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Effective E-Mails, Part 2: Take Your Time

By Alexander T. MacDonald

E-mail has changed modern legal practice, both for good and ill. On the good side of the ledger, it’s made communicating with clients and colleagues more convenient than ever. On the ill side, that convenience has lulled too many of us into sloppiness. We just don’t give our e-mails the same attention we give their letters or memos.

That’s a major problem. By giving our e-mails the short shrift, we cause our readers unnecessary effort. It’s a lot harder to understand a stream-of-consciousness e-mail than one that’s been properly polished.

The way around that problem is to rethink your approach to e-mail. Don’t think of it as ephemeral and disposable––professional e-mail is not Snapchat. Instead, think of it as indelible and permanent. Your e-mails will likely outlive any letter you write, and they’re likely to be read by far more people. So, treat them accordingly.

For example, you should always start your e-mails with a greeting. Too often, people skip the greeting entirely, as if they were sending a text message. Or worse, when they do use a greeting, they use an overly chatty one like, “Hey, Dave!” You wouldn’t start a letter that way, so don’t start an e-mail that way. Instead, just use the recipient’s name, followed by a colon. That’s a simple, unobtrusive, and professional way to start an e-mail.

You should also proofread every e-mail—twice. If you can, print the e-mail and proofread it on paper. That might strike you as terribly old fashion, but it’s still the best way to catch errors. Also, read the e-mail out loud. Nothing helps you spot weak points more quickly than hearing them in your own voice. Then, if the e-mail is particularly important, ask a colleague to read it. Two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Yes, this kind of editing takes time. But that extra time will pay for itself later. Most e-mails are so poorly written that yours will stand out just for being competent. You’ll burnish your reputation as a writer, avoid miscues, and save yourself from embarrassment. The worst time to catch a mistake is after your e-mail has been forwarded to a partner or client.

That’s why you should always address the e-mail last. Most people do this in reverse: they start by filling in the “To:” line. While that might seem like the logical thing to do, it’s actually an invitation to hit “send” too soon. There’s no reason to take that risk. Just address the e-mail after you’ve polished it and included all your attachments.

And if you do include attachments, don’t mention them until the end of your message. Again, most people do this in reverse. They start their e-mails with phrases like, “Attached please find the document you requested . . .” There are two problems with that approach. First, it’s stilted. There are few less-interesting ways to start an e-mail. Second, it’s distracting. It immediately sends your reader to the attachment, perhaps never to return. Whatever you had to say in the message itself is lost. So instead, say what you need to say, then mention the attachment in the last sentence or two.

Simple as these tips are, they’re rarely followed. Stream-of-consciousness e-mails are far more common than polished ones. And yes, sloppy e-mails take less time to write than polished ones; but that’s a false economy. Whatever time you save on the front end will cost your reader on the back end. So instead of firing off half-finished messages, treat your e-mails as you would any other business correspondence. Take the time to polish them. Your readers will thank you.

Alexander MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary School of Law. He works in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States Postal Service. He can be reached at