Have you ever read an email and wondered to yourself, “what’s the point?” Then you get to the end and realize there is no point. Or the point is something totally different than what you thought. When this happens, it’s annoying. Did you ever wonder if you annoyed anyone with your emails? You should. And you should do something about it.

We live in a world where massive amounts of information are transmitted daily. Many lawyers receive over 150 or 200 emails daily. Some of those lawyers are in-house counsel. Many of them are reading emails on mobile devices. If each email takes 30 seconds to open, respond to, file or delete, that is an hour and 15 minutes just dealing with email. But what happens if emails need to be open and closed more than once? You know what happens: you open an email, glance at it and realize it can wait, so you close it. That simple act of opening an email, glancing at it and then closing it takes precious time.

We also need to consider that people send emails when it is convenient for them, not when it is convenient for the reader. That is one of the fundamental flaws of the medium. We exacerbate the flaw by not communicating essential information in the subject line. With an eye on our clients, my colleagues and I have tackled this shortcoming by adopting some simple rules for email subject lines:

  • The first word will be the short name of the case. Jones. Not Jones v. Client. The client knows the case and they know their employer’s name. Use limited real estate wisely.
  • The second word or phrase will convey the level of urgency: URGENT, TIME SENSITIVE, NOT URGENT, etc. If a client sees something is not urgent, she knows she can open the email when it is convenient.
  • The third component is the action requested, so the client knows the point of the email. Informational, Signature requested, approval required and so forth.

The next problem is people get chatty in emails, apparently thinking every email should be a personal monologue designed to help the client know more about you. Most clients want to know immediately what needs to be done and by when. So we have implement a BLUF rule for emails—Bottom Line Up Front. The top line will not be a name or hello or any other greeting. The top line will be: “Signature required by COB 3/31/2015.” Any needed background can be in the text of the email.

The last issue relates to attachments. In reviewing the slides created to roll this out internally, one client said “And forwarding along updates/orders without telling me what is in the attachment is a pet peeve.  We frequently are checking email by phone, so we cannot easily read attachments.” I was reminded how much I hate opening attachments wondering if the effort do so is worth the time. Message heard.

These tips may not seem like a lot. But I promise you your clients will appreciate the effort to make their lives better. The feedback we received from a number of clients was uniformly and enthusiastically positive.

Copies of the roll-out slides for this effort are available. Email label protocols–Public

  • Hi Patrick. Agreed on all fronts, including the amount of emails I used to get as a managing partner – more like 250 a day! For the app I have developed since leaving private practice, I was keen to avoid the problem, so built in IM rather than email. It forces you to be concise, shows up on a locked screen without just showing the header, and can always include directions to something more complicated on email if necessary. Statistically 97% chance of being read inside 3 minutes!