Email and the lawyer

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).


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by Danvers on 16 February 2011 at 12:54 am. #

Great post Laurie – I am a believer in inbox zero as well… nothing worse than having heaps of emails sitting in there.

One other thing which is worth knowing (in Outlook) is that from the Tools > Organise menu you can choose to colour code your emails. I have red if the message is sent to me (i.e. in the To:- line) and blue if I am CCd. Stuff which is sent to internal groups and mailing lists therefore stays black. Can be quite useful as guide to what to pick up first after a while out of the office.

You can also apply different font sizes etc. if you like.

by Jon Bloor on 16 February 2011 at 11:30 am. #

Yes great post.
I’m curious though how in private practice you manage to charge for client queries and emails. We often don’t charge as it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Many people don’t expect to be charged for all sorts of reasons, and the aggro that one person can give, is enough to not bother trying to charge for many things that we might otherwise charge for.
Also, we receive emails from all sorts of people, which are potentially enquiries for new work, but only a small percentage go further. It may sound cynical, but judging by the fact that many of these enquiries dry up as soon as prices and fees are discussed, I can only assume it is because people communicate with us, without any firm intention to engage legal services. But the reason I mention all this, is that my overall feeling is not at all dissimilar to in-house practice – except you have the complication of always needing to discuss fees/price, which draws you in and takes up time that you might otherwise not need to spend as an in-house lawyer. We survive by ‘processing’ initial enquiries that come off the web. We just don’t have the resources to give individual time and attention to trying to secure all the possible work . This is something I intend to raise discussion about as it’s a huge subject that’s often skirted over.

by Shireen Smith on 16 February 2011 at 4:12 pm. #

Hi Shireen – thanks for the comment.

I think every practice will be different on this. The vast majority of client emails I get will be on either existing matters (and therefore chargeable) or for ad hoc advice covered by a general retainer of some kind (and chargeable on that basis) – and I’m sure that will be common to many employment lawyers. Speculative enquiries with no previous dealings or charging arrangements in place are rare – which could be a strength but I suppose could also be a sign that we are not active enough in encouraging such enquiries.

by lanstis on 16 February 2011 at 7:33 pm. #

Great post! Do you really think a firm can become e-mail free. What about their clients? How will staff react as so many personal arrangements made via e-mail. Will this just lead to staff spending time logging on to personal accounts instead.
Watched the inboxzero on youtube and prompted me to purge my inbox as I listened so if nothing else sticks from it – thanks for that am feeling cleansed by that and did delete 20% of what was in there!
I aim to deal with anything that comes in withing 24 hours – obvioulsy not succeeding all the time! I find if it’s out of your screen view within 1 scroll, it is lost so try to stay on top but many things that don’t need action but are useful for reference or just there to be reminders to future action sit accumulating ready for a monthly (ish) purge.
I’m not a lawyer so different pressures but CEO of a new business so many many e-mails in different areas. We have offices in Australia so I’d be interested to hear other views of managing e-mail within time zones as I usually have to give Australia e-mails preference first thing so that there is a small window for response before they go for the day and after that theirs are usually left to the end of the day – when perhaps not the sharpest focus – as I know they won’t be around to respond.

by Jane Rae on 18 February 2011 at 4:08 pm. #

Thanks Jane

I think the Atos Origin idea is just referring to internal email – not external email with clients, suppliers etc. If we are just talking about internal email then it ought to be possible, but might be taking the point too far.

Jon Bloor has just blogged with more on his approach to “Inbox Zero” here:

by lanstis on 18 February 2011 at 4:19 pm. #

[…] Laurie Anstis also contributes to iPadLawyer and blogs at Work/Life/Law where he gives us The (in)complete list of UK employment law blogs. I really should set up e-mail rules as Laurie suggests in E-mail and the lawyer. […]

by UK Blawg Roundup #6: The Time Travel Edition – The past, present and future practice of law on 9 April 2011 at 1:04 am. #

Useful post – thank you.

If you receive a large number of cc mails, set up a new folder (called something like CC Mail) in your inbox. Then, using message rules, set up a rule that if your name appears in the CC line, it goes straight to the CC folder.

You can check this when it suits you, and it can remove a great deal of mail from your inbox. The advantage is it allows you to focus on those messages that require action from you i.e. your name is in the ‘To’ line.

by Rosie Gray on 21 April 2011 at 4:47 pm. #