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Features - Ten Habits of Highly Effective E-mailers

By Dennis Kennedy, Published on December 3, 2001

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site

For several years, e-mail has been considered the "killer app" of computing, the application that is so essential that it brings people to computers who might not ordinarily be interested. In other words, e-mail is the reason you "gotta have" a computer and Internet access.

In some ways, it doesn’t get much easier than e-mail. You type a message, address it and send it. You receive a message and read it. You might reply to a message or forward it. Pretty simple.

But it doesn’t take too long before you realize that there’s much more to using e-mail than meets the eye. Both internal office e-mail and external e-mails can fill your inbox. In short order, you might find that the volume of e-mail you receive has become overwhelming.

Gradually, you will come to realize that you will want to develop some e-mail strategies so you can take greater advantage of benefits e-mail offers to you. You want to become a power e-mail user.

With a nod to Steven Covey and his famous "seven habits of highly effective people," here are ten ways that you (and your firm) can become more effective e-mail users and use e-mail more effectively.

1. Cut Your Costs. Do not underestimate for one minute the cost-cutting benefits e-mail can bring to your firm. In certain settings, the cost savings brought by e-mail can be enormous.

Using e-mail instead of long-distance calls can save money. Attaching draft documents to e-mails rather than sending them by Federal Express can save money. Sending an e-mail rather than playing phone tag can save time and money. Sending an e-mail rather than sending a standard transmittal letter can save money, paper and postage. Using e-mail can put a dent in the amount of paper required to run a typical law office.

Look around your office for ways that e-mail can result in cost savings. Do you print, copy and distribute a daily announcement sheet? Send it by e-mail instead. Do you mail out a client newsletter? Making an e-mail version available will save you printing and postage costs. Signing up for e-mail newsletters can get you information commonly copied and passed around in law firms. Sending the URL of an article by e-mail saves the cost of copying and distributing the article.

A law firm makes more money by increasing revenues or by reducing costs. E-mail can definitely make a contribution on the cost-cutting side. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to use e-mail in this fashion.

2. Respond Responsively. Many users have a full-time Internet e-mail connection and expect an instant response. You need to keep that in mind. Let me emphasize: anyone who sends an e-mail expects a response.

I have always tried to acknowledge and respond to all well-intentioned, unsolicited personal e-mail. If you put your or your firm’s e-mail address on a web site, advertisement or brochure, you must make sure that any e-mail sent to you is answered in a timely fashion. You’ll have to decide what timely means and how e-mail rates in priority with voice mail and other communication methods.

Often, a one or two sentence response or a simple direction to a web address is all that is required to respond to an e-mail. The important thing is to be sure to respond in some fashion to e-mails that you get. Ignored e-mail sends a very poor message about you, your firm and, most commonly, your web site.

3. Mind Your Netiquette. There are a surprising number of "rules of the road" that have grown up around e-mail. Some are common sense and all are directed at imposing a set of good manners or etiquette on e-mail usage. These rules are commonly known as "netiquette" and the "Miss Manners" resource on Netiquette is Virginia Shea’s Netiquette, the core elements of which can be found at http://www.albion.com/netiquette/corerules.html.

It is surprisingly easy to make mistakes of form and manners when entering e-mail discussions. E-mail lies somewhere between the informal communication of a phone call and the more formal communication of a business letter. E-mails tend to be unedited first drafts that are removed from the context of vocal inflections and mannerisms. As a result, it’s easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood. Some people are far more aggressive in their e-mails than they would be in person. There’s a term in e-mail called "flaming" that refers to conversations where anger and feelings get out of hand.

Some netiquette rules are simple like not typing in capital letters (because it is the e-mail equivalent of shouting). Others are more nuanced. You really want to be up on your basic netiquette when you join a discussion list because, all too often, someone who apparently was not treated well as a child will jump on well-intentioned new users to a list for making netiquette errors.

Netiquette will make your e-mail experience and that of your readers far more pleasant.

4. Select Subject Matters Sagaciously. A friend of mine tends to send e-mails that have the subject matter line say "Message from Jackie." It’s short and to the point, but it makes it hard to find the message you want in a folder full of "message from Jackies."

Make good use of the subject matter (or "re") line of your e-mail messages. Give a good concise summary of what’s in the message that can help people assess the priority of your message and to locate your message when they need it later. Compare an e-mail with the subject line of "Financials" with one that says "August 1999 Income and Expense Report (NEED COMMENTS BY FRIDAY)".

That’s not to say that writing wry and humorous subject matter lines can’t be fun. It is and it can be a bit of an art form for some. There is, however, an appropriate time and place for it.

Picture your recipient’s inbox and think of ways that you can help him or her manage the e-mail in that box.

5. Sell with Signature Blocks. A wisely chosen signature block can help you market your firm. You’ve probably noticed signature blocks. Often you’ll see a block of text immediately below the sender’s name at the bottom of his or her message that includes title, company, address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail address, web site address and even quotes, slogans, graphics or other matter. These are signature blocks.

A signature block can be created within most e-mail programs that can be automatically inserted at the end of each message you send. You definitely want to create a signature block that contains the appropriate information about you and your firm. If you have a web site, include the URL in your signature block. Here’s a helpful tip: be sure to type the "http://" in front of your web address (http://www.denniskennedy.com rather than simply www.denniskennedy.com). If you do so, many e-mail programs will let the reader click on the address and go directly to your web site.

Your signature should also contain description of your firm or a slogan ("Representing personal injury plaintiffs since 1883") or other subtle and reasonably subdued marketing information. Some people also like to include a favorite quote – I’d be careful here and remember your business image and decorum.

Here’s the interesting dimension of signature blocks. Take the example slogan above. If you sent an e-mail describing your firm to a discussion list or in an unsolicited fashion that described your firm, you would likely be accused of "spamming" (sending unsolicited indiscriminate commercial e-mail). If you send a regular message, your signature block makes the same point in a perfectly acceptable way.

6. Enlist in Discussion Lists. Perhaps the most useful aspect of e-mail is participation on discussion lists or "listservs" (from the name of the software used to run them). The concept of a discussion list is pretty simple. You "subscribe" to a listserv. The listserv has a central distribution point. Copies of all e-mails sent to the central distribution point are in turn sent to every subscriber of the list (in some cases, thousands of subscribers). Every other subscriber receives each e-mail you send to the list. You (and every other subscriber) receive each e-mail sent by any other subscriber. The result is a mechanism that facilitates discussions.

There are thousands of discussion lists (see, for example, http://www.tile.net/). On some you might receive a message or two a day. Others can generate hundreds of messages a day. Each discussion list focuses on a topic. For example, there might be a discussion list of legal administrators of plaintiff personal injury law firms. The list might include subscribers from hundreds of law firms. A discussion list creates a forum where subscribers can share ideas, ask questions and learn from others in the same field with common interests. As a general rule, some of the most interesting and well-known members of the "community of interest" tend to participate in these discussion lists. As a result, you often learn from the best sources, become aware of trends and developments, hear the latest news and rumors and gain a variety of other benefits.

Discussion lists can be a great way to continue conversations, make friends and stay in touch. It is impossible to overestimate the value of a great discussion list.

As with many other aspects of e-mail, Jerry Lawson’s book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers, is an excellent resource on e-mail discussion lists, how they work and how to use them.

7. Reach for High-end Software. You can use a variety of e-mail programs. Some are free. Some are simple. All will get the basic job done. But the highly effective e-mailer wants more than that.

I recommend moving to the high-end e-mail packages and the newest versions. These include Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, Novell’s Groupwise, Eudora Pro and, in certain special cases, Lotus Notes.

Why? Control, management, flexibility, power. You want the tools that can take your use of e-mail to the highest level. The big-time packages allow you to create rules and filters that will sort and move your mail to folders on arrival, automatically delete "spam" messages, view mail in ways that work for you, create mailing groups and do countless other things for you. It will be easier to use encryption and take advantage of security features. Some packages even allow you to scan for inappropriate content.

E-mail is a completely different experience with the high-end tools. As your volume of e-mail increases, you’ll appreciate having the extra power.

8. Make it Easy to E-mail You. As you become a highly effective e-mailer, you’ll want to funnel more and more of your communication into your e-mail system. In other words, you want to make it easy for people to e-mail you.

There is, however, a tricky balancing point to consider. You want to minimize junk e-mail. Don’t be indiscriminate about handing out your e-mail address. Many power e-mailers have a separate free e-mail account (see http://www.yahoo.com, for example) that they use when forced to give an e-mail address in a situation that might get them put onto a direct mail list.

Get your e-mail address into the hands of those you want to e-mail you. Include e-mail addresses on business cards, stationery, brochures and other marketing materials. Every page of your web site should make it easy to contact you, your firm or any attorney in your firm by e-mail. Directory listings, committee and organization listings and, especially, publications or speaker bios should definitely include your e-mail address.

9. Follow the Ethical Rules. Lawyer and law firm behavior is governed by a set of ethical rules. Some of them will be different than what you might expect. Bar disciplinary entities have had a lot of difficulty deciding what to do with lawyer communication by e-mail, but there is a growing body of rules, some of which, frankly, do not make much sense.

You will need to become very familiar with these rules and to make sure they are followed. Of particular concern are rules relating to confidentiality. In addition, Unsolicited e-mail from potential clients can inadvertently create conflict of interest issues. You will need to look into ways to avoid these and other related issues.

There is a raging debate on whether e-mail communications with clients must be encrypted. There is a movement toward encryption for sensitive client communications. In a few years, it will be easier to encrypt all client communications than to decide which ones should be encrypted.

E-mail to potential clients brings into play ethics rules on solicitation and advertising. Even your signature block should be scrutinized to be sure that you are complying with the Byzantine rules on advertising and marketing (can you say "full-service," "specialize in" or "national"?). Know the rules and see that they are enforced in your firm.

10. Sharpen Your Saw. This habit is really one of Stephen Covey’s seven habits. The notion here is to keep learning and to hone the tools that you have so that they are ready to use when you need them. Because e-mail is so easy to ease, many firms give little or no training on e-mail. Many users are simply unaware of helpful features readily available in their programs. Becoming a highly effective e-mail user requires that you update your skills regularly, experiment with software features and devote yourself to continuous learning and improvement.

Seek training for yourself and others on a regular basis. Don’t neglect e-mail training when you upgrade an office suite because "it’s only e-mail." Many people spend a good portion of their days only in e-mail. One great thing about e-mail is that e-mail topics lend themselves well to "brown bag" lunch seminars and short training sessions. You might find that a mini-session on using rules, managing folders or creating groups will be surprisingly well attended and can be repeated from time to time.

E-mail raises issues on a regular basis. You will want to keep apprised of virus and security issues. Encryption is a growing and important issue. Monitor developments. Again, a great resource on a variety of e-mail issues is Jerry Lawson’s excellent The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers.

A helpful book on the e-mail program you use or the occasional foray into Help screens can be especially rewarding and give you new ideas, techniques and tools.

E-mail is fundamentally a communications tool and like all communications will change and evolve steadily.

Conclusion. Great e-mailers are made not born. It will take some time and effort, but the rewards are immeasurable. Adopt these ten habits and you will become a highly effective e-mailer.