Cries for lawyers to “embrace technology” have been echoing in the legal profession since before the Model Rules were amended to require tech competency (adopted by 38 states as of this post). Now, lawyers and law firms are utilizing various types of technology like never before to embrace quantifiable benefits for themselves and their clients.
The numbers are quite astonishing (and promising), according to Clio’s 2020 Legal Trends Report. For example, 85% of law firms use software to manage their practice, 83% of firms meet with clients virtually, 73% enable clients to pay invoices electronically, and 62% allow clients to share and sign documents electronically.
Whether lawyers continue to run their practice virtually or return to brick and mortar in whole or in part, email will remain the backbone of client communication. Lawyers must be proficient in using email, given that e-filing is here and service by email is required. Thus, the quality of legal services and the client experience begins with proper email communication.
Here are nine tips that can improve your email communication within your organization, with your clients, and with outside stakeholders.
1. Reply All
Before replying to an email, ask yourself if your response needs to go to everyone included in the original message. Even if the information you’re providing is relevant, is it necessary to send it to every person?
Thinking of your email blast as a mini-meeting can give it context. If you hold a brief, 10-minute meeting with eight team members, that meeting doesn’t cost you 10 minutes. It costs your organization 10 x 8 = 80 minutes. Is it necessary to copy every person, or will a single reply to the sender or a forward to a single recipient suffice?
When in doubt, just reply. Or at least use the To field for the intended recipient and the Cc field for those you want to inform of the content; in other words, an FYI.
Lastly, when you choose to send a Reply All email, take a moment to confirm which emails are in which fields. Drag and drop the emails to their appropriate spots before hitting send.
2. To vs Cc
Let’s talk about the proper use of the To and Cc email fields and whose email address should go in each.
To: Simply the email address of the person you’re contacting and from whom you’re possibly requesting a follow-up action.
Cc: Three main reasons you might Cc someone are (1) to provide the content of the email for their information only, while not implying a reply or action is needed, (2) to introduce or connect the copied person with the primary recipient, or (3) to inform the primary recipient that the copied person if being informed of this communication.
Remember that any Cc’ed email is openly visible to all To and Cc recipients, so you should consider any privacy concerns of each contact you’re adding. Just like giving out a phone number or address, everyone on that email now has access to that email address.
3. What’s in a Name (or Email Address)?
Before we move on to the infamous Bcc, let’s pause to remember that not all email addresses are created equal. Many professional email addresses contain all or part of the person’s name, such as mine: firstname.lastname@example.org. In these well-constructed email addresses, you immediately know who you’re likely contacting and at what organization.
So, practice better email etiquette by including the names of the individuals on the email (called sender info or display names) along with their email address. By adding each email owner’s name before the email address, the other recipients can better identify who is on the communication, e.g., James B. Dean <email@example.com>.
Even though you correctly enter “Name <email address>” in the email field, the email program may automatically hide the email address, displaying only the name. That’s fine. You might need to hover over or double-click the name to see the actual email address associated with the name.
Last, if you use auto-complete in the addressee fields, be sure that you’re sending it to the correct person and the correct address for that person. For example, if you’re sending a business email to a group and a recipient is also your friend for whom you have both their business and personal emails, be mindful not to send that contract for review to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Generally, Bcc allows you to email one or many without the recipients seeing who is included in the email. This can make for a useful tool when, for example, emailing a group of people without exposing their email addresses or creating an unwanted ability for them to Reply All instead of only a Reply to the sender alone.
While the use of Bcc to secretly share emails by blind-copying a party (e.g., your client) may seem like an efficient way to keep them informed with full transparency, it is NOT a best or ethical practice.
Lawyers have a duty to communicate with their clients and keep them reasonably informed about their matters under Rule 1.4. You might be inclined to keep a client informed about communication between you and the opposing lawyer by Bcc’ing them on all correspondence. Yet, as several ethical opinions have examined, this practice may create potential confidentiality and privilege issues.
Think of the situation when a client who was blind copied on your email uses Reply All instead of Reply to send their response, inadvertently sending their opinions, wishes, confidential information, etc. to the court and opposing parties when what they intended was to reply only to their lawyer.
This situation (actually found in Charm v. Kohn, 27 Mass.L.Rptr. 421, 2010 WL 3816716 (Mass. Super. Sept. 30, 2010)) could have been avoided had the client’s attorney forwarded the sent email to the client as a new email instead of using Bcc. Then, any reply by the client would only have gone to the lawyer.
For more ethical discussion, see these various opinions:
- Alaska Bar Association Ethics Opinion 2018-01
- Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 76-21
- Illinois State Bar Association Advisory Opinion 19-05
- Kentucky Bar Association Ethics Opinion KBA E-442 (2017)
- New York City Bar Association Formal Opinion 2009-1
- New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1076
- North Carolina State Bar 2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 7
- Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Ethical Opinion 2020-100
- South Carolina Bar Advisory Opinion 18-04
5. Forward with Courtesy
Ever get a 12-page email thread forwarded to you without any content from the sender? If you wish to share a communication by forwarding an email, take a moment to kindly summarize the message, provide context, request next steps, or otherwise provide a brief, clear message as to the purpose of sharing the content.
Sure, an “FYI” may be appropriate if it’s truly only for the recipient’s information without any further consideration or action. Whereas “see below” or a blank email lacks any direction.
6. New Topic? New Email Thread
Emails are not an open line of communication. Don’t be tempted to use an existing email thread to cover a new topic or ask an unrelated question. We automatically equate the email topic with what is, what has been, and the email thread’s subject line, so anything sent off–topic is very likely to get overlooked.
Instead, start new email threads for new topics using a new email message.
7. Signature Block
Two critical takeaways for your email signature block is its content and when to use one. Signature blocks should be concise, straightforward, and accessible to recipients when and how they might need them.
You’ll at least want your name, title, organization name, and contact information in a business signature. You may wish to provide your Twitter handle or pronouns. If you use a logo or other graphic, keep it small and straightforward.
As for when to use a signature block, I suggest including your full business signature at the onset of each email or initial reply. You may conclude subsequent emails in the thread with an abbreviated signature line of your name or even initials, if appropriate, to improve flow and readability while still providing clear context as to who is saying what.
Last, a note for lawyers in particular regarding the template “disclaimers” we love to use at the end of emails, often regardless of the content or audience of the email. Take the time to create various email signatures for varying communication types and examine the language you have included. For example, the IRS finalized a rulemaking process that rendered the Circular 230 disclaimer obsolete (back in 2014) and has been asking practitioners to remove the “Circular 230 language” from email footers ever since.
8. Reply to ALL Emails Promptly
One of the first pieces of advice that I received as a new lawyer was that our firm always responded to messages. Always! At the time, leadership was referring to phone messages rather than the email variety, yet the customer service lesson was never lost on me.
A timely response to clients (past, present, and future), vendors, media, coworkers, and anyone else awaiting a reply is a hallmark of the service industry. That said, we all have overflowing inboxes and busy schedules, so don’t take this advice to mean you must immediately fire off a response. In general, try to get back to coworkers within 12-24 hours. If you can’t respond with a thoughtful email in that period, let them know you’ve read their email and will follow up by a time that works for them.
For external communication (unless it‘s urgent), replying within the same business week is appropriate. The key remains to keep the communication channels flowing. Even a quick reply of, “Thanks for your email. I’ll have a response for you by Friday,” shows the client you’re responsive and care.
When it comes to potential clients, the most important factor is responsiveness, according to Clio’s 2019 Legal Trends Report. Responding to an initial inquiry beyond 24 hours means you’re not meeting the expectations of 79% of those leaving a message. Given that most potential clients continue their search by reaching out to other firms, it’s likely your missed connection will cost you more than a missed first impression.
Lastly, sometimes we receive an email not intended for us (e.g., here and here). Lawyers have an ethical obligation to do more than just hit delete and must “promptly notify the sender” under Rule 4.4(b). A sample reply could be: “As this message was sent to me in error (to [email address]), I am giving you notice of such under Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 4.4(b), and will now delete the original. Please update your contacts accordingly.”
9. Out of Office Scheduling
When you’re unavailable to give the courtesy of a reply, why not have technology do it for you? Here are the guidelines I recommend when setting an out of office notification (“OOO”):
- Keep the message simple: quickly convey when you’ll return and, if necessary, the information for whom to contact for urgent matters.
- Consider limiting your OOO to auto replying only to those inside your organization and possibly outside recipients who are already in your contacts.
- Schedule the exact period you want the OOO to be active. This helps it start when you want (e.g., 5 p.m. on the last day of work) and automatically turn back off (e.g., 5 p.m. on the day before you return). You don’t want to be back to work for a day or two when a client emails you to say your OOO is still on.
- Include a colleague to contact without letting that colleague know you’ve done so.
- Include personal details in your OOO, e.g., “Off to canoe in the Boundary Waters for a week with the whole family!” It’s poor form and gives the world notice that your home will be unoccupied.
- Set an OOO for significant holidays when most everyone is going to be away as well.
- Forget to check with your listed colleague upon return for a debrief and any matters that still need your attention.
While communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity, how you build and operate that bridge will determine how well information can travel upon it. Hopefully, these tips help you maintain an efficient and effective inbox on your way to excellent email communication inside and outside your organization.
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