carefully consider best practices for their email usage. Here are a few of my suggestions for how to best use email in your practice:

1. Be Timely and Responsive

For me, happiness is an empty inbox. But that goal, an empty inbox, is incredibly elusive. On any given weekday I’d estimate that I receive over 80 emails primarily related to my entertainment law practice or my other business. As a result, it’s often tempting to rush through my inbox without promptly responding to an email. But I know that would be a mistake. In the end you’ll save more time by acting on emails promptly. Additionally, both clients and colleagues will appreciate prompt responses to their emails. Reply, delete, or take necessary action and then move on.

2. Forward Infrequently

Be extremely careful when forwarding emails. In fact, forward emails as infrequently as possible. Especially if those emails are part of a long chain of correspondence. I once received a forwarded email from an opposing counsel that included a chain of prior emails that included a long discussion with several members of his staff about settlement on a case we were litigating with them. The string of emails had begun as an intra-office discussion and analysis regarding case status and settlement before addressing an extension for discovery responses I’d requested. The associate I’d requested the extension from raised the issue in the email thread with his boss. The boss gave his answer to the associate and the associate forwarded me his boss’ reply – along with their entire settlement discussion. Don’t be that guy/gal.

3. Be Careful with Reply All

The “reply all” option on email can pose problems similar to those of the “forward” button. Before you reply all to an email, spend the time to consider whether you want to send your reply to each person on the thread. If there are people who do not need to receive the email, remove them from the list. Most people find it annoying to continue to receive emails that no longer apply to them and it doesn’t take that long to remove them from the thread.

4. Use Subject Lines That Are Clear

When sending emails to clients and colleagues, be certain that your subject line is clear and straightforward. The reader should know immediately what the subject matter of your email will be. If you have multiple matters with a client and your email is about a specific matter, that matter should be referenced in the subject line. If your email is also referencing a specific motion for a matter, that should be referenced in the subject line. Consider something along the lines of: “Giants v. Tigers – Motion For Summary Judgement: need your signed affidavit.” In general, I recommend that you presume that the recipient of your email receives a lot of emails and needs to immediately recognize the significance of this specific email.

5. Keep It Simple and Professional

Do whatever you’d like when sending emails to friends and family, but when you are sending email to other professionals never use unnecessary decorative pictures, emoticons, colored fonts, flowery fonts, etc. In my opinion, those unnecessary elements only serve to demean your professionalism.

6. Proofread

I’ll presume you’ve put some thought into the email you are about to send. It’s probably brilliant, witty, and insightful. Before you send it though, it’s definitely worth taking the time to make sure its easy-to-read and typo-free. Take a second to run the spellcheck on your email. Then once you’ve done that, take another thirty seconds to re-read your email for grammatical errors and typos. Many people will judge you because of these mistakes.

7. Don’t Write Angry Emails

I honestly cannot imagine a situation in which your practice could ever benefit from sending a hot-headed email to a colleague, a client, or even an opposing counsel. Even when a situation calls for a strongly worded or tough-talking email, it’s better to send it when your head is cool and your judgment isn’t clouded by emotion. Before sending an angry email, cool off a little first. Then, once you are calm, consider what you want to achieve from your response and whether a more diplomatic approach might be more appropriate.

8. Don’t Delete Any Professional Correspondence

Personally I believe in saving all of my emails with colleagues, clients, witnesses, experts, court staff, and opposing counsel. After all, you never know when you might need them. I’ve said it before, but I believe one of the most important directives for any attorney is to cover your hide. Keeping records of your correspondence is the best way you can achieve that goal. In my career, I’ve been saved both at hearings by being able to produce emails that proved that opposing counsel was distorting the substance of conversations and by in the office being able to remind colleagues of conversations and agreed upon divisions of labor.

9. Use Your Signature Line Wisely

Although some would argue against the merits of using a signature line at all, I generally approve of the proper use of a signature line. However, if you do use a signature line, remember to use your signature wisely. Don’t include unnecessary quotes (no matter how inspiring they are), pictures, designs, and other non-essential elements. It is OK to include your name, your contact information, a link to your website, and – if you feel strongly about it – a legal disclaimer.

I compiled most of these tips by simply considering the most common mistakes I’ve seen my colleagues make. What other common mistakes do you see other professionals make? Do you have any tips for your colleagues? Let us know in the comments.

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2 Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    I entirely agree with your tip on forwarded emails. When there is an internal email string with information that needs to be passed along externally, I use the copy and paste method. Only the pertinent information gets passed along, and there is less risk of revealing confidential information. On the proofreading point, check paragraph 9, first paragraph, last sentence. You used “you” instead of “your.”

    • Matthew Hickey says:

      Great tip Aaron! And good eye on the typo. Maybe one of my next posts should be about the importance of proofreading your blog posts before posting them!