E-Mail has become an essential tool in the business and legal worlds. After 30 plus years of e-mail use, I have received and endured e-mail messages of all types. Some are formal and others are lax and almost un-readable. Recently, it occurred to me that maybe what is needed are some basic rules of etiquette for e-mail messaging. Below, I have listed 10 rules of e-mail etiquette I believe will help ensure your e-mail messages are read sooner, are more effective and, just maybe, might help you avoid sending an e-mail you later wish you had not:
1. Always Include a Meaningful Subject Line. Include a subject line message, which connects the e-mail to a specific matter. For example, if you are corresponding with someone regarding the Jones matter, make sure the subject line of your e-mail contains the word “Jones” to connect it to the matter. Without a subject line, your e-mail may be routed automatically to the recipient’s spam folder. Further, many of us use software, which allows us to search our ever-growing e-mail inbox and bulk file e-mail messages by subject name. To effectively use this tool, however, the subject line must be meaningful. It must contain a word, number or phrase, which connects the e-mail to the appropriate matter.
2. Understand the Difference Between All Caps and Sentence Caps. Few things irritate e-mail recipients more than an all caps e-mail. The use of ALL CAPS IN AN E-MAIL IS GENERALLY UNDERSTOOD TO BE THE EQUIVELANT OF SHOUTING. See what I mean? It’s irritating and a bit offensive. So, don’t use all caps unless you really do intend to shout at someone and then, used them sparingly.
3. Be Careful When You Use “Reply All”. We have probably all seen the Southwest Airlines commercial (Wanna’ Get Away?) where the employee sends a “reply all” e-mail that definitely should not have been sent by reply all. Not only can you cause all sorts of problems with friends and family by accidentally sending a reply all e-mail, you could also cause yourself or your customers/clients to lose opportunities, money and quite possibly, business relations and friendships. It seems obvious, but be sure you check every e-mail recipient to make sure you want that person to receive a copy of your e-mail.
4. Be Careful Sending (and Receiving) Attachments. Attachments (especially Word and Excel files) can carry viruses. Opening e-mail attachments is one of the most likely ways to introduce malware to your or the recipient’s computer. Use pdf format documents whenever possible and be sure to scan every attachment with your malware scanning software before you open it.
5. Be Brief and Precise. E-mail arrives at all times of the day and night, which is both good and bad. The good is that it speeds up the communication process and the bad is that we are often focusing on something else when an e-mail comes in. Unless the message is short and easy to read, we tend to tag it to read later. Brief and concise messages are usually read right away. So, keep it short and to the point to enhance the delivery and effectiveness of your message.
6. Think Before You Hit Send. Before you hit the send button, stop and think. The wrong choice of words or the wrong recipient can cause a world of hurt, so re-read your e-mail before you hit send to make sure tomorrow you can live with what you said, how you said it, and to whom you set it. An e-mail can last forever and can come back to haunt you in the future. Think, then send.
7. Avoid Excessive Informality. If you do not know someone you are writing to do not address the person by his or her first name in your initial e-mail. Wait for the exchange to warm up a bit before using a first name. You will usually know when it is appropriate to use a first name, but if you are unsure, ask. I guarantee you 100% of the time the other party will say, “Of course.”
8. Avoid Mass E-mails. I had a client who absolutely, under no circumstances, would allow me (or anyone else whom he hired) to disclose his e-mail address to anyone. I used a yellow sticky on my computer monitor for many months to remind me not to cc the client on any e-mail I sent in his transactions. He was a bcc only. I pitied the consultant who one day accidentally included the client’s e-mail address on an e-mail he sent to multiple parties. Suffice it to say the poor guy lost a big client that day, but only after getting an earful.
Most e-mail applications allow you to replace the recipient’s e-mail address with their name or “Client” or to bcc (blind carbon copy) the recipient to prevent their name and e-mail address from being exposed to others. You never know when someone might object to your exposing their e-mail address to others. Check with your client before you send e-mail messages to other parties to see what preferences the client has regarding e-mail correspondence.
9. Sometimes Only a Call Will Do. There are times when you should ditch the e-mail and pick up the phone and call. Or better yet, deliver the message in person. E-mail is a wonderful tool, but like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. I have transactions where I never spoke with opposing counsel. The entire deal was handled by e-mail. However, I have also had transactions where e-mail messages seemed to be the problem, not the solution. I have also had instances where e-mail was used by opposing counsel as a delay tactic; usually because the other lawyer was buried with work and was not able to keep up with the transaction. In those instances, a simple phone call made it clear to me that the other lawyer was behind the curve so I offered to step up and lead the document drafting to allow the other counsel some breathing room to get caught up with his workload. Problem solved and the lawyer was a pussy cat to deal with for the rest of the transaction. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and speak with someone in person. It may be just what is needed to get the transaction moving forward again.
10. Don’t Hide Behind E-mail. My number one e-mail etiquette rule is to not write something in an e-mail that you would not say to the recipient in person. E-mail is easy to hide behind. My recommendation is don’t. When I write a “forceful” e-mail to someone, I never include the intended recipient’s e-mail address in the “To” field in case I accidentally send the e-mail before I intend to. I also save forceful e-mails and read them again the next morning to make sure I still want to send it. More times than not, those drafted forceful emails end up never being sent and I can’t tell you how many times later I was relieved that they were not.
If you follow these 10 simple rules you will find your e-mail messages get read sooner, are more effective, and will not result in the embarrassment of sending e-mail you later regret.