DAVID J. WILLIS ATTORNEY
Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved worldwide.
By David J. Willis, J.D., LL.M.
Sound Business Email Practices
Identify the Intended Recipient. Every business email – no matter how brief – should be considered a business letter and addressed to a specific person, making it immediately apparent to the recipient that he or she is reading an email intended for them. There should never be the slightest doubt about this. Confidentiality is a serious issue in business, particularly when it comes to legal matters, and more than one person may have access to an office computer or email address. Make no assumptions in this regard.
Identify the Sender. Similarly, an email should be signed off by a specific person. Use of a first name is fine after an initial exchange of communications, but the signature box below the sender's sign-off (and there should always be a signature box) should still reflect his or her full name, company position and affiliation, phone, and fax number. The recipient should not have to speculate as to the identity of the sender or the entity with which the sender is associated. Never compel a sender to Google you in order to find out who you are – unless that is a Machiavellian tactic you have intentionally deployed.
Subject Line. Every business email should include a brief subject or reference line – for example "RE: Wrap Transaction - 123 Oak St." The subject line should not be allowed to become stale. Instead, adjust and update it as communications evolve. And the subject line should not be the name of the sender – for example, if the sender is John Jones, the reference should never be "John Jones." That tells the recipient nothing helpful.
Content. Business emails should be direct and concise, including an introductory sentence identifying the sender as, for example, the seller or the broker for the buyer; a main body of concise information (a good rule of thumb for word limit is 200 words); and some form of conclusory sentence or request for action, making it clear what the sender wants. And instead of a long run-on treatise, use paragraphs, lists, and bullet points to make the email more readable. If more information needs to be transmitted, do so by means of an attachment. Busy brokers, lawyers, and investors read their emails several times a day and usually have only a brief amount of time between appointments to do so – and there may be a dozen or more messages in the queue. Opening a massive email that contains a thousand words can have the unintended consequence of making the recipient instantly annoyed with the sender.
"I have a client . . . ." Our firm frequently receives emails that begin with these words but fail to clarify the type of professional the sender is. A lawyer? A broker? A CPA? There are many kinds of professionals. We must then ask the embarrassing question: "What are you?" Not mentioning the sender's professional role in a transaction implies the rather arrogant assumption that every real estate professional in the state should know who you are. If you are the governor, that may be a valid assumption but not for the rest of us common folk.
Attachments. Include only relevant and non-redundant attachments. It is the responsibility of the sender to sort these appropriately rather than dumping every scrap of paper pertaining to the subject upon the recipient, which is rude. Note that very large attachments may be rejected by the recipient's ISP, so one may have to divide them up. Never send lengthy business attachments one page at a time in jpeg format.
Courtesy and Tone. Use words like "please," "thank you," and "appreciated" in your emails. Begin with "Hi Paul." Otherwise emails can acquire an unintended abruptness, even a military tone of command. People often do not respond well to such a tone. You might also mention that you look forward to working with the other individual and use other friendly phrases to warm up the message.
Proofreading. An email should be re-read and proofed before it is sent - checked for the basics in other words – spelling, grammar, coherence, completeness. In this sense, an email is no different than any other business letter. If you do not have time for this, you do not have time to communicate with a law office.
Formal Demands. If it is your intention to make a formal, official, or legal demand, then use U.S. Mail, certified/return receipt requested. You may also use email, but do not rely on it for such a purpose.
Q&A. When responding to another's questions, it is useful to copy and paste the sender's queries in bold, and then follow each question with your response in ordinary type. Numbering is helpful. Your responses become specific, targeted, and generally more comprehensible.
Fees and the Reality of Commerce. Businesses communicate by email as part of their general effort to do deals and make a profit. The sender should request a price quote or make an offer of payment for the product or service requested. Forcing the recipient to write back with a reminder that business products and services are not free is awkward for everyone.
Things to Avoid
Chatting. Occasionally, clients or potential clients misunderstand a firm's role in the online marketplace and seek to utilize the other individual or company as a free real estate or investment chat site. Many firms have a significant online presence but remain businesses that sell a product or service. Most are not designed to be a free resource for the public, so while preliminary comments are fine, it may not be reasonable to engage another real estate professional in lengthy or prolonged back-and-forth communications on an unpaid basis.
Dribbling. Many clients use handheld devices rather than keyboards and find it convenient to send multiple short or fragmented bursts of information, often over a period of days or weeks. Occasionally these communications come from more than one address, which makes the recipient's job difficult. To make matters worse, such devices often drop text attachments and fail to provide an email thread, so the recipient may be at a loss as to context. What does this email pertain to? Which file should I pull? Real estate and asset protection are serious business, and one should probably not conduct communications pertaining to deals and documents entirely by portable device or from multiple sources. In spite of the proliferation of portable devices, your laptop is still the best platform for most professional office communications.
Cloak & Dagger. This occurs when we receive emails that are not addressed to a specific person and are unsigned. Why the mystery? It is important for confidentiality reasons, particularly in a law office, to know by whom an email is sent and to whom it is directed. Accordingly, cloak & dagger is unacceptable in a business email. Address your emails and sign them.
Looping is when a sender decides to include the recipient (unwillingly) in the loop with all other persons who may have an interest in a particular transaction. The result is that the recipient is copied on multiple emails seemingly out of the blue. This can reach absurd extremes, cramming one's inbox with copies from or to Joan, John, and the Jonestown Title Company. It is courteous to obtain express permission before looping anyone.
Bombardment. This occurs when a sender swamps the recipient with an excessive quantity of emails, attachments, and unnecessary information wholly out of proportion to the scope of the transaction or communication. It is also called dumping. Avoid this amateurish practice.
Shouting. Sending an email in all capital letters is universally considered rude and the equivalent of shouting.
Text-talk. Business email is held to a higher standard of professionalism than personal email or texting. Correct spelling and grammar are advised. Never use "text talk" abbreviations such as "ur" for "your" or "OMG" as an exclamatory or other digital slang in business communications. Smiley faces are forbidden.
Religion. A business email should never contain references to the sender's personal religious preferences, include moral or spiritual advice, or offer to bless the recipient. The implication is that sender and recipient share the same beliefs. They may or may not. In any case, such matters have no place in professional discussions.
Politics. For the same reasons, business email should be politically neutral.
Rambling. A business email should get to the point (bullet or numbered points if more than one) and, as previously noted, probably not exceed 200 words. If more content needs to be transmitted, it should be done in the form of one or more relevant attachments, clearly labeled. Topics should reflect a logical arrangement rather than a meandering stream of consciousness. Complex subjects should be broken into discrete paragraphs, lists, and numbered items (numbering facilitates a precise response – e.g., "As to your item (2), I would suggest. . . ."
Center of the Universe. Professional offices often encounter clients who send emails as if that client were the only person communicating with the firm by email – when in fact businesses often receive dozens of emails per day. "Center of the Universe" emails are unaddressed, unsigned, vague as to content, separated by days or weeks (or even months!), and devoid of an email thread to which the firm can refer – all adding up to unreasonable and egotistical assumptions on the part of the sender that (1) the firm has no one else to communicate with; (2) we have been keeping the sender's case first and foremost in our thoughts since their last email a week or a month or a year ago; and (3) we have nothing better to do than go back and search through perhaps hundreds of emails in order to see what the inquirer is talking about. This is rude, plain and simple. Our new policy is simply not to respond.
It's all about Bob is the most extreme, egotistical form of Center of the Universe. This category of email requests an urgent response and is signed only "Bob." Aside from the fact that real estate professionals receive many emails each day, "Bob" is a common name. No last name is offered. There is no company affiliation shown. There is no transaction or document referenced in the subject line. There is no email chain that can be referred to, so the recipient does not know if his firm last heard from Bob yesterday or the prior year. The recipient is simply supposed to know all of these things. In fact, he or she likely has no idea what file to access or how to intelligibly respond to Bob's request. Never assume that the recipient of your email has psychic ability.
And Lastly. . .
The Right to be Left Alone. Occasionally, a lawyer (or any other professional) may be traveling, attending a seminar or a funeral, be on vacation, or something similar. You may receive a message that the recipient is out of the office for a reason such as this, courteously asking that you re-send your message in (say) three days' time. This is the new approach of busy persons to email. It is no longer acceptable (or polite) to expect your lawyer to return from vacation and "dig out" from under dozens or even hundreds of emails. Emails are not the treat they used to be back in the day. The trend now is to respect the privacy of others and not to over-burden them when they come back online. If your message is important, you will re-send it in three days. If it is not, you won't.
Information in this article is provided for general informational and educational purposes only and is not offered as legal advice upon which anyone may rely. The law changes. Legal counsel relating to your individual needs and circumstances is advisable before taking any action that has legal consequences. Consult your tax advisor as well. This firm does not represent you unless and until it is expressly retained in writing to do so.
Copyright © 2018 by David J. Willis. All rights reserved worldwide. David J. Willis is board certified in both residential and commercial real estate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. More information is available at his website, http://www.LoneStarLandLaw.com.