I enjoy reading articles about lawyer email etiquette like this one by Stefan Savic on Above the Law. It always reminds me of how ill equipped I and many other lawyers were when we began using email in the mid-1990’s. Because trust me, if you think lawyers need lessons in email etiquette now, you have no idea.

I first used email in my practice in 1995. I was young (28), inexperienced (2 yrs), and overconfident (was it even possible for me to lose a case?). Thankfully, my firm was an early adopter and I learned many of the dangers of a quick trigger with interoffice emails before I began firing them off to opposing counsel.

Savic’s main suggestions for email are:

  • assume the whole world will see it
  • don’t use humor
  • don’t criticize or mock people
  • proofread
  • no profanity.

All good suggestions. Most of these are second nature for me. But I still struggle with not using humor.

Savic notes that written jokes can come off as awkward or insulting. I think it’s hard for people to know that a statement is a joke without hearing your tone of voice or seeing your face. There is also something about knowing the person.

Another theory is that most people don’t have a sense of humor and only laugh when they are cued by others laughing. Yet another theory is that I’m just not that funny. But that’s bullshit (see above) not true.

I do find myself writing humorous emails to opposing counsel, cracking myself up and then deleting the email without sending it. I mentioned this to a colleague the other day and he said he does the same thing.

My biggest suggestion for email is keep it short–at least if you want the recipient to read it. Many people will be reading it on their phone. While driving down the road. When I see a long email and I am out of the office, I often do not read it until I am at a computer. I suspect others are the same way.

So while you are doing that proofreading, edit the email to make it shorter. An added benefit is that short emails have less room to antagonize people as long as you also keep out insults and profanity.

And what if you receive an insulting or attacking email? Don’t respond in kind. Ignore the insults and attacks. I make this suggestion for two reasons:

  1. the fact that the other lawyer is not acting like a professional is not an excuse for you to not act like a professional (I’m pretty sure judges see it my way on this); and
  2. when you continue to act professionally, the other lawyer usually comes around and starts acting right.

I think I’m on to something with suggestion 2. If you treat lawyers the way you want to be treated even when you feel like they aren’t treating you that way–they will usually change their attitude. Before you know it, you will be friends.