Saturday, 12 February 2011

It's your job to ignore thousands of e-mails

When the UK's satirical magazine Private Eye wants to refer my profession, they often use the phrase "a proven lawyer". And nothing proves a lawyer more convincingly than the desire to ensure all the loose ends are nicely tied up. It's almost a professional requirement to be a little OCD. Asking yourself "did I remember to lock the front door?" ten times on the bus to work is not really all that different from asking "did I cross reference sections 17.2(a), 9.1(b) and 4.3 with the Statement of Work in Schedule D?"

This mentality in every lawyer is the product of thousands of hours of painful training at the hands of what seem (at the time) like sadistic pedants. It takes an ocean of red ink scrawled across their work to get each lawyer to the point where attention to detail is second nature. By the time that humiliation is over, they're usually able to be rigorous in writing like nobody else, although it can leave them awfully unforgiving. My wife, an employment lawyer, thinks Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is an important reference work and that anyone who hasn't mastered the apostrophe is a simpleton who probably ought to be denied the vote. 

But this mentality is a burden when it comes to e-mails. Ah yes, e-mails. The expression "drinking from a fire hose" might have been invented to describe the feeling of managing your e-mails. Unless you devote all your time to it, which means endlessly studying the Blackberry in meetings, you can easily emerge from two hours doing something else to find there are 30 new messages waiting. All too soon, there are hundreds of messages in your inbox. 
As I write this late on a Friday, after 14 difficult hours at the office, I have 979 e-mails needing review over the weekend. That is iniquitous.

In a previous role, I was put on stage as part of a panel to answer questions from about 100 of the company's European legal team, a small slice of the 1,200 lawyers in that particular company. Someone asked me "How did you get promoted to your current role?" I answered "By ignoring thousands and thousands of e-mail requests". This mostly generated a look of disbelief, but it's actually true. 

A great employee crushes their boss's objectives. I say "crush" very deliberately and I mean objectives in the ordinary sense, not necessarily what's written on your annual objectives statement (although, if your company is well run, those too). That's what my boss wants from me and what I want from the people who work for me. If the true objective is "buy that company" or "protect our IP", we do the company a huge disservice if we then unilaterally decide to spend our time and expertise answering requests about contract employees in Portugal or the venue for the company's Christmas party.  


The e-mails you receive originate from people for whom the message is in some way important. You need to be respectful of that fact, but it doesn't mean the message is important for you or what you need to achieve. But, and this is the tricky bit, it can be. I was once sent an e-mail which said simply "We're thinking of opening an online store and selling direct to consumers. Are there any legal issues?"  In my elevator pitch on the role of Legal, I said "keep the business and its employees out of trouble". Unless you read messages like that one, it's easy to miss something and leave the company open to a lot of risk it isn't equipped for.

So, unfortunately, you do need to read all your e-mails. But you also need to be absolutely ruthless about what you do with them. The really important ones deserve to be turned into meetings or phone conferences, so the issues can be dealt with properly. 
Of course sometimes your response needs to recorded or there needs to be absolutely no ambiguity. Fine. But, in aggregate, most e-mails deserve to be filed or deleted without any action. At the end of the year, if I was lame enough to write "I answered all my e-mails" as an achievement for my appraisal, my boss would rightly respond "so what?" 

If the request concerns the contract for the company's coffee machines, the worst that can happen is you get bad coffee and have to change the machines (although @LegalBizzle asks me to qualify this - the legal team will have to spend a fortune in Starbucks). Be polite with the person who sent the request, but reach straight for the Delete button. The coffee machines are important to the staff in Indirect Sourcing (the artist formerly known as Purchasing). But not for you. Sometimes, the easiest response is to phone the sender and ask "What would you do if I wasn't here?" When they tell you, answer "Good idea. I'd do that then. Good luck." Try it and see what happens. I've been doing that for more than a decade with no noticeable ill-effects. In the meantime, I've got a lot of other things done. 


In practice, the critical thing is not to "plough" through your messages. You need to open each one and spend severals seconds thinking "what shall I do with this?" before you take any kind of action. It's important not to answer most of them, because sending replies only generates more traffic. That can create a game of chicken, with both sides determined not to be the first to give up, exhausted. 


With lawyers, I believe we're influenced by our views on the sanctity and importance of the written word. This distorts our behavior when it comes to e-mails. Yes it's in writing. No, that doesn't mean it's important in any way. Do not treat your e-mails with reverence and try to deal with all of them. If you do, you'll be unable to crush your boss's objectives. And if your boss's objectives are, as they should be, some part of the company's objectives, you'll be missing the main event.

So, the title of this blogpost is factually accurate. It really is your job to ignore thousands of e-mails. Perhaps you'll be thinking "That's all very well, but I could get fired for ignoring my messages". No, you won't be. You will make mistakes. I do. But if you are more ruthless about your e-mails, you'll spend more time on things that are really important. Overall, you'll do a better job.

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Sometime soon, we need to kick off a really big debate about how to link law firm billing to value. But, that needs some careful thought. Next time, I'm going to write on a subject for which I have no easy answers. The issue is overwork among lawyers, which seems to be endemic. The blogpost will be called "If you aren't in on Saturday, don't bother showing up on Sunday."

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