How To Write Emails Like A Lawyer

Email gets a bad rap these days for a lot of reasons. It’s permanent (i.e. not self-destructing like Snapchat), it’s not a good mobile communication solution, it takes too much time, there’s too much of it, it’s rife with spam, and so on and so forth. But I actually love email for a lot of those reasons (not the spam stuff, obviously). To me, these aren’t bugs, they’re features; they’re exactly what makes email a useful business tool. Email SHOULD take time to write. You don’t want to compose it on the fly on your phone. Email SHOULD stick around and be traceable so you can find important conversations. Luckily, if you learn to write emails correctly, you can really make it work for you. So how do you do that?

Focus on Tone

When writing to a vendor, partner, or client, you want to make sure you don’t sound like an asshole. Unfortunately, that can actually be pretty hard! Emails by nature can’t convey tone, so you have to juice your language a bit to ensure you don't sound rude or offensive. 

  1. Use friendly and positive sounding language. Unless you’re officially in a dispute, you’re not adversaries so don’t act like it.  Always start with a “hey” or “hello.” Always sign off with a friendly goodbye. Always say “thanks” or “thank you” at least once in the email - unironically if possible. Practice reading the email aloud; if you can’t read the whole thing while smiling, rewrite it. Politeness is the name of the game, and you should always be the last person to abandon it.
  2. Be less formal where appropriate. Use first names if you can. Write in your actual voice, not some abstract notion of how you think a lawyer or business person sounds. Reminding them you’re a human being and not an emotionless robot will help keep things humming along.
  3. Avoid accusatory and threatening language. Hanlon’s Razor states that you should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by negligence (or stupidity). Operate as if you’re working together for a mutual good and that misstatements and miscommunications are accidental. Avoid putting them on the defense. Work out any problems without resorting to name-calling and accusations. That’s how you turn a mole hill into a mountain.

So you’re being unfailingly nice (yes, even if they’re jerks right back to you), but that alone won’t get you what you want. Tone is about HOW you say a thing but it doesn’t tell you WHAT to say. To get what you want, you need to:

Focus on Clarity

We all suffer from what I call “Clarity Bias.” We think we’re clear as daylight while everyone else is vague. But the truth is, writing clearly and concisely is hard work and takes practice. I think I do it well, but I’m always trying to get better (this blog post in particular went through several drafts to ensure maximum coherence). Here are a few guidelines I use to help you maintain clarity in your writing.

  1. Say what you mean. Don’t presume the other person knows what you’re thinking. Don’t try to shroud your meaning behind vague statements, haughty language, or inside jokes. Don’t try to get into some needlessly complex negotiation. The business email is no place for ambiguity or subtlety. If the other person has to spend even a few seconds wondering what you meant, you failed. Just say it directly. You'll sound competent and you'll get less pushback.
  2. Don't use wavering language. If you use the words "perhaps" or "maybe," you leave room for interpretation and equivocation. Don't. Instead, use if/then causal statements. "If you give me X, then I'll give you Y," is much less ambiguous than "Maybe if you give me X, perhaps I'll give you Y." 
  3. Use short sentences. Short sentences keep you focused. They tend to be less confusing. This isn’t creative writing; you’re not trying to wow anyone with your stellar and imaginative prose. In business, you want to get the most amount of information across with the least amount of words. Use bullet points and numbered lists if you feel it aids comprehension.
  4. Use plain English. A lot of people think emails and contracts written in legalese carry more authority than those written in plain language. I disagree. Legalese can cause confusion where clarity is needed. Just nix it. Avoid saying “pursuant to” or “thenceforth” or “whereas.” Don’t try to impress the other person with a fancy dissertation. They won’t be impressed, they’ll just think you’re an idiot.

I know what you're thinking. "But Greg. All you've told me is to be nice and clear. How does that get me what I want?" Well I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but THAT'S HOW. The trick to getting what you want is that there really is no trick. Being direct means people will understand what you're asking for. Being nice means they're more likely to give it to you. Sure, sometimes it'll backfire, but most of the time I bet you it won't. There will always be conflicts and misunderstandings in business, but if you follow these guidelines, I’m certain you’ll be able to quickly and competently resolve those issues before they become unmanageable. 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA