Headnotes: Tech Corner—Email: Effective Communication or Electronic Embarrassment?

By Deborah McMurray
Published in Dallas Bar Association

You only have one chance to make a first impression, so it had better be good. Attorneys thoroughly scour business correspondence before they mail it—for content, to ensure their message is clear and concise, to avoid slang or vernacular that may be inappropriately familiar, and for grammatical spelling correctness. Why then, is electronic mail not subject to the same careful scrutiny?

Business e-mail should always follow certain guidelines or protocol, regardless of how friendly the parties to the e-mail have become. Attorneys, especially, when using e-mail to communicate with clients and to transmit documents must take care in the following basic rules of e-mail “netiquette:”

Use a business conversational tone. While an advantage of e-mail is informality and speed of communication, don’t take this to mean haphazard or no-need-to-proof. Spelling errors, catchy phrases and incomplete sentences, highly personal inferences or references are inappropriate in business correspondence, electronic or otherwise. Your test of appropriateness should be: how would I feel if so-and-so forwarded this to the client’s CEO or to my managing partner?

Never use profanity. It doesn’t matter how angry you are, how irritating the other side of the negotiation is, or how thrilled you are with the result. Profanity is never appropriate in any business communication, oral or written. This goes for racist remarks and sexual innuendoes, as well.

There is a lot of humorous material circulating via e-mail. Before you forward jokes or limericks to your client list, remember than some may find the environment questionable. Know your audience and respond accordingly.

Use either a memo or modified letter format. Even though you have an e-mail address, you should begin your business correspondence with a TO: FROM: RE: or a Dear Harry: and type your name at the end: Jane Doe. If there are cc’s, you should reflect them on your e-mail. Never type in all capital letters—it’s as though you are SHOUTING!

Avoid the cute smiley faces and other “emotions” in business correspondence. They are fine when e-mailing your college freshman or mother in Milwaukee, but rather goofy if forward to the client company’s CEO.

The need for speed. We all know that a primary advantage of the electronic medium is speed. When you use this medium to communicate with your clients, know that they expect the same level or promptness that you wish from them. Read your incoming e-mail as often as possible—several times daily—and respond promptly. If you do not have an immediate answer to a question, type that you are seeking a response and will get back within a designated period of time. Never leave your clients hanging, waiting and wondering when they will “hear” from you.

Confidential information takes great care. We have all heard horror stories about confidential documents being e-mailed to the wrong distribution list. This is a completely avoidable mistake. Choose your addresses, attach documents, prepare a cover memorandum or letter, and double-check ALL those on your distribution list before transmitting.

And a word about discussion groups. Participating in a “casual” discussion group about a substantive area of law or business does not give you permission to throw online caution to the wind. Every word of your dialogue should be as carefully chosen as it would be if you were speaking to an audience of 500 CEO’s or general counsel.

Cool off and count to ten. It is natural to be angered from time to time and for us to express our frustrations in vivid detail. Typing a fierce and pointed response may console you for the moment, but sending this emotional retort may accelerate the debate or controversy in an unanticipated way and make you appear as if you have lost control.

Type the message you wish, but wait to transmit until you have cooled down and regained your perspective. If the response still seems appropriate, send it. If not, you can save yourself the embarrassment of acting on your emotional eruption and craft a more controlled, effective message that will undoubtedly be better received.

Communication between an attorney and client/potential client should be honest and comfortable, yet always professional. And, it should be consistent from one medium to the next. Focusing on how you are perceived electronically and following these guidelines should give you the flexibility and speed you want without sacrificing your message to your inexperience with the medium.


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