E-mails—not quite formal but not informal, bridging the gap in communication

McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC

We have all seen the memes on social media that jokingly offer instructions for how to professionally express yourself in an e-mail. Perhaps the most universal suggestion is “per my last e-mail,” meaning that the sender already answered your question — probably more than once.

It is safe to say that e-mails are an essential communications tool. Here are some eye-opening statistics from Radicati Group, Inc:

  • There are more than 3.9 billion e-mail users worldwide.
  • In 2023, there will be over 4.3 billion e-mail users.
  • More than half of the world’s population used e-mail in 2019 with 293.6 billion e-mail messages received each day.

But studies have shown e-mails can be a drain on your productivity. According to one conducted by the Danwood Group, it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover from an e-mail interruption. How are we making those seconds count?

First and foremost, while e-mails are an effective tool for informal communication, they should not be written in the same manner that you speak. Here’s an example: A colleague notices a small error in your work product and stops by to address it with you in your office. You would not say, “I appreciate that you have brought this to my attention,” as you might do in a written communication. You would be much more likely, instead, to say, “Wow! I’m so sorry. I completely missed that.”

In a verbal communication, that may be appropriate, but it would not be in an e-mail. Yet, we send such-worded sentiments in e-mails to our colleagues and bosses all the time. The best advice: Write your e-mails as if the head of your firm or a judge will someday read them — clear, concise and to the point.

Another trap is trying too hard to express your willingness to be helpful or accommodating. For example, in a verbal interaction concerning scheduling, you likely will physically address your calendar in some manner. The person you are communicating with can read your physical cues and provide immediate feedback as you go back and forth on a date and time that works best.

In a written communication, failing to provide a concrete availability upfront can result in a never-ending back-and-forth. Rather than saying, “I have the week of September 12th available. What do you have,” you might suggest that you have, “September 12th from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. available as well as September 13th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.” This way, you are offering the scope of your availability. Giving specific and realistic parameters when communicating by e-mail will eliminate the never-ending back-and-forth.

The last trap I am going to discuss is that “should have been in person” e-mail. If an e-mail takes more than 20 minutes to compose or you end the message with, “Does this make sense” (and you are not sure that it does), you need to pick up the phone or walk into the person’s office. You are not effectively or efficiently communicating.

As paralegals, we must be effective communicators — e-mail is an opportunity to really set ourselves apart as professionals.


Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2022 issue of Central Pennsylvania Paralegal Associations’ Amicus Lex.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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