You know how to be a student. You sat in a classroom for at least 17 years (including that kindergarten nap mat) before you sat in your first law school class. Yet, you probably learned quickly that being a law student is an altogether new and different job.
Law school demands that you “up your game” by learn new skills and adopting new habits. Some of these new skills take a lot of time, such as learning how to Bluebook or analyze cases, while others take money, such as getting an appropriate interview suit so you look the part. Today, however, I want to talk to you about a simple, quick, and inexpensive step that you can take to “up your game” by writing emails that look and sound professional.
By the time they get to law school, some students have virtually abandoned email in favor of texting and social media, but email remains an important form of communication in the business and legal world. It is likely that you will email your professors at some point during the semester, so this is the perfect time to learn a few basics about good email practices.
Use the subject line.
First impressions count. The subject line is your first chance to get your reader’s attention so make it helpful. For instance, instead of “Questions,” your subject line could read “Scheduling time during office hours,” or “Question about the Statement of Facts in Closed Memo.” Your reader probably gets far too many emails every day; using the subject line helps the reader prioritize and increase efficiency.
Include a salutation.
Start your email with, “Dear Professor Jones,” followed by a comma. Yes, it is fine to launch into the body of an email to your family or friends without a salutation, but it is too informal when you are writing to a professor or law school contact. It should go without saying that you must spell the recipient’s name correctly; a careless error at the beginning of an email is starting off on the wrong foot. (And yes, I have had students spell my name incorrectly in emails and in written assignments.)
State your purpose.
Your email should be clear and concise. Skip the chatter and get right to the point. Think of your very first sentence as the reader’s roadmap to why you are writing. Keep sentences short and clear.
Remember that people often scan emails on their phones. Think about what they will see on that first screen. Include all that you need them to know or make a compelling case that your message is worth scrolling or saving for later. If you have multiple points, bullet points will make the email easier to read.
Write like the attorney you are becoming.
Keep language polite and use proper spelling and grammar. Strive to present yourself as a professional at all times to help form good habits and show respect to the reader. Remember that your professor may be a reference in the future and a classmate may be a colleague or contact—think long term by showing respect and courtesy now.
Watch your tone; really, watch your tone.
This point should be in flashing letters to get your attention. Your reader will not see your face or hear your voice when they read your email, so you must be very careful about the tone that your language suggests. Sarcasm and jokes are easily misinterpreted in an email because the usual social cues aren’t present. Try reading an email out loud to check for tone. If you are angry or frustrated, save the email in draft and return to it once you are on an even keel.
End with an appropriate closing & signature block
There are many opinions on how to conclude an email and what you choose will likely depend on the circumstance of your email, your relationship with the recipient, and your personal preference. Signing off with something simple like, “Best,” is generally acceptable.
Add a signature block at the end so the reader has details on how to contact you.
Proofread before you send.
You don’t want a careless dentist or a careless plumber. You can be sure that no one wants a careless lawyer. Proofread your email just like any other work product.
Google email offers an “undo send” feature so that you can quickly recall an email that was sent off with a problem. I would not suggest relying on this type of solution, but it is good know if it is available in your email.
Mastering good email practices is not time-consuming but it may take some adjustment to your current practices. Think of these modifications as helping to ingrain solid professional skills into this necessary form of communication. Practice your skills and you will enter the workplace as a stronger member of the legal profession.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- 5 Qualities of Successful Law Students
- Seven Things Law Students Need to Stop Doing Immediately
- Podcast Episode 1: Mindset – The Key to Success in Law School?
- Will You Be a Happy Lawyer?
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