To most people, language is simply a form of communication used to convey what one must. To some, it is an art form, used to communicate stories and feelings. To a small group of people, however, it is the basis of their entire livelihood and perhaps even the jobs of many others. That small group of people include the “suits”.
Recently, thanks to an overzealous head hunter spreading misinformation in a WhatsApp group, I was the recipient of more than 200 job applications from law students across the country. It took me a while to look through the CVs. It was after reading through these 200 emails that I realized how the style of writing has changed over the years.
Emails were sent with only attachments, some were addressed to the wrong firm while others were addressed to the wrong person. Several had spelling mistakes, syntax errors and other grammatical blunders. If our professors read these emails, they would be horrified at the lack of communication skills. How difficult could it be to write two simple paragraphs, attach a CV and ensure it is addressed to the right individual and right law firm? How long does it take to proofread a short email that will likely create the biggest impression about you especially given that lawyers are required to have excellent language skills?
Let’s face it though. Over time, the style and method of communication have changed, and with it, the way we write. So, where do we draw the line? How casual or formal can we be in our emails? Does each email need to be at its flowery best? Here is my list of top five things to check when sending an email.
Be mindful of the purpose. While formulating an email, article or written text, be mindful of the purpose it is going to serve. If you’re applying for a job, the tone has to be formal. If you’re writing to a client for the first time, then it is formal again. The only time that you can take the liberty of using a more casual approach is when you know the person well. At any given point of time, however, it cannot cross the line to sound “over friendly” or disrespectful.
Be mindful of the person. You can never forget whom you are addressing in an email. People in some cultures find it disrespectful to be called by their first name. Some others dislike being referred to by their last name. Be considerate of the seniority of the person. Never misspell the name of the person you are addressing. This should be a no-brainer but it is a blunder that many people make. The recipient is likely never going to forget this error.
Check the tone of your email. Remember that the person reading your email is judging the tone from the content of what is written. It is easy to convey your tone while speaking, but difficult to do so in writing. The words you choose to formulate sentences will convey the seriousness of the email, regardless of your intent. Let’s take a simple example. How would you ask your client for a call? “Hi X, can we have a quick chat today at 5 pm?” This is something you would use in a text message and is extremely informal. Unless you talk to your client every day, this may not be the best language to use. “Dear X, would you be available for a call today at 5 pm?” This is a more formal approach. If you don’t know your client well, this is safer.
Always proofread. Nobody is asking for your email to read like the text from a short story of O Henry, but as a lawyer, you cannot make spelling and grammatical errors. Especially in this day and age when every device has some form of spell checker or auto correct function. Read what you write and then recheck it. When you make language errors in simple drafts, it does not inspire confidence in the recipient. If you know your language is weak, get someone else to read it.
Be precise and coherent. This is conceivably the hardest thing and takes practise. Readers formulate thoughts based on what they read. Often, the person writing forgets that the recipient may not have the relevant background to understand the context of what is written. The writing should be easy enough for anyone to understand, without any context. This is easy to test by getting someone else to read what you’ve written. If they understand without asking too many questions, you know you’ve done it right.
Always remember, good language doesn’t mean using big words that nobody understands. Good language simply means conveying the point precisely and respectfully in the most coherent way possible.
Partner, DSK Legal
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