Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2010
The Legal Writer
Appalling Etiquette:
Writing As a Professional
By Suzanne E. Rowe

I never aspired to be Emily Post. My family will be stunned that I have the audacity to write an article about etiquette. But some of the letters and email messages I’ve received in the past few years have been appalling. Applications for jobs, requests for favors, notes of thanks and especially apologies too often suggest that simple respect and politeness are passé.

They’re not.

Perhaps the expensive bonded paper and expensive cards of yesteryear reminded us to mind our manners. But the mere fact that we now send communications on dull printer paper — or no paper at all — doesn’t mean that we can forget that we are professionals. Professionals treat others with respect both because it’s the right thing to do and because it often brings better results.

Most professional legal careers begin with an application that includes a cover letter. That letter is likely addressed to a person with some level of decision-making authority or influence. And that person will likely be unimpressed if his or her name is spelled incorrectly or if the honorific title is inappropriate.

For example, my name is Suzanne E. Rowe. The E. is an optional reminder of both of my southern grandmothers, and I’m not that attached to it. Leaving it out is fine. But I tend to look askance on letters written to Susan — it’s a lovely name, but it doesn’t happen to be my name. Rowe could be spelled Row or Roe, but in my family it’s not. I like being a professor, but “Dr.” suggests a degree I don’t have and indicates that the writer is unfamiliar with the environment where I work. And “Mrs. Rowe” could refer to either my step-mother or my sister-in-law, but it doesn’t apply to me.

None of those mistakes are intentionally disrespectful, but they convey a sense that who I am doesn’t matter much to the writer. That’s not a good impression for the person who wants a job.

A little sleuthing can enhance your professional first impression. If the person’s name could be for a male or a female, check a website to see whether a picture is posted. Failing that, a quick call to the office could answer essential questions with little effort and without revealing your identity. “I’m applying for the job that was recently posted. What title does Kelly Smith prefer?”

Don’t assume that a letter submitted to a secretary or administrative assistant can be sloppy. In some offices, those staff members have more pull than the supervisors.

How often do you get a request that sounds like a command? “I will arrive at your office to interview you in the Steele matter at 2:30 on Thursday.” That announcement came from an attorney with whom I had no prior relationship and to whom I owed nothing. And he misspelled my name. I sent back a short reply saying that I wasn’t available then. It took him several days and many messages just to arrange an interview, which I kept intentionally short by scheduling it right before an important meeting. This attorney had given me no indication that he valued my time or respected me as a fellow attorney, so I felt no need to accommodate the whims in his schedule.

Ah, but the contrast! The other lawyer in the case sent a polite message. He explained what he needed, asked whether I’d be willing to talk to him, and suggested a range of times that might be convenient for him and for me. Which lawyer got to see me faster? With whom was I the most comfortable? Who probably got the best information? And whom would I have been most likely to call if I had remembered an additional detail later on?

When someone takes time from a busy day to do something helpful for your professional advancement, a short thank you note is in order. The detail and formality of the note depend on the degree of helpfulness provided on your behalf. But expressing thanks is not optional.

If a kind colleague simply looked in an old file and handed you a document that saved you a day of research, a quick “Thanks!” may be sufficient. To show that you are truly grateful and that you have a good memory, you might send a follow-up message when you’ve completed the project. Attach your project — after protecting client confidences — if the person might find it helpful in the future.

Note the increasing debt in each of the following scenarios: If a generous soul spent several hours helping you think through a complex issue, a short e-mail thank you is an appropriate addition to your verbal thanks. If the person made a call on your behalf that opened some important doors, consider a handwritten note. And if this angel appeared at the last minute to bail you out of an impending crisis, send chocolate!

A thank you note need not be long. Two sentences can be plenty: one sentence should state what the person did and another should state how grateful you are. If you’re feeling verbose, you might offer to return the favor in the future.

Similarly, a thank you gift need not be expensive. In fact, expensive gifts can create awkwardness if they are out of proportion to the kindness done. Unless I’ve performed last minute miracles, I’d rather get a tiny box with a single piece of chocolate than an expensive bottle of wine.

The key is to show your appreciation. This is a busy person, right? The person is less likely to go out of her way to help you in the future if you don’t express your gratitude this time. (Remember: no gifts to judges no matter how grateful you are!)

One of the hardest, but most important, letters to write is an apology. Admitting a shortcoming or mistake is never fun, but once you get into the habit of apologizing, it’s not so hard.

Legendary basketball coach Dean Smith taught his players at the University of North Carolina to deal with a mistake in four simple steps: 1) recognize it; 2) admit it; 3) learn from it; and 4) forget it. That method works as well with office shortcomings as with lost basketball games. (Yes, I happened to attend UNC during the Michael Jordan era and, no, we didn’t lose much. Admitting mistakes doesn’t make you a failure.)

For the admission to be effective, though, it needs to admit a problem, accept responsibility and try to make amends. Suggesting that the problem lies with the injured party is typically not effective, especially if that person is your supervisor. The statement “I sincerely hope you do not have any misunderstanding of my action,” followed by several paragraphs of justification, is unlikely to clear the air or gain you much respect. Instead, try “I’m sorry. I misunderstood your request. I’ve taken the following steps to correct the problem, and I’ll try very hard to do better in the future.”

The admission also needs to be sincere. Don’t use any version of the political side-step, “If anyone might have been offended, I regret the offense.” No one falls for that. If you were really wrong, be direct. “I made a mistake in judgment, and I’m sorry.” This direct approach is especially appropriate when you’ve compounded the error by blaming your secretary for a mistake that was clearly yours.

Treating others with respect, in person and in writing, is an important component of professionalism. Etiquette isn’t quaint; it’s crucial.


Dean E. Smith, et al., A Coach’s Life (1999). 

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. As the Luvaas Faculty Fellow for 2008-2010, she is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment Fund for support of her articles in The Legal Writer. Her email is srowe@law.uoregon.edu.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2010 Suzanne E. Rowe

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