Checking Email – Email Rules

ABAJournal.com reports on a law associate who was reprimanded by a senior partner for failure to check his email.

… He didn’t check his e-mail.

As a result, he missed a senior partner’s instruction that he should send out a draft document for client review before calling it a day. Partner A. William Urquhart notes the mistake in an e-mail he sent the next morning to firm attorneys, which is reprinted in Above the Law, and exhorts the troops to pick up the pace as far as electronic message review is concerned.

Lawyers should be checking their e-mail hourly, unless they have a very good excuse for not doing so, Urquhart says, such as being in court, in a tunnel or asleep.

“One of the last things you should do before you retire for the night is to check your e-mail. That is why we give you BlackBerries,” he writes.

I’m not in a position to opine on whether the senior partner was correct in reprimanding the associate (although he could and should have done so privately rather than using it as a “teaching moment” for the entire firm and using the associate’s name.) I am aware that this is a price associates pay at many firms for the salary they receive.

I am hopeful, however, that paralegals can avoid similar demands. At the very least, paralegals should talk frankly with their attorneys about such expectations and make it clear that there are limits to the extent to which the office can reach into non-office hours.

In general even at the office, email and email checking have to be controled and managed lest it become an overwhelming source of stress, distraction and wasted time. Even if you must check email at regular intervals, you need not read every email or respond to everyone you read at each check interval.

Establish what the attorney’s expectation are and then establish rules for meeting those expectations while managing all emails not related to those expectations. 

Many email programs have a “Rules” function even if it’s called something else. Since the most popular program is Outlook, I’ll focus on it.  The goal is to immediately move all email other than that which requires your immediate attention out of the “Inbox.”  Since we don’t want it in the “Inbox,” we need to create a place for it to go. The good news is we can create several such places.

In Outlook 2003, for example, click on “Inbox,” so that it is “selected,” i.e., highlighted.  Then click on “File” in the toolbar. This will bring up a menu that includes “New Folder.” Click on “New Folder.”  You can name this folder whatever makes sense to you. Are many of your “I don’t need to deal with this now” emails from the paralegal down the hall? Name the folder after that paralegal.  Or simply name it “24 hours” indicating you will deal with the email within the next day.  You can have other folder for other people or other folders indicating the relative importance of the email.

Now we get to the fun part. You can, and should, create Rules that govern your email.  In the “Tools” menu  click “Rules and Alerts.” Now you can create a rule governing how your email will work.  All emails from particular persons or with particular subjects can be directed never to enter your “Inbox” at all! You can read them and respond to them when you want and if you want.   You can create a rule directing emails to your “Junk Mail” folder, but be careful with this one. Establish regular intervals for checking the “Junk Mail” folder to be sure only junk is going there.

You even have choices on email that is important. For example, every email I sent my paralegals was, of course, important. I expect each one to be read and, if appropriate, to engender a response.  However, my paralegals chose how to deal with that expectation. My emails can go directly to the “Inbox” with an alert announcing their arrival, or they can go to a folder with my name – a clear indication of just how important they are.

Then there are emails in the middle. Now that offices run on email communications, it is often necessary to communicate by email. But you don’t have to communicate with the sender every time they chose to communicate with you. If you create a folder and rule for each sender with whom you want to communicate regularly, you can check that folder periodically. Outlook lets you know how many new messages you have from that sender.

If you create folders and rules for emails from people you want or need to communicate, you need to let them know. For this communication personal contact is better than email. Before you speak to them, figure out what will work for you. If you are going to check their folders when you start the day, at 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and at the end of the day, let them know what you are doing and why.

It’s best not to make this personal. Discuss it with your attorney first. Then let each person know you are establishing these rules for everyone so you can control your day.  While they may not like the fact that they will not receive immediate attention, they will at least know why they are not receiving immediate attention. Be prepared though, for them to do the same. They may decide to create a folder for you and only check it at times that makes sense in their day.  That’s O.K. The more people doing this in your office, the better it will work.

If you work with this for awhile, you’ll discover more ways to control your email. In fact, many of the concepts used to control email can be used to control other interruptions.

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