Rita’s Rules for Email (With Comments and Additions by John)

More and more of the communications between lawyers are conducted by email.  For the most part, I approve of the change and, indeed, I proposed and served as the principle author of the new rule of civil procedure that allows for the service of papers in state court via email. T.R.C.P. Rule 5.02(2).  I rarely see the need for letters between lawyers anymore, and use letters only to communicate on very substantial matters (settlement demands, inadequate discovery response letters, policy limit demands, etc.).  Even then I tend to have the letter attached to an email for immediate delivery.

That being said, communicating by email presents a host of problems.  Therefore, I was happy to see this post by Rita Gunther Mcgrath that offered up "Rita’s Rules for Email."   Here they are (in bold), with my comments and additions:


1.  Meaningful subject lines that tell the reader what to expect.  Don’t say “Thursday’s meeting” as your subject.  Say “followup expected by client from Thursday’s meeting.”   (My case management program inserts the case name in the subject line.  To help find the emails later in my CMP, I put the subject of the email in the first line of the email and start the text two lines below it.  Given the layout of my CMP email screen, I can see the first twenty or thirty letters of each email and enhance my ability to find the email when I need it.)

2.  No email should ever be longer than one screen of information.  If it means scrolling down, you’re not being concise.  (This is tough for lawyers, but it is a worthwhile goal.)

3.  One subject per email.  When I’ve dealt with it, I want to delete it or file it and I can’t do that if your email contains 10 action items, one of which is going to hang out there for 6 months.   (Another tough one for lawyers.)

4.  Email is the wrong place for emotional outbursts.  (Remember, the judge may read it.)

5.  Email is the wrong place for communications of a personal nature.  (I think she means that office emails are wrong for such communications and I see her point.   That being said, a lot of my adversaries in the law and I sent personal emails to them frequently.  I see nothing wrong with it.)

6.  Assume everything you put in an email could end up on the front page of the New York Times and be accordingly discreet.   

7.  Find ways of making sending you email you don’t need to see more costly to the sender.  One CEO I know fines people $1 for every email he gets that he didn’t need to see.  (That might work in a company.)

8.  Because you sent it doesn’t mean I got it.  Because I got it doesn’t mean I read it.  Because I read it doesn’t mean I understood it.  Because I understood it doesn’t mean that I agree with you.  Check for closure on your communications.   

9.  Mrs. Johnson in first grade was right – spelling and grammar count.

10. Don’t send email when a short phone call would do the job better.   

Now, my additions:

11.   If you receive an email where you are asked to respond to several questions, indicate that you are going to respond to each question at the end of the question, using a different color of text, so that the reader can readily see your answers to each question without scrolling back and forth.

12.  Do not "reply to all" unless it is necessary.

13.  Before you hit "send," review the recipient list and make sure that the right people are being sent your email.  Then review the text and make sure that you have said what you want to say to those people.

14.  Do not type your emails in CAPS.   It sends the message that you are shouting and makes them difficult to read.

15.  Add your contact information to your signature block.  This permits the receipient to pick up the telephone and call you without having to look up your number.

16.  Do not assume that I am ignoring you if I don’t respond to your email immediately.   If  there is truly a need for quick action, communicate the need in the email and follow-up by phone if necessary.

17.  Use the "out of office assistant" function if you are going to be unavailable for a day or more.  This helps the sender know that he or she is not being ignored and can plan accordingly.

18.  Turn the "out of office assistant" function off when you return to the office.  (I always forget to do this.)



Contact Information