by Laurie Anstis on February 15, 2011
Tim Bratton, Tom Kilroy and LegalBizzle all blogged on the same subject last week – the nature of prioritisation as an in-house lawyer and the fact that ultimately this means that some work will never get done, and some emails are either to be ignored or given a polite brush-off. Tom Kilroy put it at its strongest in the title of his blog post: “It’s your job to ignore thousands of emails“.
I started my legal career in an in-house role, and remember that even in those pre-email days much of the art of staying sane as an in-house lawyer was to politely decline to assist with a lot of the work that came your way (along with the many varied and interesting personal legal problems that colleagues would seek your advice about).
As a lawyer in private practice, I am in a different position. My firm is paid on the basis of responding to client instructions. No email from a client can be ignored, and it is only occasionally appropriate to suggest to a client that they might be better off just going ahead without my advice.
In the past I have prided myself on an “Inbox Zero” (YouTube link) approach. It certainly seems that I receiving many fewer emails than Tom Kilroy describes, but over the last few months I have been away from the office more and it has become harder to keep this up.
The difficulty has not been client emails, or even emails from opponents, but email that falls into the “other” category – internal email, newsletters, marketing material and everything else.
These are some of the ways in which I am trying to manage the email flow, and some suggestions for alternative ways of communicating.
First, I have set up three email rules:
1. Anything that I am copied in on goes straight out of the inbox into a “copy” folder,
2. Anything that goes to an email group of any kind goes into an “all” folder, and
3. Newsletters go into a “newsletter” folder.
These folders can be checked periodically during the day, but I don’t get any notification that the email has arrived, and it does not interrupt my work until I actually go and access the folder in question.
That takes account of many of the “other” emails, but there remain a number of (particularly internal) emails which remain in the inbox.
Many of these will be, in effect, conversations with and between my colleagues. It is great and necessary that these conversations go on – particularly as more and more people work remotely from the office – but I have always felt that some sort of instant messaging client would be best to handle that sort of thing. My experience has been that use of instant messaging is rare in legal practice (anyone using it?) Email is a particularly awkward medium for these conversations (for instance, when you come back from time away from the office to find a number of conversations whose significance expired within hours but which remain in your inbox) but in many cases it is the only option.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there will be some internal emails that require detailed consideration but that do not require an immediate response. Is it possible to set up some kind of intranet space for that sort of thing? Has anyone had any experience of that?
For many other purposes, particularly for collaborative work, something akin to Google Wave (RIP) would be appropriate. I always felt that Google Wave had great potential and was disappointed when it came to an end.
I was interested to read that at Atos Origin the volume of internal email is so large that they are aiming to move to be email free (for internal communications) within three years. This may be taking things too far – but I would be interested from hearing in the comments from other lawyers about how they are managing their email stream (or, using Tom Kilroy’s phrase, fire hose).