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.


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.




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:]


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