By tradition, when lawyers write a legal analysis for internal use or as a decision-making tool, they write a memo. Today, many memos are e-mail messages. When you ask for an e-mail memo or when you write one, what guidelines do you follow? I propose some here, but it’s important to know your audience. Reject any of these guidelines if your boss prefers something else.
Keep the length down—if you can.
No one likes to read long e-mail messages. Try following the “no scrolling” or “one screen” rule: Readers get everything they need without scrolling past the opening screen. Sometimes a longer message is necessary, but it can still be efficient and effective if you front-load key information. More about front-loading below. Of course, you could write a short message and attach the longer memo, but before you do, check with the assigning lawyer. Some lawyers dislike reading attachments, and attachments don’t always display well on tablets or phones.
Remember: a more concise piece of writing is often harder to produce than a long one. Give yourself time to condense and tighten.
Use the subject line to give key information.
For a short, single-issue e-mail memo, I recommend writing a condensed, specific subject line that states the answer. You save the reader time and effort, and besides, legal readers appreciate knowing the answer before they get into the analysis. This suggestion just takes the idea a little further.
It’s not always possible or practical to put the answer in the subject line. Maybe it would be too easy for others to see; maybe your boss doesn’t like it; maybe you have three answers to report. If your work environment or your boss dictates that you don’t put the answer in the subject line, then just write something specific—think summary, not merely topic.
Restate the question asked.
The first line of the body text should restate the question. In fact, I like the opening phrase “You asked . . .” Provide enough detail—facts and law—to accurately frame the question, and avoid abstraction. If there are multiple questions, number them.
An e-mail memo that assumes the reader knows what was asked and that skips right to the answer has two drawbacks: it’s frustrating for secondary readers, who’ll have to scroll through the thread to find what was asked, and it’s frustrating for the assigning lawyer who’s reading the e-mail days or weeks later.
Give the answer with reasons in one paragraph.
Write a thorough answer with reasons, thus ensuring that the body text is complete, easily understood if isolated from the other parts of the message, and readily copied and pasted into other documents. The answer with reasons also serves as critical front-loading in a longer message. You can write a single, short paragraph—three or four lines of text, or you can write the answer and give the reasons in bullet points. If there were numbered questions, use parallel numbering for the answers.
State the governing law but skip the case explanations.
A traditional memo states the legal rule that governs the question, and an e-mail memo should too. Be accurate and concise: name important statutes (“Under Insurance Code § 22.001 . . .”), refer to important cases by shorthand (“According to Lone Pine Mfg. . . .”), and mention the jurisdiction (“In Texas . . .”). But don’t clutter the text with formal, full-form citations.
A traditional memo also explains the cases that have construed and applied the law—illustrations that give readers a concrete understanding of the law. But there’s usually no space for that in an e-mail memo, so leave it out.
(Yet writing explanations is excellent practice for new lawyers and ensures a better understanding of the law. If you’re a new lawyer, go ahead and write careful, clear, concise explanations. Just don’t put them in the e-mail memo. Write them and save them somewhere. They’ll often come in handy later.)
Analyze as needed.
Support your answer by explaining why the law leads to a particular result in your case. Expand on the reasons you gave, but be succinct and concise. Get quickly to the core concepts and eliminate background and build-up. Keep the analysis to just a few paragraphs if you can.
If the body text is long, divide it and insert headings to enable skimming (Issue and Answer, Summary of Law, Impact on Client). Consider including, at the end, full citations for the relevant authorities, and even summaries, if your boss wants them. And treat e-mail message that provide legal analysis as formal writing; avoid a casual or informal style.
Ultimately, treat e-mail memos as serious pieces of legal analysis that deserve thorough research, clear writing, and careful editing. Remember that your e-mail can and will be forwarded to clients, to other lawyers, and to the hiring committee.
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