Email Etiquette

Whether you love it or hate it, email rules any workplace or academic setting as the main communication channel. The sheer volume of messages we read and write makes it very easy to make embarrassing errors, and those mistakes can have very negative consequences. So establish good email habits and stick with them!

Everything in an email message makes an impression on the recipient and is a reflection of you. It implies how you conduct yourself professionally. It is evidence of your ability to communicate and your attention to detail. It also establishes a base level of maturity and competence with individuals you may not know personally at the beginning of your career.

Here are some tips to help you with your email etiquette:

  • Include a clear, direct subject line to help your recipient(s) prioritize the message.
  • Use a professional salutation, closing, and signature. Defer to a formal address unless invited otherwise. Don’t know James Smith? Start with Mr. Smith, not Jim.
  • Use full sentences and proper punctuation in your message. Do not use text abbreviations or emojis and use exclamation marks sparingly.
  • Consider word choice carefully. There will be no nonverbal cues for context or to help establish tone.
  • Keep it short and get to the point. Use bullet points to make lengthy messages easier to read.
  • Be cautious with humor. Humor is easily lost in translation to text without the right tone or facial expressions.
  • Proofread again. And again. Your mistakes will be noticed (and perhaps judged). Don’t rely exclusively on spell-check. It only finds spelling errors (and not all of them) but doesn’t identify word misuse. Do you want a client to “sign” or “sing” where indicated? Both are spelled correctly! Same with that “trial” or “trail” starting next week…
  • Double check that you are sending to the correct recipient. You might have hit “enter” to auto-fill that email address without looking at the full name. You might want to send your message to a different Jennifer.
  • Beware of “reply all” for a few reasons: (1) you might not want everyone to see your response, and (2) you might be starting an email chain among those 14 recipients that no one wants to read!
  • Respond to incoming emails in a timely manner. This is a big one! Especially if the sender is asking a question or needs a response before proceeding, be sure you acknowledge the email and let the sender know when you will be able to provide the necessary information. If you don’t, you force the sender to email again in a few days to pester you. And if it’s a teammate or superior, do you really want to be known as the unresponsive one?

Email is a fabulous method of communication for many situations, but there are times when you should not email and consider talking on the telephone or in-person instead.

  • If you will be relaying sensitive or personal information, you may not want to have a written record that can be easily shared. Email can and often will be shared or forwarded, whether you like it or not.
  • If you will be the bearer of bad news, consider talking to the person instead of sending an email. This allows for a dialogue and a better understanding of the situation/context. It also sets a more personal tone.
  • If there is a good likelihood that something will be misinterpreted, confusing, or require explanation, consider a phone call or short meeting. If you anticipate exchanging at least 3-4 emails, save the hassle and talk through the situation instead.
  • Last-minute cancellations or changes should be addressed by a call in case the recipient is not monitoring email.

A few key takeaways…

Human contact still matters – Don’t communicate electronically at the expense of personal interaction.  There is a reason people often need to discuss things face-to-face, and there are times when no substitute will do.

Watch what you say, and how you say it – The computer’s impersonal nature can lead to remarks that people wouldn’t think of saying in person.  The medium also removes all nonverbal communication cues leaving messages more open to misinterpretation. Be sure you remain overly courteous and professional at all times.

Be careful when clicking “Send” – Whatever you say in cyberspace cannot be taken back. You have no control over where your message goes once you’ve hit send; it can be saved and forwarded by any recipient who chooses to do so. Consequently, words can come back to hurt people, destroy friendships, and sabotage careers.

You want your email communication to add to, not detract from, your reputation. Like it or not, other people’s opinions matter in business. And within the reputation-driven professional world of law, their perception of you will be critical to your success.

Until you read again…

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