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Avoid Email Memo Pitfalls

By Kari Santos | Nov. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Nov. 2, 2014

Avoid Email Memo Pitfalls

How to find the right style, substance, and structure in email memos.

One of the traditional mainstays of associates' work - the printed legal memorandum - is quickly being replaced by the email memo in this era of texts, tweets, Snapchats, and other mobile communications. Protocols remain largely unsettled, but we can identify common pitfalls and offer pointers for avoiding them.

1 Overly Casual Style
Physically producing an email attachment - typing it up and shooting it across cyberspace - is so easy and efficient that lawyers may think of it as a casual document. But email memos that analyze a case and suggest strategy merit the same attention to style as traditional printed memos - perhaps even more because they're so easily shared and viewed by a wide audience.

Pointers: The language of an email memo should remain formal, the grammar correct, and words should be spelled out. Like all good writing it should be concise, with short, direct sentences, short paragraphs, and active voice. This does not mean choppy or lacking in context, transitions, or signposts: Be wary of sacrificing flow and clarity for brevity. But remember that your readers are increasingly likely to be peering at a handheld device, where they will especially appreciate both your linguistic economy and readable style.

The cover email also should be formal. Resist the urge to throw in an emoticon or use texting acronyms - anywhere - even to try to head off misinterpretation or a negative reaction. Email can easily be forwarded to readers who may not have the same context or appreciation for a breezy style, and an electronic message can be discoverable. When in doubt, always rephrase. If possible, include the memo directly after the cover language, so that it can be viewed by scrolling down the same screen. This spares the itinerant reader the extra step of having to open an attachment.

2 Flabby Writing
Email memos tend to be shorter, and there often is an expectation that they're easier to turn around quickly. But delivering a thorough written product that is also brief actually requires more skill than furnishing a rambling tome. It requires a solid understanding of, first, what a traditional memorandum should comprise and, second, the issue and area of law being addressed. Only with those in hand will the writer be able to distill the information meaningfully: It takes more expertise to know what to omit than it does to include every fact and authority that pops up during research.

Pointers: The balance between length and substance will vary with the purpose of each memo and the expectations of the recipient. First decide which details are necessary and which are not, so you can strategize how best to present the information. Consider using numbers or bullets to rank information in a digestible format. Subheadings also can help organize information and allow for more concise snippets. Although boldfacing might be too forceful, selective underlining may help important concepts stand out.

3 Rigid Structure
Traditional memos include several formal components. Typically, these are the Heading, Question Presented, Brief Answer, Statement of Facts, Discussion, and Conclusion. In contrast, email memos demand flexibility.

Pointers: Flexibility isn't at odds with structure. In fact, structure is critical in email memos because on-the-go readers need information in the clearest possible units. Email memos may benefit as much as traditional memos from having sections; they just may require different headings. Instead of "I. Question Presented" and "II. Brief Answer," for example, a combined heading of "Issue and Answer" may suffice. Similarly, where the traditional memo typically features a lengthy "Discussion" organized into IREAC format (that is, Issue, Rule, Explanation, Application/Analysis, and Conclusion), it might be more relevant in an email memo to split this into "Summary of Law" and "Impact on Client." The latter section could feature subheadings on key substantive points, with the passages underneath honed as short as possible (see pitfall No. 2). Depending on the complexity of the issue addressed, the email memo might still merit a brief "Conclusion" - or a "Recommendations" section if that is more to the point.

As communication technology continues to evolve, and as client demands for immediate information and results continue to increase, protocols for email memos will continue to develop. And it will be increasingly valuable to master the art of the organized, pithy, and compelling email memo.

Eunice Park teaches legal writing and research at Western State College of Law in Fullerton.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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