Coherently Reporting Research In Emails

Garner's On Words series in the ABA Journal is very useful. Each month, he offers great tips for better legal writing.

Garner's September post is about coherently reporting research in emails. As noted, "[i]n the rushed exigency of modern law practice, with the expectation of nearly immediate responses to all manner of queries, emails are overtaking formal memos as the standard method for communicating research to senior colleagues and to clients."

As Garner mentions, email is often seen as a more informal means of communication, which means that many emails are rushed and may lead to more questions than answers.

He advises that "[b]efore hitting 'send,' step back and ask yourself exactly how clear you’re being. Avoid answering in a way that is sure to beget further queries. You might be well-advised to make your summary at least as clear as it should be in a formal memo."

To paraphrase Garner, this means instead of replying to a research question directly, you may want to lay it out fully in an email with a question presented and brief answer. After all, research queries are often put aside until needed, so it may be awhile before the email is read for comprehension. This could lead to frustration of having to sift through a long email exchange to fully understand the final answer.

While this advice is generally useful for associates and attorneys reporting research to senior counsel or clients, it resonated with me (a law librarian) because I often get research queries from law students in emails. I usually restate the question as I understand it (sometimes law students have a difficult time articulating exactly what they need), and I lead the student through my research process, as well as the final answer. The research process is important for law students because any research query from a student should be seen as a teaching moment so that they can effectively perform their own research. Although I make sure to include all of this information in a response to a student-research query, I could do a better job of organizing the information according to Garner's advice.

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