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Inside Straight: Thinking About E-mail ‘Subject’ Lines

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Please think for a second before you hit “send” and launch your next e-mail.

There are actually a bunch of things you should think about before sending your next e-mail, but today I’ll rant about just one: the “subject” line.

My rant comes in three parts.

First, the “subject” line has the potential to be helpful. At a minimum, an intelligent subject line can get my mind in gear for the information that I’m about to read, and perhaps can give me some sense of the urgency of your communication. At a maximum, an intelligent subject line can convey an entire message.

So use the thing! Please don’t send me e-mails with subject lines that are entirely blank. You’ve missed an opportunity to make communication easier, and you’ve forced me to pop open your e-mail to learn what you’re writing about. Put a few words in the subject line, to tell me what’s coming.

Second, please remember who I am and who you are. If you work at Kirkland & Ellis, it wouldn’t be too helpful to receive many e-mails with subject lines that read “Kirkland & Ellis.” That subject line wouldn’t distinguish one e-mail message from the other. You are Kirkland & Ellis; you don’t need to be told that every e-mail is about Kirkland & Ellis….

That’s you; I’m me. I work at Aon. So it really doesn’t help me to receive e-mails with subject lines that read “Aon.” Those subject lines don’t distinguish one e-mail message from another. I am Aon; I don’t need to be told that every e-mail is about Aon.

I understand that you think of the case you’re handling for us as the “Aon case.” And that’s fine; that’s intelligent; we are, after all, the client. But I don’t think of any of my cases as the “Aon case,” because that’s meaningless from where I sit. Depending on who’s suing us, or who we’re suing, I might have a “Smith” case or a “Jones” case, but I guarantee you that no one in our legal department is educated by hearing that we’re involved in the Aon case. So please don’t send us e-mails with the subject line “Aon.” That’s terribly unhelpful, and (because what I’ve just written is so self-evident) it doesn’t reflect well on you.

Third, if it’s possible (and it almost surely is), please provide more than just the case name in the subject line. It’s okay to receive one e-mail labeled “Smith” to indicate that the e-mail is about the Smith case. But the Smith case may have been filed in 2008 and may remain pending, two trials and three appeals from now, in 2014. It’s not very helpful for me to have a e-folder about the Smith case that contains 1500 e-mails all with the subject line “Smith.”

Consider writing subject lines that give just a whisper more than that, such as “Smith: draft mo dsms.” Or “Smith: 1/20/11 conf call with Doe.” Or, if the situation permits it, the enthusiastic and helpful: “Smith: Summ jdgmt granted!” When I see those messages waiting on my computer, I have a preview of your communication (which aids comprehension), and when I file those e-mails in an e-folder, they’re easy to find when I’m searching for one years from now for some future use.

I’m not nuts about this. When I was in private practice, I had one client that tried to dictate the contents of e-mail “subject” lines. Every subject line was supposed to start with the case name, then include a code for whether the e-mail was high, medium, or low priority, and then include other, specified information in a particular order. That system struck me (and continues to strike me) as unfair. Lawyers work for a lot of clients; they shouldn’t be forced to memorize a unique structure for the “subject” lines of e-mails being sent to each client.

But it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask my correspondents (whether they were other lawyers at my firm, when I was in private practice; or my colleagues with whom I work now; or outside counsel communicating with me about our cases) to pause for just a moment before sending an e-mail to craft a subject line that’s logical and helpful. That’s a matter of both courtesy and efficiency, and no one should object to giving the world just a little more of both.

Earlier: Prior installments of Inside Straight

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

You can reach him by email at

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