Law firm hierarchies can be odd. I have a friend who works for a big law firm in St. Louis, and her office measures success based upon how many ceiling tiles your office counts. At a recent happy hour, I discovered another hierarchy of which I had previously been blissfully unaware—the email address ordering hierarchy.

Protocol apparently demands addressing emails in experience-descending order

According to several friends, protocol at large firms demands addressing emails first to the senior partner on the case, followed by other attorneys (then paralegals, then administrative assistants) in descending order of experience. In other words, the “To:” line should read:

TO: Senior partner, junior partner, senior associate, midlevel associate, junior associate, first year, paralegal.

I was immediately confused by this system. The beauty of email is that everyone receives the message instantaneously. It shouldn’t matter whether the paralegal or senior associate is listed first or last, they will both receive the same email instantaneously.

My big firm friends, however, told stories of partners admonishing associates for straying from this paradigm. Rumor has it, partners have even criticized associates for “getting it wrong” in the blind carbon copy line—that’s right, no one can see the order, but it mattered. The paradigm, however, also presented philosophical conundrums. Where to place an “of counsel” or a non-tenure track fourth year in the ordering? Like any cast system, there is also room for subversion. One friend detailed her delight in emailing an opposing counsel and listing every junior associate before listing the annoying partner.

Apparently, this protocol is not limited to the legal profession. A friend in the finance industry explained that the system constituted “simple business etiquette.”  A quick search on the internets revealed that this system is in fact “a thing” and other people have written on the topic. Microsoft is even in on the game with a feature called the Hierarchical Address Book. Like Cher and Emma, I realized that I’ve been clueless.    

Problems with the system?

The problem, of course, is that once you’re aware of this system, you begin to look for hierarchies everywhere. Another friend admitted that she thinks about hierarchical ordering even when sending emails to friends, considering who has been a friend for longer. The system can even sour receipt of emails from other friends if the order is incorrect. Yet another friend reported chafing at a relative’s email when sisters were listed out of birth order

When I send an email to friends, I usually think of people in groups: “college friends,” “law school friends,” “work friends,” etc.  I hope I haven’t inadvertently been offending my friends and colleagues through my random free association method of emailing.  

If I’m trying to be generous, I can think of some non-ego driven reasons for the system. Perhaps it’s easier to ensure that you include all relevant parties on an email if you have a standard system for ordering email addressees.

In any event, now that I’m aware of this system, I don’t think I can return to my state of blissful ignorance. First, I don’t want to inadvertently commit a faux pas through my email ordering. Second, you can bet that I’ll be checking my inbox for the next week to see where I rank in email ordering. But I promise I will never ever complain to a junior colleague about my placement on an email.

(Image: Stones balance from stack of pebbles from Shutterstock)