In many organizations, e-mail is the primary means of communication. E-mail provides a seamless way for everyone to stay in contact despite all of the factors–such as travel, multiple office locations and telecommuting–that can prevent in-person meetings or even telephone calls. E-mail offers the convenience, and strategic advantage, of sharing information in real time with key decision makers. As such, e-mail presents a golden opportunity for attorneys to demonstrate value to their clients and strengthen the attorney-client

relationship. Yet all too often, the e-mail we receive from outside counsel is more frustrating than helpful.

Just to take a few examples: subject lines that are unrelated to content or that are missing altogether; paragraph after paragraph of unnecessary prelude that obscures important information; or writing in “legalese” that needs comprehensive translation. These mistakes transform e-mail from newsflashes into headaches.

The irony is that attorneys possess a skill set that should shine in the context of e-mail: the ability to synthesize information and present it clearly and persuasively. But the same outside counsel who can hold a courtroom spellbound can, without even realizing it, write an e-mail that loses its audience. The attorneys who are best at communicating via e-mail recognize that the format is fundamentally different than a conversation or a written formal letter, and they tailor their messages accordingly.

Some techniques I encourage among the attorneys on my team are as follows:

  • Consider your audience. These days, more people than ever are reading their e-mail on a Blackberry, iPhone or other mobile device rather than a large monitor. The takeaway: Keep your e-mail short and to the point.

  • Make the subject line count. Your subject line should accurately tell the reader what the message is about. Your audience may receive a lot of e-mail every day. They may need to decide which emails to read based only on the subject line and opening line of text. By the same token, use discretion when labeling your messages “urgent.” Doing so in the absence of a real emergency is a sure-fire way to reduce your chances of getting through when there truly is an immediate need.
  • It’s an “elevator speech.” In recognition of everyone’s busy schedule, one thing we try to instill at Kaplan Higher Education is the ability to make a persuasive “elevator speech.” Present your idea or information quickly–say, in the amount of time it might take to travel a few floors in an elevator. If you can’t summarize your position in an elevator speech, you probably need to rethink it and identify the essential points.
  • Set out the options. If your e-mail identifies a decision to be made, give a concise analysis and a clear recommendation of how to proceed. Your advice will help your client save time and make a decision, as well as highlight your ability to stake out a closely reasoned position.
  • Speak plain English. Finally, recognize that the e-mail recipient may wish to share it with colleagues or internal clients, not all of whom may be lawyers. An e-mail written in plain English allows your audience to forward your message with minimal additional comments–a hallmark of effective advocacy.

What do these guidelines have in common? A deep respect for the audience and a commitment to be helpful. The outside counsel who “get it” are those who maximize e-mail communication by sending messages that get to the point, offer recommendations and can be forwarded to executives with minimal comments. Those are the outside counsel you keep.