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When inboxes attack: How to prioritize your legal emails

Email Storm

Q: I dread looking at my phone in the morning. Every day I am inundated with emails, usually from offices in an earlier time zone. The emails often contain random requests that don’t seem as if they would take much time, but they end up blowing up my mornings. Sometimes partners want me to find documents for them. Or people want status updates. I am a morning person, and I theoretically could do my best work in the morning, but I end up chasing down information. I try to get up earlier and earlier, but I can only get up so early. Help.

A: It sounds as if you are at risk of the proverbial death by a thousand paper cuts. Here are some thoughts on maintaining control in the morning.

  • Be selective. It sounds as if every email becomes your most important task every morning. Your reference to other time zones suggests that you may feel guilty about making people wait while you are sleeping. And you do want to be responsive. But you have to remember that other people will not know much about your projects, your deadlines, or how you had hoped to structure your day. Most people send emails as soon as they think about them, so they don’t forget the issue. They won’t wait until they think you are awake. But that does not mean they always expect an immediate response. When you check your phone, do not simply go down the list and respond in the order in which the emails appear. Take a few minutes to prioritize the ones that are critical.
  • Acknowledge promptly, act later. For the emails that are not urgent or not important, you can acknowledge them and specify a time that you will address the issue. Since you are a morning person, it may be best for you to deal with more mundane tasks later in the day.
  • Prioritize high-value legal work. You will learn more and advance faster if you prioritize high-value legal work. This is not always possible. And there are exceptions to every rule. If a senior partner who advocates for you asks you to hunt down a document, you may benefit from producing it pronto. But you cannot let yourself get bogged down with non-legal work – or work that does not provide much value to clients. If you need to focus and do writing in the morning, try getting up early, writing for a couple of hours and then checking your phone. Or check your phone first but respond to less important issues later in the day.  All of this can be easier said than done, but you need to keep your focus on the work that will help you grow and provides the most value.
  • Delegate what you can. Just because you get a request for a task does not mean that you have to do it. If another lawyer asks you to track down a document, consider whether you could ask the lawyer’s secretary to track it down and send it to you. Sometimes junior associates tell me they feel guilty about asking administrative personnel to do administrative work. But if you do not ask for help, administrative professionals may view it as a sign that you don’t trust them. The legal work you do generates revenue to pay the salaries of the professionals who support you. Delegate what you can.
  • Manage expectations. If you respond to every email, every morning within moments after you first open your eyes, you are sending a message. And the message is that people will always get a response from you about everything as soon as you wake up. By sending that message, you are likely to exacerbate the deluge. But if you tell people that you are doing your “deep work” in the mornings, and can address mundane tasks later in the day, they may find someone else to take care of the mundane tasks. And that might help you sleep at night.

Good luck!

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Grover E. Cleveland Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of "Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer" (West 2010). He specializes in programs to help millennial lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. he is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success for millennial lawyers at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions on his site or Twitter accounts. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. A second edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks will be published this fall. Submit anecdotes to be considered for inclusion here.