Earlier this week Bitter Lawyer published an article about salutations. Technically, the article was about valedictions, or the closing clause in an e-mail. Many commenters asked what they should be using, since the author argued against most of the common sign-offs. Unfortunately, The Atlantic Wire’s Guide to Advanced Digital Etiquette is useless on this issue. In my opinion, the answer is the same as it is for any legal question: it depends. You could take a formal approach, a satirical approach, or my favorite, the minimalist approach. But don’t use the same valediction all the time. It’s boring. And your standard automatic signature for one day may be totally inappropriate for another day.
A local attorney I work with signs all of his e-mails:
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.
This epitomizes the formalist. The formal signature is not necessarily sincere, but it is traditional. It speaks of an older age. Of ink letters and envelopes sealed with wax. It could never be misinterpreted as disrespectful or dismissive. Although using the same one every time could lead others to assume that you’re not paying much attention to the flow of the e-mail.
The risk you run with a formal signature is that you look stiff and possibly dated. If you’re sending something to a superior or a judge, I could see using this approach. But in communications with a peer, I try to avoid the formalist approach.
Last week I sent out a notice of appeal to opposing counsel. I assumed they would be less than pleased to receive it. So when I sent counsel a digital copy of the notice I signed it “warm regards.” There are few joys in sending service to opposing counsel, but this tiny bit of snark did provide a bit of enjoyment. To me at least. Obviously I don’t do this every day. But when I’m sending something to opposing counsel and I know them, sometimes I like to make the e-mail that much more enjoyable. I do it occasionally with counsel I don’t know very well, but only if they’ve been completely ridiculous previously. For example, senior lawyers that have an attitude usually get this kind of sign off.
This option is risky if not done properly. If you sign off with something ridiculous, it’s probably going to come back and bite you later. Imagine an e-mail with some disrespectful signature getting forwarded to another attorney. Or being shown to a judge. For that reason I think it’s a good idea to keep these kinds of signatures to a minimum, and only use them when it’s possible to disguise your true intentions.
The minimalist signature is no signature at all. There is no valediction or witty saying. The minimalist just closes the e-mail with her name.
— Jane Doe
This signature is appealing for several reasons. First of all, it’s easy. You don’t have to worry about what to write. It saves time and space, which is also nice. The more time we spend reading e-mails on our phones, the less time we want to spend scrolling. But this signature is also risky. It could easily imply curtness, which could imply that the person sending the e-mail is somehow angry, upset, or dissatisfied with the recipient.
Reading that last sentence probably made you think I’m crazy. But I’m not. Or at least not on this issue. Ninety percent of the time, people assume they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of the e-mail. But they’ve only hit the proverbial nail on the head half the time, as Sybil pointed out last year. We’re all guilty of this. In fact, I used to read an incorrect tone into most of Sam’s e-mails when I first started writing for Lawyerist. Now I know he just prefers short e-mails.
Which brings us back to the minimalist signature. This is my new personal choice. Unless I’m sending something to a judge or a superior and want to show some extra respect, I just put my name. It may be a bit risky, but I don’t think it’s that risky.
Whether this works for you is, obviously, up to you. It may also be the one that suits you best. If you’re a minimalist you already know it. I say go for it. People will get used to your style. In the beginning, just keep an eye out for snarky responses, and make sure to nip any negative inferences in the bud as soon as possible.
How do you sign your e-mails? Let’s hear in the comments.
(photo: A SIGNATURE from Shutterstock)