Following the Rules of Email Hierarchy

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)


  1. Avatar Dan says:

    It’s not just in law. You see this in all sorts of fields.

    My embassy does a similar thing, though protocol dictates our order is a bit different and not perfectly analagous to a law firm. We go Ambassador (always first, without exception), Deputy Chief of Mission, anyone of deputy assistant secretary level or higher, office chiefs, deputy office chiefs, section chiefs, junior officers. Admin assistance/office management specialists go in the CC line, by order of seniority of the most senior person in that office.

    The military is like this too — you’ll start from the highest rank and work downward, except in some cases where certain units are intended to be commanded by an officer of either 1 rank higher than usual (e.g. a regiment/brigade is normally commanded by a Colonel, but certain ones will be commanded by a 1-star general.) I have no idea what happens in those scenarios but I’m sure there’s a rule for it.

  2. Avatar Jayne says:

    This is sad in its ultra pettiness, but not surprising. Years ago I recall the “committee” that was formed to decide the fate of the firm’s letterhead – to list or not to list partners. After 50 partners on the letterhead it was looking ridiculous. Still, the fight for that right to have your name on the letterhead became a battle of extreme proportions and befuddled me, their marketing director who simply wanted to give the firm a more contemporary brand. I learned that tradition is strong in law and lawyers have fragile egos. Clients could care less.

  3. Avatar Em says:

    Saw this linked on Corporette and had to see what it was all about. This is a completely foreign idea to me. In my industry, we’ll put necessary recipients in the To: line (person who asked a question/requested a file, and anyone with action items in the body text), and anyone for whom it’s information only goes in CC.

  4. Avatar Lawyer says:

    This is not news. Memos were typed years ago, and they had a “To” line, and recipients were put in the “to” line in hierarchical order. That’s how the business of law works, and I’m pretty sure it’s how most businesses work.

  5. Avatar C says:

    Same in my industry -finance- and I have a legal background. I don’t like following the protocol, so I list everyone according to their last name, in alphabetical order, A to Z.

  6. Avatar Lawyer says:

    Quite common. At a law firm, you “look at the letterhead,” at least back in the day when everyone’s name fit.

    BTW, it’s “caste.” Typos don’t go over well either.

  7. Avatar Ekaterin Nile says:

    The letterhead doesn’t correspond to the “To:” line in an email. It’s the opposite. The letterhead identifies the source of the correspondence, not the recipient.

  8. Avatar Mr. Neuron says:

    It’s very silly.

    Also, it’s “caste”, not “cast” system.

  9. Avatar Joe says:

    I believe we’ve gone over the edge with absurdity. Email is suppose to be a quick, easy method to disseminate or receive information. Anyone have any carbon paper?

    • Avatar sam says:

      Exactly! I recieved a very angry email from someone saying why I put the maintenance team before the PR team and my reply was that because he is more concerned into the subject and has been more helpful than the PR ever has!!

  10. Avatar James Li says:

    I generally put everyone in alphabetical order, which also has the added benefit of more easily seeing if I’ve left someone off by mistake. Fortunately, no one at my law firm was ever petty enough to complain about this.

  11. Avatar M says:

    It’s a sign of respect. We do lots of things for the sake of formality and respect. This is another, and it’s really not a big deal.

    To those of you who’d never thought of it before this article– what do you do when you address an email to multiple people? I just put the email addresses in the same order as the names in the opening line.

    Sally Smith is a partner. John Jones is an associate, and Bob Brown is a paralegal. I would begin an email to them in this order:

    (Going outside the office)
    Dear Ms. Smith, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Brown:
    Blah blah business blahdy blah blah.

    (Inside the office)
    Sally, John, and Bob:
    Blah blah business blahdy blah blah.

    Far more awkward for me: within the office, some senior partners are called “Mr. Lastname” white others are called “Firstname” just like everyone below them. Emails and conversations get trickier when both are included.

  12. Avatar ALT says:

    what if we have two person with same position.Then how to decide who comes first.?

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