In Part 1, we discussed how email, which can be such a great thing, can also cause so much dysfunction and inefficiency. In Part 2, we will discuss email procedures and protocols you can implement to begin to attack your Inbox.
Email Procedures and Protocols
First, a caveat: everyone’s situation is different. While many readers of this article are hungry for ideas to reduce their overwhelming stress, others will shrug their shoulders and say, “what stress?” Still others will scoff at many of the ideas set forth here with a “there is no way I could get away with that in my practice.” I understand that we are all different, with different demands and expectations. What one lawyer or staff member may be able to do might get another fired in another setting. The point is that for most lawyers, there is substantial stress and resulting inefficiency brought about by email overload, and some of these tips will be very beneficial. Adopt what works for you, and ignore the rest.
The first step in reducing your email overload problem and the associated stress it can cause has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with implementing some very simple and common sense procedures and protocols to reduce the amount of email you get and make it easier to handle.
- You need to take control of your email, and not let your email control you. Lawyers place all sorts of barriers between themselves and outside distractions. Telephone calls are often filtered through a receptionist and then again by a secretary or assistant. Incoming paper mail is typically filtered by a secretary or assistant before reaching the attorney’s desk. And, anyone wanting to meet in person has to make an appointment, or at least get past the receptionist before they are sitting in front of an attorney. Yet, every day many attorneys check their email every few minutes, ensuring constant disruption that can distract them from the important tasks they are currently working on, destroying their work efficiency. Certainly there are practices where constant monitoring of email is required, and every lawyer will have times when they are involved in negotiations, drafting a document with others, or doing other work where regularly monitoring email is required. But, for most attorneys, that is an exceptional situation, not an everyday occurrence. Check your email a few times during the day (2-8 times depending on your practice), process it as shown below, and then close your email (or at least turn off email notifications). This will reduce the distraction of constant incoming email, and allow you to use your LPMS and DMS/EMS tools to make you more efficient.
- With rare exceptions, email should not be used as an urgent communication medium. After all, your clients can’t rely on the fact that you are always in the office. What if you are in court when the urgent email comes in? Do you have a system set up to check your email when you are not available for a week, a day, or even an hour? If not, then it is important for you and your clients to understand that urgent issues need to be addressed personally or by telephone where it is more likely that you have some type of procedure in place to make sure you are contacted when an urgent need arises. It is up to you to make sure your clients’ expectations are set properly.
- As simple as it sounds, if you send less email, you get less email back. Before sending email to one or more persons, decide if a quick phone call would be a better way to communicate, and make sure to send the email only to those who truly need to see it. There is a tendency to send “copies” of an email to many others as a defensive strategy. While there are times that you need to bring others into the loop, remember that excessive use of the copy feature will result in you being copied more frequently, and bring you additional email that you have to handle.
- While there are obvious email messages that you have to respond to (e.g., inquiries from clients), don’t let your guilt get the best of you and make you feel that you have to respond to every email sent to you. Much of the email you receive is unsolicited and doesn’t require a response.
- If you have handled an issue by phone, don’t send an email unless you have a liability reason to do so. You are simply duplicating your work and adding one more email into the mix that might result in additional email coming back to you.
- Send one email per idea or issue, or aggregate all your ideas and issues into a single email. These two diametrically opposed strategies can both be good depending on the circumstances. On one hand, I’d rather get an email that discusses a single issue so that I can concentrate on that issue and take what steps need to be taken. Sending a single email that covers a number of subjects can make it more difficult to process. On the other hand, I’d rather not get 15 emails each time someone thinks about something they want me to know about. There is no right or wrong on this, just what the circumstances dictate.
- Use the “bulleted item list” method. If your email contains multiple issues or action items, bullet them in a list as people responding to your emails will typically do so in the order of the list. This makes the responses easier to follow.
- Use the “executive summary” method. If it is going to be a fairly lengthy email, list a quick and concise summary at the top of the email, bulleted as the previous suggestion points out.
- Separate your Internet distribution list and personal email from your business email. There are a number of ways to handle this – email rules, different email accounts, and different email user names are just a few methods. This will reduce the email in your Inbox to those emails you need to process as part of your practice.
- End email messages with “No Reply Needed” (NRN) where appropriate or insert FYI in the subject to indicate that it is for the recipient’s information and no action is anticipated.
- If you are getting email that you don’t want from someone you know (typically jokes, political commentary, and the occasional hoax), don’t hesitate to reply and ask that they stop sending you that type of email.
- Don’t use email for arguing, disciplining or similar situations where the inflection of your voice is needed in order for the recipient to fully understand the context of your comments. Many email “discussions” that result in dozens of email flying back and forth could have been resolved with a single phone call, saving time and hard feelings.
- Write professionally, but concisely. Don’t feel as if you have to write a legal brief each time you compose or reply to an email. But, “r u going 2 the bar mtg 2day? Thx!!!!” isn’t acceptable, especially if you are corresponding with a client or other attorney outside your office.
- Use the Delete key and get rid of email that you don’t need to keep. Be honest … if you don’t have to respond to it, and you most likely won’t need it in the future, delete it.
Not all of these ideas will work for everyone, but by simply changing the way you use email you can help reduce the amount of email that is sent to you.