5 Practical Tips for Communicating effectively on your mobile device
COLUMN > Write to Counsel
BY MARY ZOU
According to a 2021 study, people are more likely to open emails through their smartphone or tablet than on their computer.11 Litmus, “Email Client Market Share in August 2021: Email Clients Hold Steady” (Sept. 8, 2021), www.litmus.com/blog/email-client-market-share-august-2021/ (survey finding that 41.6 percent of emails were opened via mobile, 40.5 percent of emails were opened via webmail, and the Apple iPhone is the most popular email client). With more people than ever reading and writing emails on mobile devices, it is more important than ever for lawyers to focus on effective communication in this medium. This article provides five tips for communicating in the age of the smartphone.
1. Put Your Conclusion First
People often are not focused on their email while they are scanning it; they check their inboxes while watching TV, during work meetings, while eating, driving, and even in the bathroom.22 Adobe, “Email Usage – Working Age Knowledge Workers (US Trended Results)” (August 2019), www.slideshare.net/adobe/2019-adobe-email-usage-study. This means that your important email is fighting for your reader’s attention against an onslaught of other distractions. That’s why you need to prioritize the most important information at the very beginning of your email. Your reader should not have to scroll to understand the main point of your message—draft it so that the most important information fits within the frame of a smartphone screen.
Your first one or two sentences need to concisely explain to the reader (1) why you are writing the email and (2) what the key takeaway is. When in doubt, remember the CRAC (Conclusion-Rule-Analysis/Application-Conclusion) writing structure from law school and introduce the conclusion first. By putting your main conclusion, recommendation, or takeaway at the very top of the email, you will both capture your reader’s attention and prime your reader to absorb the rest of the information contained in your email.
For example, you can write the following:
I looked into dismissing the defamation lawsuit, and based on my review of recent cases, we have a strong chance of success with a motion to dismiss.
Notice how the example quickly orients the reader as to the subject of the communication and the writer’s key point. The reader is now ready to follow along with the writer’s analysis of recent case law with the understanding that the cases will support the writer’s recommendation for a motion to dismiss.
If you are preparing a long response to someone else’s email, include a brief refresher about the sender’s original email. After all, the average office worker receives 121 emails and sends 40 emails a day.33 Andre Spicer, “How many work emails is too many?” The Guardian (April 8, 2019), www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2019/apr/08/how-many-work-emails-is-too-many. Given the sheer volume of email traffic people send and receive, it’s always helpful to gently remind the reader what you are responding to, which may be an email that was sent days ago! Rather than forcing the reader to scroll down through the email chain to understand the background and context of your email, simply provide a short reminder at the beginning of your response:
I have reviewed your proposed terms for the licensing agreement below. My client is unwilling to accept the proposed licensing fee.
Avoid long introductions and wordy pleasantries; you can always put those at the end of your email after you have finished sharing important information.
2. Embrace the Listicle
Digital content sources like BuzzFeed or Cracked.com are famous for lists such as “10 Important Life Lessons You Can Learn From Cats” or “25 Ways to Tell You’re a Kid of the ’90s.” These “listicles” (content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list) have trained readers to quickly digest information presented in list formats, and lawyers should use that to their advantage. Don’t bury important information in bulky paragraphs—list them out instead, using bullets or numbering.
Your listicle should present the information in a thoughtful and organized manner. For example, if you are curating a list of breach of contract case decisions, consider categorizing the decisions into cases in which the breach of contract claim was successful versus cases where the claim was unsuccessful. You can also organize your decisions by year, court, type of contract, or relevance to your present issue. When information is presented in a listicle format, the organization of the list should make sense to the reader, and the most important information (such as the most on-point cases) should be at the top of the list.
A listicle by itself cannot serve as a substitute for analysis and synthesis; you still need to show the reader how the different items in your listicle fit together. A list of cases without explanation or analysis is as unhelpful to the reader as simply printing off and sending a list of search results would be. Use parentheticals to summarize key and relevant holdings or reasoning from each case or source; explain how the listed items collectively form the answer to the legal issue.
Finally, a helpful heading or introduction is critical for an effective listicle. For example, a list with the heading “Contract Provisions at Issue” quickly orients the reader to digest the information that follows.
3. Flag & Include Key Information
Use bolding, underlines, or even colors to flag key information such as deadlines or action items. Remember that an email is not the same type of communication as a formal letter or memorandum. An email will be consumed digitally rather than printed, and you should optimize the formatting for that digital consumption. Don’t be afraid to use bright colors to highlight critical information or boldface for names when assigning action tasks to team members. This ensures that important information will stand out on the screen as people scroll through your email.
Be sure to include key information in the body of the email itself. If you are talking about a contract provision, for example, copy and paste the relevant provision or parts of it directly into the email. The reader may not be at their computer in that moment, so you want to make all relevant information available to them without the need to toggle between multiple windows.
If you do rely on external sources or relevant material, then attach them to the email or link to publicly available versions of the documents. Most opinions are published on the court’s website, and governments publish their statutes and regulations online. These versions are free and easily accessible through a mobile device. Avoid sharing links that are behind a paywall or require the reader to sign into a service to access the content, such as links to Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg. This all but assures that the reader will not actually review the document—and likely also assures that the reader who clicked on the link will be frustrated.
4. Adopt Cloud Technologies
The 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report found that 60 percent of respondents utilized web-based software or cloud computing services or solutions.44 Alexander Paykin, “ABA TechReport 2021: 2021 Practice Management,” American Bar Association (Nov. 24, 2021), www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice/publications/techreport/2021/pracmgmt/. The adoption of cloud computing in law firms has been steadily growing, and the rise of remote work is expected to continue to propel that growth. Clients and colleagues nowadays expect lawyers to be familiar with basic cloud technology. The following are just a few quick tips to help you easily adopt cloud technologies and showcase your 21st-century tech savviness.
Technology novices can start with simple steps such as utilizing Dropbox, Google Drive, or another cloud storage service to share documents within your email. Instead of attaching many PDFs or overly large documents to an email (which risks an undeliverable bounce back message), just upload the proposed attachments to a cloud storage service and share the link with the email recipient.
The more tech savvy can take advantage of more advanced features to share comments or communally edit work product directly in the cloud service. Most cloud services offer smartphone apps that allow users to easily access, edit, or comment on documents directly from their phones or tablets. This means that you can communicate directly through the cloud service without having to toggle between windows on your smartphone.
But cloud technologies are not without their risks to confidentiality, privacy, and data security. If you have concerns about uploading sensitive or confidential information to a cloud storage space, protect documents with a password or other encryption.
5. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Just as readers are opening more emails from their mobile devices, lawyers are also sending more emails from their phones or other mobile devices. But gone are the days in which “Sent from my mobile device” served as an excuse for brevity and typos. If the communication is important enough to send, then it is important enough to proofread to catch spelling or grammatical errors. Remember that an email is still a permanent record of your communication, even if typing it out on your smartphone makes it feel more like a text message than a memorandum. Even a quick proofread is better than none.
As work continues to shift away from the physical office and into remote settings, people will increasingly rely on their smartphones and tablets. These are just a few tips to help you more effectively communicate through that small screen with your colleagues, supervisors, clients, opposing counsel, or even the court.
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1. Litmus, “Email Client Market Share in August 2021: Email Clients Hold Steady” (Sept. 8, 2021), www.litmus.com/blog/email-client-market-share-august-2021/ (survey finding that 41.6 percent of emails were opened via mobile, 40.5 percent of emails were opened via webmail, and the Apple iPhone is the most popular email client).
2. Adobe, “Email Usage – Working Age Knowledge Workers (US Trended Results)” (August 2019), www.slideshare.net/adobe/2019-adobe-email-usage-study.
3. Andre Spicer, “How many work emails is too many?” The Guardian (April 8, 2019), www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2019/apr/08/how-many-work-emails-is-too-many.
4. Alexander Paykin, “ABA TechReport 2021: 2021 Practice Management,” American Bar Association (Nov. 24, 2021), www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice/publications/techreport/2021/pracmgmt/.