Your Email is Slowly (but Surely) Killing your Legal Career

Email – Hijacking your Agenda since 1971

You know this already – you just probably haven’t said it out aloud.

“Did you get my email”?

“I get too much email – I can’t deal with it all”

“I need to get through my emails first”

“I’ve got to answer this email urgently”

It Sounds Familiar, Because it Is

Email is a wonderful thing – it allows us to send messages, for free (basically), to anyone we want, anywhere in the world, and it will arrive in next to no time.

Like many things in life, however, too much of a good thing, becomes very very bad.

The ability to instantly communicate offers lawyers a number of problems, both from a perspective of outgoing communication, and from the aspect of our client care when they send emails to us.

First Career Killer – Time Wasting

“Checking your email” is not productive.  It doesn’t mean “answering emails” and it doesn’t mean “sending emails” – it means “I’m just flicking up and down my inbox to make sure I haven’t missed anything, not because I want to action it, just because I need to know what’s going on”.

See the difference?

And wasting time is a massive, massive career killer.

First, you’ll get less done – that should be a no brainer.

Next, you’ll not be able to record your time accurately, because you actually haven’t done anything in that time specific to a person or a task.  In essence – it’s lost time.

Finally, you’re not serving any clients by “checking your email”.

Let’s leave “checking our email” where it belongs – back in the days of dial-up, where a 15 minute process was required to dial up, log on and actually check your email.

Unless that’s still you – disappear the habit from your legal practice.

Second Career Killer – Avoiding Telephone Calls

With the joy of instant communication comes inherent laziness.  Instead of calling a client and having an actual discussion with them, we send an email instead.

Why?  Because it’s non-confrontational.  It means we don’t need to answer questions (yet), and we can control the timing of our next encounter.

Which, if you think about it, is also a bit gutless.

But a bigger issue than feeding our fears is that email is a very poor vessel for developing relationships.

And as a lawyer, developing relationships with clients is almost your number 1 priority.  Obviously delivering quality work is pretty important too (duh), but the opportunities you get from having a telephone discussion with your client in terms of furthering the relationship are far more significant than the potential negatives.

Making telephone calls to clients also helps you peripherally in that it takes you outside your comfort zone – which is usually a good thing.

Third Career Killer – Losing Focus

“You’ve got mail”

What was once a delightful reminder that people wanted to get your attention has become, over the last few years, a terrible noose around your neck.  Because while getting email was fun for a time (and possibly still is for some of you) it is not conducive to work being done.

You simply cannot focus if your attention is constantly drawn away from what you are doing (that’s kind of the opposite of focus) – and that is precisely what emails do – they call your focus away from what you are doing.

As I write this article I’m at home – and I can tell you that it has taken me 3 times as long, simply by virtue of the fact that my attention has been called away multiple times.  Had I just sat down and written it, I’d be done faster, and probably with greater cohesion – but as it is each time I hit the keyboard I need to remember where I”m up to, and where I was headed with the most recent thought.  At best it’s tedious, and at worst it produces an inferior product (I’m sure someone will email me and tell me if it’s the latter).

Fourth Career Killer – Your Agenda Is Not your Own

No matter who it is that has sent you an email asking you to do something, think about something or consider something – they all have something in common: the task they want you to do is, in their mind, the most urgent and important task of the day.

But it probably isn’t for you.  But the calls, emails and constant pull of other people’s agendas has a tendency to get you off what you believe is important, and into what they believe is important.

As a result you never get done what you know has to be done.  You are always dancing from one urgent task to another, rather than having time and proper focus to consider and implement those many things you know are hugely important, but always seem to fall off the list.

In short: email hijacks your agenda.

Just think about the last week of work – how many times did you go into work wanting to accomplish thing X, only to find emails that called you away to things A, B and C – resulting in X not being done properly, or at all?

Well that’s myopic.  Trust me I know the pull of the “urgent” task (rarely as urgent as the requester thinks), and sometimes you have to do it.  But I strongly urge you to put up as many barriers as possible to this occurring, and ensure that you are creating your own agenda, based on what you actually need to accomplish in the day.

How can we Fix How we Use Email?

It’s pretty simple to solve these issues to be honest, but it involves some decisions that you might not be prepared to make.  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Don’t load up your emails until at least 30 minutes into your work day – this gives you an important period in which to accomplish at least some of the important tasks that will be waylaid as soon as you see what’s waiting for you in your inbox;
  2. Before sending any email to any client, ever – consider picking up the phone and calling them.  You can always send the email later as a “confirmation” if you need to, but get in the habit of making calls rather than sending emails;
  3. Turn off your email notifications – that way you check them only when you want.  This will allow you to focus on the task at hand;
  4. Practice using the phrase “I haven’t looked at it yet” or similar.  In essence, find a way of telling people that just because they sent you an email, doesn’t mean you have read it, and doesn’t mean that you have an answer to their question;
  5. When the time comes to check emails, don’t just “check” the email – read it, action it, then move on.  You’ll capture more billable time, get more things done, and not lose focus in the process.

Got any other tips for managing your email?  Let me know in the comments – every little bit helps!

Happy Lawyering!

  • #5 is the biggest one. I never open an email unless I’m prepared to completely deal with it and move on. If you read, and say “I’ll deal with it later” you’re then in a situation where you read it later to deal with it. This means you’ll have read the email twice, which amounts to wasting time.

    Another big one I would add is to not deal with emails individually. Say you have three emails from a client in your inbox (which happens all the time). Read them all, archive them all, and then send a consolidated response. That will prove to be much more time efficient and reduces back and forth with the client.

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