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Block Letters: Time Management for Lawyers, Part 2: Email Management

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In Part 1 of our series on time management, we outlined some basic solutions for improving efficiency.  In this second part of our series, we will focus on email management.
Email is the root of most of our time management issues.  The staggering volume of email we send and receive is debilitating.  Many of us make the choice to clear our inboxes during normal work hours, meaning that we are only able to squeeze in the bulk of our substantive work after hours.  Sometimes, it seems as if the rule of thumb is: ‘If you can say it in person, or over the phone, say it via email instead’.

Of course, we’re all guilty of emailing (and texting) too much; we’re addicted to its simplicity, and the low percentage of an alternative return response.  Everyone is now so busy, we crave faster response times (just to get it over with, so we can move on to the next project) — and, that often means a less personally connected interaction.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that telephone or in-person conversations are inconveniences, especially when compared to the relative compactness and neatness of a text or an email.  The problem, of course, with the core of that philosophy, is that we used to have space only for 3 or 4 large logs on the fire at any given time; now, we are burning down stacks and stacks of furze every day, and smoking ourselves out over it.
If you can effectively manage your email, you are far more likely to be able to effectively manage your time, simply because your email takes up so much of your time.  Clearing time away from your inbox almost always means that you have more time to complete substantive work.

The following are some of our top email management tips:

Mission Critical Inbox.  In the first instance, you’ll want at least two inboxes: one for your personal stuff, and another for your work stuff.  But, even if you set that up, and make the best attempt to segregate your personal email from your work email, you likely still won’t be able to create a couple of completely separate buckets.  There will be some bleed, especially as your career progresses, and clients become friends, and friends become clients.  It’s not the end of the world, so long as you monitor and arrest (where necessary) the creep.  The totality of this goal is mostly aspirational; and, if you’re aspired at a level of about 95%, then that’s pretty darn good.  What you’re mostly interested in will be making coherent and consistent choices to proffer the work email contact for business contacts, to funnel work email from your personal inbox, to send work-related emails only from your work inbox and (most importantly) to regularly address only those items that are mission critical to your processes through your work inbox.  That last acquired action is essential, because there is so much detritus passing through our inboxes each day.  That means, then, that you will come at two clear decision criteria, when analyzing your email: where it should go, and when you should handle it.  You’ll determine, first, whether it is a work-related email; you’ll decide next whether it is ‘mission critical’.  The meaning of ‘mission critical’ is probably best defined in the negative.  So, what’s not mission critical?  What can you peruse on your own time, without affecting the representation of client?  Bar association notifications.  Listserv aggregations.  eNewsletters. What you do with those sorts of emails is answered later on.

Put Off Notice.  In our last post in this series, we argued for blocking time, to avoid interruptions, since interruptions take us off-task.  If you can avoid or eliminate multitasking, you should be able to significantly increase your level of concentration and, therefore, efficiency.  One of the more commonplace work-related distractions is email notifications.  If that pop-up pops up, you’re likely to click on it, and to open the incoming message; and, whether or not you respond, you are already off-task — and then, it’s anyone’s guess whether, if ever, you get back on.  Fortunately, there’s an easy solution to this problem: Turn off your email notifications.  Here’s how to do it in Outlook; and, here’s how to do it in GmailHere’s how to Google it, if you use another email system.

Task Management.  Also in our last post in this collection, we addressed the concept of ‘OHIO’ = ‘only handle it once’.  The process for applying OHIO works particularly well with email, where it’s very easy to delete a message, to act on it (respond) or to delegate (forward) or postpone it (create a task/flag it).  A solution like OHIO was invented for email, and is, for many people, the one (set of) rule(s) that rules them all; if you can apply OHIO effectively to your email, everything else you do in your inbox becomes easier, and you’re freed up to do more outside of your inbox, which is really where we all want to be.

Grand Old Flag(s).  Not that there is a ‘one size fits all’ method for email management; neither is there some unwritten rule that you can’t graft different strategies onto each other, like some web-based Dr. Moreau.  If you’re into color-coding, you can apply flags to your emails, to designate some order of importance/for processing.  Most email systems have some sort of flagging feature in play (GMail has stars, too), even if those are not as overt as Outlook’s.  The use of flags may not offer as definitive, or as cut and dry, an approach as OHIO; but, flags do allow you to organize your inbox, and provide some level of order to your making of responses; and, that intentional management of your email should buy you some time back.

Below the Fold-er.  One of the big problems in allowing your email to stack up is that, as it was with newspapers in days of yore, you always want to be ‘above the fold’.  Once an email makes its way below your screen view, you’re far less likely to act on it promptly, if you ever act on it.  So, much of what has been addressed above is really a recitation of ways to keep your email from piling up in your inbox.  But, there are also ways to keep your email out of your inbox entirely, while still archiving it, for review.  You can create subfolders (in Outlook, in Gmail they’re ‘labels’) in which you will place certain types of email.  Remember those bar association notifications, and listerv aggregations, and eNewsletters, that are not critical to your practice . . . you can create subfolders to store those emails by category, for review on your time.  Then, you’re not getting notices for generic emails, and tying up your inbox with matters that are not pressing — and, potentially, not relevant at all.  Many attorneys use a combination of subfolders and labels to create an ad hoc case manager out of their email platforms; but, that is not optimal.  A service like Credenza will offer an improved architecture in the Outlook space, and law practice management software, generally, is a more robust solution.

Royals.  If you establish subfolders, you can then automate the placement of emails into those subfolders by establishing rules.  If you apply rules linked to certain types of messages, those emails will bypass your inbox altogether; and, you avoid the additional step of having to transfer those emails, one by one, on your own.  (GMail’s priority inbox embeds some of this functionality, with its tab for ‘Promotions’.)  Much of the story of effective time management is told through the elimination of unnecessary or repetitive steps, which is why using a second monitor or splitting screens is such a tremendous time saver — think of how many times you open and close windows throughout the day.

Johns Hancock.  Most lawyers use email signatures for footers, and little else.  However, there are other, broader uses for signatures, which can be worked up into full-blown email templates.  If you find that you’re sending the same message over and over again, in specific instances, then create a template right out of your email, and apply it when necessary.  You can do the same thing for common paragraphs or clauses, in order to get you a head start on manufacturing larger emails.  Having the ability to automate certain responses, or portions of responses, via your email, is especially useful for solos with limited budgets (don’t want to pay for document automation tools), and without support staff (who would, otherwise, send administrative emails).

The Ringing Bells.  The efficacy of email is anchored to its immediacy.  That is the chief reason why people prefer it to letters, faxes and phone calls.  When you send it, it’s pretty much received.  You don’t need a read receipt to know that.  There has (not simultaneously, but over the course of time) also grown up this notion that not only should the receipt of email be nearly instantaneous, but so should the reply.  This is why some people call you if you haven’t responded to an email in over 24 hours — because they were expecting to have heard by now.  The clear impulse, of course, it to reply to an email when it is received, when you receive the email notification — that was a trick question, you were supposed to turn those off!  Therefore, this is not necessarily an unwarranted expectation that has been built up in the mind of the sender; most often replies are quite nearly instantaneous — or, at least, returned within that one-day framework.  This is all a matter of training.  Quick email plies (not a word, in this sense, but it should be) and replies, fed by the societal push for urgent business action, represent one of the drops of a monsoon embattling our productivity.  Certainly, you won’t recondition everyone.  However, you can set clear limits with your colleagues and, especially, with your clients.  It’s alright to inform people that you maintain certain windows, during which you reply to emails.  It’s okay to tell people that you prefer alternate media contacts, like the telephone, for those seeking to get in touch with you directly, or urgently.  If you’re having these conversations with a client, you can include your parameters in an engagement agreement.  But, most importantly, you’ve got to stick to your rules, if you expect your clients and colleagues to do so.  If you say you’re not going to answer emails at 3 am: don’t.  If you say you will return phone calls within 24 hours: do.  Conditioning your clients and colleagues to respect your contact preferences (and, really what you’re doing is not offering them a choice to construct their own, in relation to you) rests on your ability to consistently apply your order.  Most email is not urgent; you’ve just got to believe it’s true.

CATEGORIES: Client Relations | Law Firm Management | Lawyer's Quality of Life | Planning | Productivity | Technology
TAGS: email / inbox

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