Email Communication Skills for Legal Professionals

Email Communication for Legal ProfessionalsLaw firm staff, paralegals and other legal professionals use email regularly, sending dozens of emails and receiving many more every day.  Email can contain extremely important information or it can appear almost useless, such as advertisements from vendors.  Because email communication is such an integral part of our lives, it’s worth taking some time to brush up on good email communication skills.

Use good grammar and punctuation.

When email first arrived on the scene, it gave us a less formal way of sending written communications to each other.  Because it is less formal than writing a letter, sometimes we’re more casual in our communications.  While there are times when this is acceptable when writing to friends and family, it is not a good practice to slip into the habit of writing incomplete messages, or ignoring punctuation when you’re communicating on behalf of your law firm.  It’s really never acceptable to send email with obvious typing mistakes.  Our email communication is just as important as our other forms of communication.  Your law firm expects a high level of professionalism in all of your communications.

Don’t write long emails if a short one will do the job.

If you type fast, you’re likely to send much longer emails than someone who types very slowly.  While it’s an advantage to be able to spend less time writing emails, be sure to avoid the habit of writing long emails when a short one will suffice.  Because we receive so much email, it’s often necessary for us to skip emails that are long and hold them for later in the day.  If you write long emails, you run the risk of being lost in your reader’s inbox for much longer than if you had written a short, succinct email.  If you think you’re an offender of this rule, make it a habit to review your email message, looking for areas where you could shorten the thought and convey the same message.  Your reader will appreciate the effort.

Be clear in your communication.

In email, it’s necessary to be very direct with your message. This is especially true when writing to clients and others outside of the law firm.  Misinterpreting meaning and demeanor is a common occurrence.  Email doesn’t give us the advantage of facial cues or changes in vocal tone that we use during spoken communication to help convey our meaning and message. This means we have to rely solely on the spoken word.  Writing very direct messages will cut down on the chances you may be misinterpreted.

Humor in emails should be kept to a minimum.  Often jokes are misinterpreted to mean something else entirely.  Clients and others in your law firm cannot always tell when you’re joking.  It’s better to avoid too much humor and stick to very direct messages.

Subject lines are headlines.

Make no mistake, your subject line is a headline and has a very important job to perform. Just like a newspaper headline, your subject line needs to immediately grab the attention of your reader. With the large number of emails we all receive in our inboxes, we tend to skip to what we consider the most urgent messages first. If your subject line does not grab attention, your message may be held to be read much later.

A headline should be descriptive so the reader knows what the email contains.  A good description will bring your message to the reader’s attention much faster and increase the likelihood that they will open your message and respond right away.

Emails should have only one point per email.

If you put too many points in one email, your reader is likely to miss some of your points. Many people delete an email or move it to a folder once it has been handled. If you write about more than one topic, you run the risk of being put into a folder before the reader addresses the other topics in the email.

One topic may have a short reply and one may require action and time on your part. This leaves the reader with a decision to make. Do they respond when both issues are handled, or do they respond to one now and respond to the second one later?  If they respond twice to the same email, it may create a confusing email thread. If you need to go back at a later time and read through the thread, it will be confusing.

If there are several points you want to make on one topic, place each point in its own paragraph. Also number the points so your reader will more easily see them and won’t miss anything important.

Be sure to clearly state the action your email is requesting.  An email without an obvious call to action will likely receive no response as the reader may not understand a response was required.  Simple requests can include, “Please call me to confirm our appointment,” or “Can you let me know what day you can meet for lunch?”

Always include your contact information.

If a reader would like to reach out to you by telephone, don’t make them dig into their contacts to find your number. Having all contact information under your name/signature allows your reader to easily respond by any manner they choose.

Don’t make a sender wait too long for a response.

By reviewing incoming email frequently, you can be sure to respond in a timely fashion.  If you don’t want to be on email all day, choose a time in the morning, mid-day and in the afternoon to check email.

If a lengthy response is required by you, send a short response letting the sender know you have received the email and when you will be sending a full response. Otherwise, your sender will wonder if you’ve received the email or if it went to the spam folder.

If you’re going to be out of the office for a day or more, set an out-of-office automatic response for the days that you will be out of the office. In the message, state when you will be returning. This, again, is courteous to your sender. They will know that they will probably not hear from you until you are back in the office.

These tips and suggestions may seem simple and obvious. However, if you find you have let some of these habits slide, now is a good time to review these suggestions and begin implementing them again.  Good email communication will reflect well upon you with others in the law firm, as well as with clients and outside parties with whom you are communicating on behalf of the law firm.

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