In the year 2000 I noticed people in business taking significant legal risks in preparing emails in a rush.
Today poorly written emails are causing business and legal issues in epidemic proportions. (As evidence I’m guided by my firm’s experience in new client matters.) These low quality emails feed into risky business proposals, unnecessarily stretch out transactions, and cause higher legal costs.
My purpose here is to reduce these issues with two practical suggestions.
The suggestions are reminders on how to improve business email communication by adding appropriate opening and closing paragraphs.
Business emails and business letters should have an appropriate beginning and ending.
1. How to begin
The beginning starts with an email’s subject header or the “Re” section of a letter. They define the topic.
Make their content relevant, informative and useful. It’s unhelpful to use one unchanging generic subject heading (eg “Project” or the business name of your side or the other side). Instead it might be better to have “Proposed project contract – [INSERT NAME] with [INSERT NAME]”
Turning to opening paragraphs, often in the first sentence, there should be a reference to the prior documentary trail.
It could be something like this: “Thanks for your email below to me of [INSERT DATE].” That’s a lot better than: “I don’t agree with what you say” followed by an unedited rambling note.
A poor subject header and a missing reference to the past documentary trail can make it:
- Obvious the sender lacks sophistication in business communication and practices.
- Harder to understand the trail of communication and required next steps.
- Confusing as to which facts, views or topics remain issues or matters to work through.
- Time consuming to identify and deal with differences of view, misunderstandings, or disputes.
Information processing and writing is central to what intellectual property, IT and business lawyers do.
Their regular work is to read client correspondence, put it into chronological or other logical order, examine gaps in facts, and prepare commentary to explain their observations. In time this results in capturing conclusions into the formats required by different species of legal and management documents such as memos, letters, emails, contracts, demand letters, and court documents.
Good emails aid and speed legal processing, bad ones hinder and stretch it out. Correspondence which is not referenced and crafted takes more time to process and can increase legal costs. Another risk is that personal or business emails you write may one day appear in a contract termination conversation or court case.
2. How to end
Turning now to the end of an email, it is good practice to conclude with a statement or question that links to the next task.
There are many variations for this, for example, end emails with “I look forward to your response”, “I await your comments on the above proposal”, “Before I proceed to do the above work, do you have any questions?”, or “Please sign and return the attached draft agreement.”
Customise the message at the ending as needed. Make liberal use of headings (eg “Next Steps”) and if appropriate use numbered lists or bullet points to specify tasks.
What are the risks of an email with a missing end action task? Potentially, the parties become confused as to who is to do what, when, how, where or why. Momentum and focus is lost. This can erode trust between the sender and the recipient, increase annoyance, and lead to lost time and opportunities.
I’ll end with broader observations. Today clients and their professional advisers are caught in a just in time services economy. Jim Belshaw, who writes the Management Perspectives blog, describes this contemporary reality as “See problem, fix problem”.
A generation ago it was a general expectation that the needs identified in a letter should be answered or acknowledged within about 14 days; and fully dealt with in a month.
Today for each email there is an expectation that there should be an instant response or a substantive answer within a day, days or a week.
The challenge of this time compression can be reduced by making some tasks habitual, eg how to begin and end an email. The challenge can’t be eliminated. There is the added problem of short termism. Real business and business law still require careful collation and assessment of information, quiet contemplation, real thinking, not habitual responses.
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