Whether you practice in Biglaw or a boutique, knowing how to email is a critical skill. In fact, the quality of a lawyer’s emails is an excellent indicator of that lawyer’s future career prospects (excepting those lawyers fortunate to be born with a guaranteed multimillion-dollar book of business through family connections). This should not be a surprise, considering how email is the single most used form of communication for lawyers. Yes, technology has liberated us from a full day’s work (with the help of a secretary) in order to prepare what would now be considered a routine client communication in the form of a fancy letter. But the need for a similar level of care in preparing today’s written communications has not changed. Show me an associate’s emails, and I (along with other former or current Biglaw partners) will have a very respectable success rate in guessing whether or not the associate is partnership material, even in the absence of other information about the author.
I have sent many thousands of emails in my legal career. I do not know how many of them would have been considered “good” emails, but I’d like to think that most of them were. I was fortunate, since I worked for a partner who stressed to me early on the importance of sending “good” emails.
What is a “good” email?
Simple. It is one that helps the reader. Helps them understand something. Or reminds them of something that needs to get done. Or saves them time. Need proof that learning how to email is important? Some of the world’s best-known companies, the ones you like to name drop at parties as your “clients” so your friends know how fancy your job is, actually have detailed email guidelines for outside counsel to adhere to. How you email is important to them. It better be important to you.
As is typical, because emailing is such a critical skill, young lawyers are given little to no instruction on how to do so “professionally,” much less how to differentiate themselves from their peers through sending quality emails. Biglaw practice, rather, is to hand off a BlackBerry to associates on their first day (at least in my day, though now in the cost-cutting days of Biglaw associates are probably expected to BTOD or “bring their own device”) with instructions to have it on at all times, just in case a partner decides that research to support his or her grand legal theorem needs to be carried out on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, ATL’s own archives provide ample stories demonstrating how not to use email, but cautionary tales only go so far in helping younger lawyers, and are most unhelpful when it comes to teaching those with longer-term career ambitions what to actually do.
In order for an email to be helpful, there are some preliminary considerations to consider. First, it has to be “readable,” not only in terms of syntax, but also form. Are the partners you write for older? Your clients? If you have been in a meeting with them and have noticed they wear reading glasses, then you should increase the font size on emails you send them. Finding yourself writing long, complicated emails updating partners or clients on issues in your case or deal? Take a text design course, and learn how to structure your emails so the information is accessible and easy to read from a layout perspective.
Second, think about the subject line. Think about what it says, and whether or not it conveys to the reader something of value. Or at least allows the email to be easily pulled from an archive folder. A one-word subject line may be ok for personal correspondence, or a short exchange with a colleague. But be wary of “thread metastasis,” when multiple other recipients or substantive topics get added to an email chain with the subject line “Lunch.” Do not hesitate to change the subject line when the direction of a thread warrants it. Similarly, detailed subject lines can be very helpful, and at minimum, should allow the recipient to identify what topic, case, or matter is being addressed. Do not send emails with the subject line “Research,” when the recipient really needs: “Apple v. Samsung: Research on Patent Stalemates Involving Rich Companies.”
Third, if you promise an attachment, please include it. That’s it on that one. Failure to do so shows carelessness. And try to keep your emails as short as possible while maintaining clarity and utility. But do not take it too far. When you become a managing partner, or are a big client, you can afford to send one-word emails or short directives. Otherwise, use full sentences and convey complete thoughts. And when you are emailing a busy or very important recipient, you should aim to get back as short a response as possible — especially when you are making a request. That usually means you did a good job, saving them time and energy. We all like getting useful emails from people, even if they come in the form of requests. We all hate needing to respond to requests with requests for clarification of the request. And when a senior person requests something from you, let them know that you received the request and give them a time frame for the response, if it is something that can’t be addressed immediately. Substantive emails also need to be as brief as possible, particularly because so many emails are consumed on mobile devices these days. At some point your reader will lose interest in scrolling down interminably.
Fourth, give some thought to how you end your emails. That thoughtfulness should extend to your email signature. Make it easy for people to follow up with you. No one is sending you letters, so don’t clutter your signature with your firm’s office address. But on emails going to clients and partners, do include your mobile number. Don’t assume that they have taken the time to save you or your numbers in their contacts. And sometimes the easiest way to respond to an associate or colleague’s email is to give them a quick call. Make it easy for them to do so if they feel like it. Ultimately, just thinking about your emails will make you better at sending them. Consider whether or not the emails you are sending are helpful to the reader. If they are not, either fix them or trash them. If they are, bravo, and enjoy your happier professional life.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.