10 Tips for Perfect Legal Emails
Master the art of writing effective legal emails with these 10 expert tips, ensuring clarity and professionalism in your communication.
Most legal readers will judge your lawyerly skills not by reading your appellate briefs or summary judgment motions—but by reading your emails. Attorneys often deal with a multitude of quick and informal emails in their daily routine. Research questions for partners, summaries of documents, updates to clients—you will spend many of your days doing nothing more than shooting off emails. This means that your ability to craft effective emails will significantly impact your chances of making a positive impression and building strong professional relationships.
Emails are crucial for another reason: they are focused on another attorney’s specific need, often one that is time-sensitive and dire. Your colleagues, clients, or superiors will undoubtedly pay close attention to the content of your emails. Sloppy style, poor organization, and loose reasoning won’t fly under the radar. These mistakes are particularly likely to occur in quick electronic communications like emails (let’s not even get started on Tweets).
But the good news is that emails don’t just train the spotlight on the bad; they’re also a chance to show off the good. You are on stage: highlight all of your writing and other professional skills. Show people your writing style, your legal acumen, and your ability to add value to projects and be a self-starter.
With the importance of emailing in mind, consider some tips for crafting the perfect one.
What am I doing again? Whenever you get a substantive email assignment, ask questions about what is expected. What will your reader do with this information? How much time should you spend? How much information do they want? When do they want it by? What, exactly, are the questions you should answer? Are there any helpful places to start? Many lawyers have been doomed when working on short and quick assignments by doing too little, too much, or simply the wrong work. And the same is true for simpler emails.
A brief pause to consider your goals for the email can help shape your message or decide whether to send it at all.
And the category is! Be thoughtful about subject lines and embedded text when forwarding or even just when replying to long threads. If you are responding to a chain of emails, it might make sense to start a new email rather than lugging along all the baggage. Ensure that your subject line clearly conveys the main content of your email and any other important information. For example: If your email is time-sensitive, say so in your subject line.
Well, howdy there. Be mindful of the tone you strike in salutations and your signature block. Choose a formal tone, especially when you are not well-acquainted with the recipient. Double-check that you spell the recipient's name correctly; there is nothing worse than calling Mr. Park, Mrs. Park.
Add value now. In every email you send, consider how you can enhance the task at hand. For research assignments, think about attaching additional resources or secondary sources, along with a few relevant cases. Demonstrating your self-motivation and willingness to improve projects is a rare and valuable trait among attorneys, and seasoned attorneys will take note.
Add value later. Instead of just following instructions and leaving it at that, offer concrete next steps to further assist your reader. Avoid vague statements like "if I can do anything else, let me know." Instead, provide specific offers such as conducting follow-up research or seeking a second opinion from an expert. Demonstrating your consideration of future steps and the bigger picture will showcase your proactive mindset.
Make your email user-ready. When organizing your email, think about what your reader will be using it for:
If you are writing an email for a senior attorney, and you know that the attorney will forward your research to a client—consider putting soundbites in your email so the attorney can just copy and paste them in their own email.
If a senior attorney is using your email as talking points for a conversation, consider offering suggested questions, sound bites, or bullet points.
Otherwise, consider whether there are ways to organize, package, or format your writing so that it is tailored to your reader’s purpose.
The bottom line. Begin any substantive email with a short summary of key takeaways. This should include: (1) providing a bit of context to remind the reader about the email's purpose and why you are writing it; (2) offering direct answers to any questions you were asked; and (3) presenting a concise summary of the most important points or findings (for legal research, include the key holdings in a quick sentence or two; for factual information, highlight the most crucial points you discovered).
Getting deep. After your summary, provide a clearly-labeled section with a thorough explanation of the issues. This allows your reader to choose their own adventure: if they want details, they can skip to the lengthy section. If they want the down-and-dirty, they can stick with the summary.
Organization is king. Your organization is crucial because your reader is likely to be in a hurry, but at the same time, you have to deliver information without all of the windup you get in a brief or memo. Should you tackle threshold issues first? Should you discuss more important matters before getting to the less relevant details? Are there any time-sensitive issues that require your reader's immediate attention?
White space. 99% of dense emails are never read. That isn't a real statistic, but it could be. Use white space, clear headings, bullet points, paragraphs, sections, and other devices to break up your writing.
Your intellectual chops. Think deeply and carefully about any legal analysis you provide in an email. A brief or motion will likely be vetted by others before it's used—and frankly, in many cases, emailed information is more crucial because it can be time-sensitive. Emails are not the time to take shortcuts. Show your reader that you are detail-oriented, think carefully about the law, and know how to explain it clearly.
Your style chops.
Typos are not an option in emails. Your reader will always notice.
You will be judged for every excess word and sentence—the last thing you want to do is waste an email-reader’s time.
Rewrite and rewrite until each sentence is as simple and direct as it can be. Your reader has no time to disentangle verbal gymnastics.
Use summary paragraphs to quickly narrow down questions or issues to what matters.
Use transitions and headings to connect up your writing on the sentence, paragraph, and section levels.
Use all of your other style tools to show off that you are a clear, articulate writer.
Answer the question. Make sure you stick to the questions you were given or the goal of your email. Tangents are reader killers. You should always look to add value, as I explain below. Ensure you are providing valuable information and not wasting your reader's time.
OMG! Carefully consider the overall tone of your email. You don't want to sound too stuffy, and you want to show off your clear, concise writing chops. But don't make the mistake of being so chummy that your reader is taken aback. It is easy to misconstrue the tone of an email—your reader can't see your face, hear the tone of your voice, or use any other cues to determine your emotion or mood. Make sure there is no way for your reader to hear something in your email that you didn't mean to put there.
Ensure you don't fall victim to a reply-all debacle. An easy trick is to start a new email when replying to someone and pasting in their address. Also be thoughtful about who you are cc'ing and bcc'ing.
If your email is negative, sit on it for 24 hours if possible. There is nothing worse than email remorse.
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills. Learn more about Joe