Email is used more and more as a means of communication. Back in the last century – in the 1970’s and 1980’s, lawyers could get away with telling clients that a draft of a document was in the mail. Now, if a document is drafted it can be sent instantly.
There are lots of unwritten ‘rules’ around the use of email and if your firm does not have a policy around the use of email, it should draft one post haste.
If you are a junior lawyer, remember that if you are providing advice to a client via email you should always get your supervising partner to check and authorise it to be sent. In the same way that letters to clients are usually signed by a partner, emails containing legal advice should not leave your computer without being checked by someone with authority to sign mail.
Think of your emails as another form of communication that is sent on the firm letterhead. Everything you write will have the firm’s name on it. Remember the affidavit test – every piece of correspondence you write could end up as an annexure to an affidavit, read by a judge and on the public record. Even if you are sending an email internally, think of the content being placed on the firm noticeboard before you hit ‘send’ to judge whether or not it is a good idea.
In terms of etiquette, follow these simple tips:
Make sure the subject matter is relevant and accurately reflects the content of the email. It is easy to reply to an earlier email sent to you about a completely different subject. Change the subject line or write the email in a completely new one.
Always start with a greeting – ‘Dear x’ or ‘Dear Ms Y’. Depending on your relationship with the client the greeting can be less formal, such as ‘good morning’ but never start a work email with the content only. Again, respect and consideration are paramount.
Make sure you have spell check turned on and that you have spelled names correctly.
Punctuation is still important but please never use multiple exclamation marks or question marks.
Remember your manners. Please and thank you are still important in emails.
Use the same rules of writing as you would if sending a formal letter – good sentence structure, paragraphs, bullet points, headings.
Double check that the recipient is the correct one. With email systems your computer remembers names you frequently use. If you have two clients with the first name ‘Susan’ check that you have sent it to the right person.
Keep emails brief and to the point.
Never assume intent or tone from an email.
If you refer to an attachment make sure it is attached before you send it.
Think before hitting ‘reply all’ to an email to many people – does everyone on the email really need to be read your response?
Never use all capitals – this is considered to be shouting.
Use the CC field for those who really are receiving the email for information only. If you want that person to respond include them in the ‘To’ field. You can also send the ‘sent’ email to another person saying ‘just for your information’ rather than the BCC field.
Remember if you use ‘BCC’ that person may not realise that they have been blind copied and may ‘reply all’, alerting the original recipient to the fact that this person was blind copied.
Be careful when forwarding emails – some emails are lengthy and have many emails below them that may contain sensitive information. When in doubt, don’t.
Never forward jokes on work emails.
If you feel angry about an email you have received don’t respond straight away. Think carefully about your response.
Email is fast and easy to use. But don’t let that fact diminish the importance of what you have to say or how you say it.