Published: Mar 29, 2016
The first email you write to a partner in a law firm is nerve-wracking. The first email you write to an entire distribution list, with partners and clients and opposing counsel and their opposing clients, is terrifying.
You will make mistakes. You will forget to actually attach your attachments. You will panic. You will realize that you are a fraud and that someone must have paid off the dean to graduate you out of law school. Of course neither of those things are true (probably), but you will feel as though they are.
The good thing is, the more senior you get, the less you care about these little mistakes. The partners you’re working with will have already seen that you are, in fact, competent enough to click on the paper clip icon and select documents when you promise in the email text to do so. But you have to build up that cache first.
Now, everyone here knows how to email. But until you have been in a firm for some time, sending and receiving “lawyer” emails, you may need some tips to get you started. Some of these tips might seem a little ridiculous… until you start receiving emails at your new law firm or other legal job, and then have to reply to them, at which point I’ll be ready to accept your unending gratitude, thanks. I should note that I have always been a transactional attorney, not a litigator, and litigators are very wacky and do things like use oxford commas so use caution with these tips in that context.
Subject lines. Your email should always have a subject. Usually it starts with the project or matter name, a colon, and then the actual subject. If you can, fix your email settings so that it won’t send unless you have something in the subject line. An example – Project Terminator: Skynet Has Become Aware.
How to start your email. Unless told otherwise, start your email with the first name of the person you are addressing it to, and a comma. That’s it. If it’s to multiple people, write “All.” It may seem bizarre to address someone that you probably feel is superior to you by their first name, but for some reason that is the way we do it. Partners especially: Don’t call them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” That would be weird.
The body of the email. Unless actually necessary, do not make the body of your email long. No one will read it if it’s unnecessarily wordy, and that includes the people to whom it is actually addressed. Most lawyers and businesspeople get endless streams of emails – you’re lucky if people read more than what pops up in the notification at the bottom of their screens as the email comes in.
• Spell-checker. It is imperative that your spell-checker be on. If possible, your email should not be able to be sent until the spell-checker has run.
• Add emphasis. If you need to make sure something is actually read, try a little underline or bold. Assume your emails will be skimmed, and draw attention where it needs to be drawn. Space out paragraphs and lists so that the eye is not overwhelmed by a wall of text from an overly verbose junior associate.
• But don’t add too much emphasis. Exclamation points are appropriate for attempting to diffuse tense situations, after the word “congratulations” when a deal has finally, finally closed, and maybe at no other times. It is simply hard to avoid looking frivolous with a bunch of exclamation points clowning around in your email.
• Avoid over-apologizing. Sometimes you will have to apologize for something—probably forgetting to attach a document. You don’t need to make a big deal of it—just say “Apologies for multiple emails. Please see the attached.” Some people just write “Now attached”. These people are not messing around.
• Attached please find. If you are attaching something to your email, it is almost a legal requirement that you use the phrase “Attached please find (document name)” or “Please find attached (document name).” Additional variations are not tolerated.
• As discussed. If you want to remind someone that you are only sending this email because you have to, add the favorite phrases “per your request/our discussion” or “as requested/discussed.”
• Ask for a response. At the end of the email, you will generally need to let the recipients know what kind of response you want. Do you want to set up a time to discuss whatever your email said? Would you prefer they never respond, but know that you have to offer to answer any questions? Some favorites here are (1) Please let me know if you have any questions or comments on the attached; (2) Please let us know when you have had a chance to review and would like to discuss the attached and, more to the point, (3) We are available to discuss any time on Tuesday before 11 am.
Closing. There are many levels of email closings.
• “Best” is the coldest, and one of the laziest (because it is short). I like to use it in the most passive aggressive manner possible if I’m angry at the recipient, but am not permitted to show it in any other way. I also sometimes just use it because I’m lazy.
• “Regards” is lukewarm. Most people use this one, including me.
• “Thanks” is on the same level as “regards”, and does not need to be used only when you are thanking someone for something. It is often used by people senior to you as they dump work on you.
• “Warmest Regards” is too warm. People use it, but it’s more appropriate for a great aunt with whom you are acquainted, but not close.
• “thx” – only people senior to you are allowed to use this.
Attachments. Make sure you attach them. You may find it is helpful to go through the process of attaching documents immediately after writing the words “attached please find” or before you even start writing the email.
• Check that you have attached the correct documents, and the correct versions of those documents. You may need to actually open them up from the email to do this.
• Check the attachments again. Seriously, you don’t want to send the wrong version of something.
Re-read your email. Check that you have properly used “your/you’re”, “their/there” and “it/it’s”—a dying art, but still worth something in this profession. Make sure you didn’t write “u” or “thru”—only partners and senior associates are allowed to do this. Look for that little red squiggly line that reminds you that you no longer know how to correctly spell the word “separate."
Finally, add the recipients. I suggest you don’t add any email recipients to your email until it is ready to go so there’s no accidental sending before it’s ready, and there’s an extra step to go through in which you might be reminded that you forgot to include a subject or attach an attachment.
Now you are ready to get out there with your Outlook and your sweaty palms and write an email for yourself! In case you need a big picture look at the advice above in action, all of those tips can be boiled down to this bland, junior associate email:
Subject: Project Blahblah: Purchase Agreement
As discussed, please find attached a revised draft of the Purchase Agreement. Please let us know when on Tuesday you will be available to discuss.
Please note that we are sending this draft simultaneously to our client and it therefore remains subject to their further review and comment in every respect.
Or if you are a partner, you can simply write:
Faith Livermore is a lawyer and writer based in New York. After two years in BigLaw and four years at a midsize firm doing mostly M&A work, Faith decided to throw caution to the wind and quit her job to travel. She currently spends her winters working at the midsize firm as a temp attorney, and the rest of the time exploring the world. She has a JD from Georgetown Law and a BS in Psychology from the University of Florida.
You did it! You’re a lawyer, and you’ve got a job! Whether you have your own office or a cube, you hopefully have at least one drawer for your personal belongings. Assuming that your place of employment has been kind enough to supply you with office supplies (not necessarily a given, but most legal jobs are at least good for some pens and paper), here are a few suggestions of items to fill that special drawer and make your life slightly more tolerable:
• Advil (or other painkiller of your choice). Useful for: hangovers, caffeine headaches, and that strange throbbing in your brain that comes as a consequence of not sleeping for two straight days.
• Kleenex. There will be tears. Have something to catch them with.
• Phone charger. Sometimes your phone is the only thing really connecting you with people on the outside, especially if your office has gone the newly prevalent route of cutting off access to Gmail and Gchat from your work computer. You don’t want it to die on you, and your meager social life with it.
• Hand sanitizer. Shared spaces are disgusting and you need to keep those hands clean. Especially considering how often you will likely be facepalming.
• Lysol wipes. Similarly, you might want to wipe your desk down from time to time, especially if you eat at it, and you will eat at your desk. If you don’t believe me, try shaking your keyboard upside down some time. You’ll find food particles from sandwiches you had long forgotten.
• Pepto bismol/Tums. You’ll think about ordering a salad, but when you’re ordering dinner at 9:30 and your night at the office is just beginning, you’ll probably order a Styrofoam box full of heartburn instead.
• Deodorant. Both in case you forget, and because you may from time to time be held prisoner at your desk for days on end.
• Foot deodorizer. Feet can get super stinky, especially in the summer (and especially if you don’t wear socks with your shoes, because you are a woman or a man with no regard for the nostrils of others).
• Lip balm or chapstick. Office environments are often dry as a bone, especially during the winter when the heat is running all the time - and chapped lips never look professional. Nor does the “freshly bitten” look.
• Safety pins. Wardrobe malfunctions can and do happen!
As we reviewed earlier, many attorneys are behind technologically and reticent to adopt new tech tools, despite (1) ABA recommendations to stay abreast of relevant technology, (2) sophisticated clients who expect tech proficiency in their attorneys, and (3) competitors like alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) using technology to provide legal support work at lower costs. The bottom line is that law firms and lawyers need to keep current with technology because being deficient means losing business—or going out of business.