When I started practising law, emails didn’t exist. There were rules about how to write letters and it was de rigeur to adopt a supercilious manner, using phrases that would demonstrate your legal training. A properly constructed letter before action would nearly always include a generous smattering of Latin, in accordance with the corresponding rules. Nemo dat quod non habet , novus actus interveniens, nulla bona, obiter dictum, prima facie, res ipsa loquitur, subpoena duces tecum, sine die, certiorari, donatio mortis causa and guardian ad litem all spring to mind.
Times have changed (Mutata sunt tempora). Speaking of times I was advised that all aspirant lawyers should subscribe to The Times or the then newly launched The Independent, which were at the time the sources of current law reports. When I joined Canter Levin & Berg (in 1988), access to older reports was in the All England Law Reports which we have retained in our interview rooms. In 1999 Lord Woolf changed plaintiffs to claimants, writ to claim form, discovery to disclosure, minor/infant to child, Mareva injunction to freezing order and inter partes to on notice, as well as inaugurating the fast-track. All county courts were closed for a day to allow the changes to be implemented.
The transition from letters to emails has been much more evolutionary and without any material regulation.
At Canter Levin & Berg we have steadily moved with the times. Our guidance for writing letters and emails is set out in our intranet (staff can find it at section 2.15 of the Office Procedures Manual).
I spend a lot of time reviewing files, from Canter Levin & Berg and other firms, and it’s staggering to see how writing styles have changed. They vary from a letter style which has barely changed from that which I learned as a clerk in the late 1980s to a txt style which is about as far removed from it that I could imagine. So, what is the “right way” to write a professional email? When I decided that I wanted to be a solicitor and applied to the College of Law in Chester, I was advised to read the seminal work on the subject, Glanville Williams’ ‘Learning The Law’. It’s been substantially updated since I read it but I remember that, in the edition I read, one of the most important things to do was to learn by rote the Crown succession since Henry VIII! Modern advice is some way removed from that.
Letters v Emails
In this post I am not setting rules. I am merely offering my thoughts based on my experience. One of the best things that a lawyer can do is to be orderly in his or her structure of what, for these purposes, I am going to call a letter (although I include in that emails). Traditionally, the training that produced letters in the style that I have summarised above meant that letters, particularly those that set out a claim, were very close to pleadings in their layout. In my view, that remains the correct approach. A specific example of where this is particularly important is a letter which includes a Part 36 offer. You may have read about the recent case in which a claimant was bound by an inelegantly and more pertinently, as it turned out, inclusive offer of £950 in respect of a claim for over £125,000
There is an overwhelming need to move with the times. That means that most legal professional communications will be (and should be) by email rather than by letter. Transitionally, some lawyers have taken to sending cursory emails which refer to “the attached letter”. There is nothing wrong with doing so but, equally, there is nothing wrong with putting the content of the letter in the email itself, as long as the email is properly constructed.
The basics of professional emails
These observations apply to any formal emails that you want to send, not just those sent by lawyers in the course of business.
- Use a professional email address. Use an email address which reflects who you are. Use a variation of your real name, not a nickname or username (the latter could easily be used to hack your accounts). I review all our job and training contract applications and it’s amazing how many come from “babycuddlesxxx@…”, “LFChero@…”, “topcoolguy@…” or similar. There are loads of ways to get a free email address such as Gmail and Hotmail, so, if you’re not using your work email address, do so.
- Use a professional font. If you use Comic Sans, expect to be treated as a comic. The default these days are Calibri 11 pt because that is what is used by Microsoft, or Helvetica (Apple) or Arial for Gmail. All use Times New Roman as a fallback, and that is always acceptable. Many businesses have a corporate standard font. At Canter Levin & Berg our default font is Calibri 11 point.
- Don’t use a background! You may have received emails which have, for example, a light grey background. Bear in mind that they might be accessed on various platforms, including smart phones and tablets. On some of them (as you may have seen yourself) they are completely illegible.
- Always use your own subject line (and keep it short and accurate). It’s easy just to hit reply and that will include whatever has been sent to you, such as “complete failure to understand my case”. Make sure that your title reflects your email, such as “in response to your enquiry” or, even better, make it specific such as “request for medical records” or “your witness statement”.
The format of your professional email
- Salutation. Most of us know that “Dear Mr Smith,” should end with “Yours sincerely, ” and that “Dear Sir/Madam,” should end with “Yours faithfully, ” Don’t be afraid of that in an email. It’s just another way of sending a letter. Unless replying in the same style that you have received, do not use “Hello”, “Hi”, or (God forbid!) “Hey”. If you know the person that you are communicating with and, importantly, if they adopt a more familiar style, then it is perfectly acceptable (and, in my view, encouraged) to reply in the same format and in those circumstances, “Hello” or “Hi” are acceptable (“Hey” is never acceptable in a professional email!).
- References. There is no reason why you should not use references in emails in exactly the way that you would in a letter. I often include in an email (at the top of the body content and in bold): Your ref:xxxx; Our ref:xxxx. Doing so can’t do any harm and reinforces the point that your email should be treated as equivalent to a letter.
- Content. Please remember what I’ve said above. The content of every single email you send could be analysed and therefore all the content should be structured in a strictly professional format. A conversational (and above all a smart phone text) style should be avoided. If necessary, you should introduce yourself in the first paragraph, e.g. “I have been instructed by xxx and I have been asked by my client to contact you in connection with xxx”. In your next paragraph you should explain the purpose of your communication, e.g. “I understand from my client that you witnessed the accident which took place on…” or “I am writing to ask you to provide me with…”.
- Keep it brief. Keep to the point and do not engage in a conversational style, particularly when you are looking for clear instructions or a clear response (e.g. does your client accept liability?). Do not use indenting in your emails. You should not assume that lists or bullet points will appear in the same way in the recipient’s emails. Often they don’t.
- Use letters when you feel that they are appropriate. Sometimes, you need to send letters which are analogous to pleadings, e.g. a Part 18 request. If you are entirely confident about using emails then there is no reason why you should not do so. If you feel more comfortable using a conventional letter then that is fine. However, please make sure that you attach it to an email rather than sending it by post.
- Signing off. As indicated above, corresponding to the salutation, “Yours sincerely” and “Yours faithfully” is perfectly acceptable for emails. For more informal communications, “Regards” and “Kind regards” are appropriate. I have seen emails in which people have signed off professional emails with one or more kisses (“x” or more). For the avoidance of doubt they are never acceptable in professional emails!
- Before you send your email. Read what you have typed and correct any errors. If you are in any way unsure about the content, check with your supervisor. If you intended to attach any documents, make sure that they are correctly attached. If they are large attachments (e.g. big pdfs of 8Mb or more) check with IT to see whether they need to be sent by an alternative method.
- Check for any sensitive content. This is particularly relevant for family cases. Check to see whether you need to send your email by using a protected system.
- Save your emails. If you have written your email in Outlook, make sure that it is saved in Proclaim so that it forms part of the file history.
Please check with me if you need any further guidance.