back to Screen-Friendly page

Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Etiquette is Old School, But Pays Dividends


By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

In the old days, business etiquette meant extending your hand to a colleague. It’s evolved to include silencing cell phones during business lunches. Etiquette rules also apply to business writing. Showing you’re gracious and respectful, proper etiquette builds goodwill and guards against strained relationships and damaged reputations.

Email Etiquette

Respond to email within 24 hours. If you can’t, immediately let the sender know when a proper response can be expected. When you’ll be out of the office for long periods, use succinct auto replies directing recipients to others who can help in the meantime.

Shoot for a balance between formal, which risks an air of superiority, and informal, which can come across as disrespectful or offensive. Include please, thank you and other terms of
politeness, which never goes out of style. Politeness is especially important in e-mails because tone can be unclear

when you can’t hear a voice or observe body language. Be especially mindful
of tone when nudging someone via email – strive for an emotionless, neutral reminder.

Handwritten Letters

Send a handwritten letter when you want to convey a personal feeling or reinforce a connection. Condolences, thanks for hard work or generosity, and congratulations are particularly worthy of handwritten notes. Although snail mail doesn’t have the speed of email, you should still aim for promptness.

Be brief and specific. For example, avoid a canned thank-you note that could apply to anything.
Always proofread emails and hand-written letters, making sure you get recipients’ names right. Double check, for example, whether Ann spells her name with an E or whether Leslie is a man or a woman. (I speak from experience here…)

Of course, when confidentiality is key or when you want to avoid possible misinterpretations, pick up the phone in lieu of putting anything in writing.

Etiquette is old school, but it pays dividends in the long run.


A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.

Our partners at BASFAhern Insurance Brokerage