E-mail etiquette for law students, lawyers

Most professionals I know, and most students in professional school for that matter, spend a good deal of time each day composing e-mails. While some of these e-mails undoubtedly address personal matters, business matters generate lots of electronic traffic.

Cover letters and resumes are the backbone of job-search correspondence, but effective use of e-mail can greatly enhance, or diminish, one’s chances of landing a quality position. The care with which you compose a business e-mail says a lot about your effectiveness as a communicator and your savvy as a professional.

Just think about a few of the reasons a law student might compose an e-mail to an attorney:

  1. to express interest in a job opening;
  2. to ask questions about the attorney’s practice;
  3. to follow up with an attorney after an interview;
  4. as a thank-you note;
  5. to negotiate the terms of a job offer;
  6. to confirm the acceptance of a job offer;
  7. to request an informational interview; and
  8. as a means of networking, such as by providing the attorney information about developments in a practice area of mutual interest.

If budding lawyers do not learn to e-ail effectively while in law school, they’re destined for a crash course in e-mail etiquette when they begin to practice. Time is, after all, money, and the inefficient and clumsy use of e-mail will frustrate coworkers and opposing counsel alike.

The following rules are taken from the excellent article “E-Mail Like a Lawyer,” by Wayne Schiess, that first appeared in the May 2007 edition of Student Lawyer.

Schiess directs the Legal Writing Program at my legal alma mater. He taught me that the flowery and complex writing I so dearly loved as an undergrad had little place in legal writing. His article makes clear that plain, well-organized thoughts are critical in e-mail communication as well.

The rules:

  1. Think. Pause. Think Again. Send.
  2. Use the subject line.
  3. Use a salutation.
  4. Write short messages.
  5. Use short paragraphs in block style.
  6. Put the question or point up front.
  7. Explain attachments.
  8. Use a sign-off.

These are great tips for law students and lawyers alike. The recipients of your e-mails will thank you.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services