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Brevity Is the Soul of Email Signatures

If I offered you a free means of advertising your name, profession and contact information every time you sent an email, would you leap at the chance? Surprisingly, many lawyers don’t.

I’m referring to the email signature—an electronic version of your business card that you can attach automatically at the end of an email message. It’s a neat and tidy way of letting everyone know your name, your firm, your contact information and anything else you care to add—every time you send an email message. Many lawyers still send emails without an automatic email signature. At best, this is a waste of an opportunity. At worst, it’s downright inconvenient to your contacts.

Large firms set up email signatures for everyone in the firm, with rules for their usage. In that situation, the IT Department wants something technologically simple that will arrived unscathed in the recipients’ mailboxes, the Marketing Department wants something that reinforces the firm’s brand, and the lawyers run the gamut from wanting to include their life story to being completely unaware that they have an email signature. (“Who cares? I’m on my handheld all day anyhow.”)

So how do you arrive at rules for usage? Let’s deal with visual aspects first. Given that you have no control over how your recipients set their computers to receive email (plain text? HTML? Rich Text Format?), the simpler your signature, the more chance it has of being received in a readable state. I took a decidedly unscientific poll of my colleagues on the LMA Toronto Chapter Board: their pet hate is the email signature that’s set up as an image block and arrives in your inbox looking like an attachment. A similarly unscientific poll of the talented writers and editors in our local TorMentors Group revealed a loathing for names in ornate script—especially when the signature arrives looking like computer code. (TorMentors? No, we don’t torment, we mentor each other, in Toronto.)

As tempting as it is to dress up an email signature (Logos! Colours! Wingdings! Photos! V-cards!), such temptation should be resisted. A plain text email signature that arrives looking exactly as it did when it left the sender’s computer is worth a great deal more than broken links that require you to download pictures. What’s wrong with colour? Nothing, as long as it’s your firm colour and it’s used judiciously. And if you don’t mind that half your recipients won’t see it because their companies set their email to receive in plain text.

Now let’s talk about content. What MUST be in an email signature? At minimum, your name, your firm’s name, your phone number, and your email address. Yes, your email address. You may wonder why: it will be at the top of the message, won’t it? Not necessarily; your message may be forwarded with the message header stripped out.

OK, what about postal address? These days, any further information can be provided by a link to your firm’s website. Most recipients will respond by email, not snail mail. Ditto for fax numbers. Yes, I know there are practices where the fax still hums day and night, but I’d much rather sign, scan, and send a PDF that looks like the document, rather than a fuzzy fax.

So what about including your practice area, or special qualifications? Lots of room for discussion here. I’ve sat through heated debates in large firms where certain practice groups or individual lawyers are at odds with the firm’s strategy. Let’s say the firm wants to present itself as one unified entity from sea to shining sea. Doesn’t matter where an individual lawyer is located—the firm is nation-wide. In fact, there’s a highly specialized group within the firm whose target market is completely local. They don’t take kindly to being told they can’t put their practice area or their location in their email signature.

Mid-sized and smaller firms may find it easier to grant their lawyers more choice. For example, if you’re one of very few certified specialists in your practice area, why not include that in your email signature? However, a proliferation of different information on each signature runs the risk of diluting the firm’s brand just as much as a proliferation of non-firm colours.

Should you include cell phone numbers in email signatures? If you’re on the road all the time, you may want to be reached by cell phone. However, if you won’t be in a position to take cell phone calls, don’t give out your cell number. Just remember to check frequently for messages—and return the calls.

And then there are the quotes and the taglines. Don’t be tempted to expound your personal beliefs in your business email signature; you’re sure to offend someone. If you can find a short, pithy saying that supports your practice, that’s another matter. Toronto litigator Simon Schneiderman favours a line from Demosthenes: “Good fortune can be ruined without good counsel”. Taglines can come back to haunt you: their message may be at odds with the content of your message. Let’s say your firm’s tagline is something like: “Your success is our business” and you have an aggressive litigation practice. The recipient of an email message outlining how your firm intends to sue the pants off his company may fail to appreciate the irony of your tagline!

Email signatures can be extremely useful for disseminating important messages like a change of name or address. Make sure the message is important—to recipients. You may be very proud that you’ve just been elected head of your practice group, but clients don’t care. If you use your signature for temporary messages, ensure that someone has the job of monitoring the changeover from one signature to another.

What about links to social media? If you’re active on LinkedIn or a blog, a link to them from your email signature can help drive traffic to them. But a row of icons, all in different colours, all competing for the reader’s attention? Too distracting.

My Pet Peeves

  • Scrolling. Don’t make me go down there! If your email signature occupies more screen real estate than your message, something’s amiss. Set up your signature to read horizontally: put your phone and email address on one line.
  • No signatures on replies and forwards. Reading through a long string of emails is irritating enough without having to scroll down to the bottom for the sender’s contact information! If you don’t want to repeat all information, set up a shorter email signature for replies and forwards.
  • Lengthy disclaimers. Believe it or not, some firms append 12-pt disclaimers in ALL CAPS in both English and French.  Edit your disclaimer and use a small font!

Good Rules of Thumb

  • Keep it short! I keep mine to three lines.
  • The average email window can accommodate 50-80 characters across. Operative word: across.
  • Use common web fonts that are legible at a small size.
  • Set up an email signature on your handheld device.
  • Send test emails to see what your signature looks like at different settings.

The bottom line with email signatures is that communication should trump marketing. Don’t let the bells and whistles obscure the main message: your name, your firm’s name, and your contact information.

Does anyone out there have any other pet peeves and rules of thumb?

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