Tag Archives: e-mail

Is E-mail Outdated? A Law Firm’s 2014 Guide To Best E-Mail (& Productivity) Practices

Remember study hall in school? Wouldn’t it be nice to have one hour every day in the workweek to devote to “homework”—that is, to complete all those deliverables and other documents you couldn’t quite finish between case status meetings and conference calls.

Reading and answering e-mail takes up approximately 28 percent of the average workweek for employees, reports a 2012 study by McKinsey & Company. Communicating and collaborating internally takes up 14 percent of the workweek, and searching and gathering information just 19 percent.

That means, the time that’s left for role-specific tasks—the tasks your employees were actually hired to perform, for which your employees were trained—take up only about a third (39 percent) of the average workweek.

So why does coordinating effort between employees and communication take up so much time and dry up so much productivity?

In many ways, e-mail has transformed menial labor into a performance-eating monster.

E-mail, once a more efficient way of communicating from your law firm in New York to its client in Shanghai, has now become the most abused way of communicating from your law office on Floor 1 to its counterparts on Floor 2.

What’s the solution for this time-sucking glut of a technology? Some experts are calling for a total elimination of the culprit.

Is e-mail over?

Recently in an article with Wired Magazine’s Marcus Wohlsen, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz admitted he had trouble keeping up with the 180 employees he oversaw.

“I would spend weeks collecting information about the state of the world,” explained Moskovitz.

“And by the end, it would be a couple weeks out of date.”

The world has come a long way in terms of digital communication—Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates, Instagram photo posts. Moskovitz left Facebook to establish a single application to combine project management with a communications system. He co-founded such a technology with Justin Rosenstein in their San Francisco start-up company Asana.

Although both Asana founders still use e-mail, “Rosenstein says that, with Asana, he needs just 15 minutes a day to get through the email that needs his attention. The rest of his time, he says, he can devote to real work,” writes Wohlsen in his article for Wired.

“All the email and meetings, all that work about work, all this soul-sucking effort, is not real work. It’s a distraction,” Rosenstein says.

“If we can get rid of that distraction so we can actually get some work done, that just totally opens the doors.”

It may be a couple of years before Asana’s product reaches law firm doors. And, who knows if a new communications platform will ever—in our lifetime—replace the golden standard of e-mail.

Nevertheless, it’s time to stop wasting billable hours on inefficient e-mail habits. Come up with a friendly and effective e-mail guidance policy. One with rules such as:

  • E-mail across U.S. states or national borders, not walls
  • Never use “reply-all”
  • Face time with firm partners goes farther than Facebooking
  • Monday mornings are a firm-wide e-mail blackout. Whatever needs to be said should be conducted in-person or on the phone

Perhaps it’s time law firms and businesses reinstate the school study hall. Choose an hour, an afternoon, or a day to black-out technology and write-in work. A meeting-less morning, a conference-call free afternoon, or e-mail-less day goes a long way in productivity for the firm and project deliverables for your clients.

E-mail is not dead yet, but innovative time-management ideas for your employees might be the next best thing.

Still got a lot on your plate? Read C4CM’s guide: Effective Time Management: Take Control, Tackle Work Flow Chaos and Overcome Productivity Challenges.

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Killing The Hydra: E-mail Responsiveness Rears Its Ugly Heads

Remember when audio CDs and portable CD players first came out?

In the 1970s, being able to play Michael Jackson on a compact disc was an amazing accomplishment. Until, that is, the following decade when people started to carry on their shoulders large boom boxes blaring Madonna and Daft Punk in public places.

Remember when the mobile phone became accessible to the masses?

This century, men and women could finally abandon those rolls of dimes, quarters, and other phone-booth change. Today, people call their friends anytime from a phone that fits in their pocket, which is why movie theatres have become insufferable with loud ringtones and hushed voices answering, “Hey! Yah, I’m in a movie…”

There’s always a point when a good thing is ruined. The most recent innovation victim? Take, for example, e-mail communication.

Professionals around the world, with the invention of the Internet, could suddenly communicate instantaneously, comprehensively, and cost-free.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this, too, to spoil.

These days, e-mail has become a burden. It’s available on that amazing smartphone you cherish (along, thank goodness, with music Mp3s and earbuds). It’s available on your office computer and your laptop at home.

This is why, when an important client e-mails at three in the morning, lawyers are certainly used to waking up to a *ping*. And, when a firm partner calls, attorneys have no excuse for not answering their Blackberry.

Being responsive and accessible all day long detracts from your quality of life. It certainly tips the scale of the work-life balance in favor of work.

Furthermore, the need to be responsive and quick with an e-mail reply has made the workplace inefficient. Hundreds, thousands of e-mails each day contain nothing but redundancy, misunderstandings, and cute photos of cats.

“As our inboxes have become more demanding, we have all become less responsive — because we get so many messages it’s hard to keep up. But the harder it is to keep up, the more messages (‘I just thought I’d send another email asking if you got my first two emails’) we send,” writes Sarah Green for the Harvard business Review Blog.

“The problem with ‘responsiveness’ is that email then becomes like a hydra — cut off one head (answer one email) and you spawn nine more,” continues Ms. Green. “The more responsive you are, the more email you receive, and the more responsive you need to be.”

In the mythical story of the Hydra, Heracles calls upon his nephew Iolaus for help. Together, Hercules chops off the head of the Hydra while Iolaus cauterizes the stumps.

Luckily, for e-mail, the solution doesn’t have to be so gruesome. It does, however, involve cooperation.

Before you answer any e-mail, take the following four steps:

  1. Identify the embedded questions (Are there question marks in this e-mail?)
  2. Assess the urgency (Was a time frame or date mentioned? How long can you reasonably wait to respond so as to gather all the necessary information?)
  3. Answers all questions or forward appropriate resources to find them (Do you need to actually find the answers to the questions or can you just attach the appropriate documents and point to third-party sources?)
  4. Respond in 5 lines or less with one to three attachments (Can you answer via e-mail or would phone/in-person conferencing be better?)

Ensure your entire team does the same, and—hopefully—the culture of “responsiveness” will die away like Hera’s Hydra.

For once, let’s not—as professionals—ruin a good thing.

E-mail remains the perfect medium for brief, quick office communication. With the four aforementioned steps, we can keep it that way.

-WB

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Limiting The Negative Impact Of E-mail On Law Firm Productivity

All law firm associates understand that they must immediately respond to an e-mail sent by a managing partner.

Managing partners, for their part, assume the worst of their first-years. If an e-mail remains unanswered for too long (let’s face it, 15 minutes seems too long), partners assume their associates are running amuck instead of running the case.

However, according to a recent study,[1] constant e-mail communication contributes to associate stress, decreased productivity, and mismanagement of the work-life balance.

Information Stress

According to a study from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, excessive e-mail communication leads to stress and information overload:

“Technology can generate information far more faster than most people can process it. As a consequence people often find themselves unable to cope with an increasing amount of information. Information overload originates both from own requests for information and information received inertly.”

Computers are amazing machines that have the capacity to greatly increase efficiency within law firms. But, what happens when these tools produce too much information for people to process?

Occasionally, after hours of online research, receiving e-mails, opening e-mail attachments, and reading endless strings of information, employees become overwhelmed and thus under-performing.

“This information overload can lead to reduced productivity and can have negative effects on health and well being. E-mail is identified as the major contributor,” concludes the study.

It’s why the ding of your smartphone or the chime of your computer can stop your heart a beat with anticipation of work messages and requirement.

Interruptions

Not only does information stress of too much e-mail contribute to attorney anxiety, the constant interruption of e-mail communication is distracting. When supervisors and managing partners expect immediate responses to their e-mail message, associates are forced to stop their current casework and switch gears.

This task-switching has been shown to slow the speed and efficiency with which associates could otherwise complete the assignment.

“An e-mail interrupt is any e-mail distraction that makes an employee to stop the planned activity. Rubinstein and colleagues (2001) have examined the time cost implications of task familiarity and complexity in task switching. They showed that switching between tasks resulted in a delay before engaging in effectively in a new task, even if the worker had been previously engaged in the task. Each fragmentation to a task adds to the total time required to complete it (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).”

Although the task at hand might be more urgent than the e-mail sent, the e-mail has now taken priority, and delayed completion of that task.

Managing Work-Life Balance

Finally, e-mail—especially when it is received on mobile devices, like smartphones—interrupts not only an employee’s work assignments but also his or her home life.

“It seems difficult, if not impossible, for mobile users to maintain a satisfactory balance between work and personal life. The company’s increasing expectations regarding availability suggest that employees feel compelled to immediately respond to work-related messages even during leisure time.”

So, with this study in mind, what can law firm managers do to keep productivity and e-mail response time high?

First, simplify your e-mail communication. To avoid information stress, limit your e-mail communication to a short, concise message. If you must include multiple attachments, outline them for the recipient so that its contents are not overwhelming.

Second, lower expectations for e-mail response time. Don’t assume associates are socializing in the halls instead of studying legal precedent. Expect that they are, instead, finishing a task that requires more immediate attention than your e-mail query.

If you must, turn on the e-mail option to receive “confirmation of receipt” as soon as the associate opens his or her message. You will feel assured that the message was received, read, and a response en route.

Third, express your expectations for working after hours. Before your ambitious first-years leave the office, inform them that they may receive work e-mails that night, but you don’t expect action to be taken until the next morning.

The key to effective e-mail communication is ensuring it is used as an instrument, not imprisonment.

 

-WB

References:

1. Derks, D., & Bakker, A. (2010). The Impact of E-mail Communication on Organizational Life. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), article 1. [LINK: http://cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2010052401]

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Meet Siri, Your Virtual Personal Assistant: The Case For Smartphones In Law

It wouldn’t be too surprising to hear the following conversations between a young female associate—overworked and overwhelmed—and her assistant:

“What is the meaning of life?”

“All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

Or, on especially late nights:

“Why am I here?”

“I don’t know. Frankly, I’ve wondered that myself.”

Except, these conversations occurred between a person and her virtual personal assistant—the iPhone 4S’s new intelligent voice recognition system, Siri.

In reality, Siri is designed to answer questions, such as “how much to make a photocopy at Kinkos?” “What time is my trial today?” or “where’s the nearest law library?” Siri’s groundbreaking technology in voice recognition makes Apple’s iPhone the receptacle of perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligence on the planet.

If there ever was a question about the utility of a smartphone, Siri puts it to rest.

Advances in mobile technology, like Siri, could be the reason why an increased number of law firm professionals are carrying smartphones.

A recent American Bar Association (ABA) survey conducted between January and May of this year discovered that nearly 88 percent of lawyers use a smartphone for law-related tasks while away from their primary workplace. In large firms, those with 100 or more lawyers, 98 percent of lawyers use a smartphone.  

Of the lawyers who reported using a smartphone, 46 percent were BlackBerry users, 35 percent were iPhone users, 17 percent were Android users, and 3 percent ere Windows Mobile users.

Technology is evolving everyday. So, even if you’re already satisfied with your in-house personal assistant, there are still a myriad of other reasons to own a smartphone for use within the practice of law.

Email at your fingertips.

Lawyers are always on call. That means, answering emails on the walk to work, during lunch breaks, and often right before bed.

That’s why it’s unsurprising ABA Legal Technology Resource Center survey participants reported email as the primary use for their smartphone. However, quite surprisingly, 92 percent of lawyers surveyed not only agreed that email was the primary function of their smartphone, but they also placed email in front of standard telephone functions, like making a call, in terms of importance.

It appears that these days, a phone is used less for dialing numbers and more for dealing with client inquiries.  

Legal apps.

Hands-down, the most creative and productive use of a hand-held mobile phone? Legal apps.

For the majority of smartphone users, this means BlackBerry apps, which include:

  1. The Law Pod: The Complete Federal Rules of Procedure (Appellate, Bankruptcy, Civil, Criminal, and Evidence), on your Blackberry.
  2. Family Law Reports: Allows professionals within the legal industry to access the Family Law series of Reports.
  3. Patent Reference: An On-The-Go “Patent” learning and reference App with interactive tutorial and search topics, including:  Intellectual Property, Copyright, Trademark, Patents, Patent Documentation, and the Patent Process.

Even those smartphones without Siri should be able to access the following iPhone apps:

  1. BizExpense: Legal expense reports made easy. Document your expenses via images, e-mail, currency conversion, and password protection. 
  2. DocScanner: Scan documents on the go. Take a photo of any document with your iPhone camera and this app automatically converts it to a PDF document. 
  3. Black’s Law Dictionary: One of the most comprehensive legal dictionaries at your fingertips.     

Calendars.

Punctuality is a necessity in the field of law. And, with so many court cases and client meetings to attend, lawyers will find the calendar feature of smartphones an indispensable addition to their pocket.

This year, 80 percent of ABA survey respondents listed Calendars as one of the primary uses for their smartphone, a significant increase from 73 percent in 2010. With the plethora of reminder alarms and calendar-contact coordinated options, there are no more excuses for missing an associate’s birthday or that big partner announcement (not that you would…).

Games.

Finally, while attending case-matter meetings, use your smartphone to check email, record conversations on a microphone app, and look up important trial dates to contribute productively.

But, while stuck on a interminably boring conference call in your office, take back that unrecoverable hour by playing a level or two of Angry Birds, Chess, or Sudoku. Games create the final, unspoken value-add to the even the most accomplished lawyer’s smartphone.

-WB

 

For more smartphone application ideas, read “New Whistleblowing Rules And The iPad Apps To Manage Them,” and “Lawyer App Of The Day: Smartphones, Cowboys, And Fee Payment Options.

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Zen And The Lost Art Of E-mail Etiquette

E-mail etiquette is one of those over-addressed topics that continues to persist as a problem in the workplace. Professional environments are still plagued by irresponsible e-mailing, the field of law being no exception.

So, like all appropriate electronic communication, let’s cut to the chase.

1. Be brief

Although some would argue niceties and greetings are necessary in all types of communication, there’s absolutely no need to include transition phrases, multiple paragraphs, or small talk in an e-mail.

E-mail is a productive form of communication only in so far as it is clear, comprehensible, and concise.

As a rule of thumb, reading and responding to an e-mail in the law office should never take more than 0.1 billable hours (that’s 6 minutes). If the topic requires any more time to discuss, then it’s likely a walk down the hall, phone call, or face-to-face meeting would more efficiently address the subject at hand.

2. Obey formatting cues

You’ve mastered a Twitter-like ability to communicate your message in 140 characters or less. Congratulations.

Nevertheless, it is neither necessary nor proper to write a complete message in the subject line and then leave the body of your e-mail blank.

Next, e-mail software allows associates to create a signature—a sign-off with your name, title, and firm information. Use it.

Finally, e-mails have space for “To”, “CC”, and “BCC”. Always address e-mails to a single individual (there are few occasions where an e-mail should be addressed to multiple people). Then, carbon copy or blind carbon copy the other recipients.

This habit of prioritizing addressees will keep you from including extraneous or tangential parties in all future correspondence.

3. Respond promptly (but not too promptly!)

As a lawyer or law firm administrator, you receive numerous e-mails over the course of just minutes. Clearly, it’s important to respond quickly to all urgent correspondence and in a timely manner to all non-urgent matters.

At the same time, nothing is more disturbing to a law firm partner than an instantaneous response. An overly prompt response says, either you’re not busy enough at work, or the question asked was so dim-witted and obvious, you needed a mere 30 seconds to respond. At least, that’s the only message your recipient will read between the lines of your e-mail.

Furthermore, the extra time you take before pressing “send” can be used to check for spelling errors, inadvertent CC or BCC names, and whether or not you’ve actually included that attachment.

4. Remain objective and unemotional  

Every associate has fallen victim to the occasional emotional e-mail. That e-mail where, in the heat of the moment, the harsh, sarcastic, or critical tone in your head comes out inadvertently in your writing.

If you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such an e-mail, don’t reciprocate in-kind. Despite temptations to the contrary, always respond in a professional manner.

Lawyers know best the dangerous of putting ink to paper (or fingers to keys) when it comes to discoverable correspondence. So, as a point of reference, ask yourself if the e-mail you’ve written would be well perceived by a third-party. If not, erase it, take a walk, and start over only when you’re in a zen state of mind.

-WB

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