Attorneys spend a large amount of time pecking out emails to other attorneys, clients, and internal staff. However, it amazes me every time I talk about this with a fellow attorney that, despite all their practice, they are awful at checking emails. I’ve heard everything from, “I don’t do emails. I have a girl that comes in and checks my email on Mondays” to, “I still type with two fingers on my left hand and three on my right hand” to, “I’ve deleted my entire inbox before because I got so far behind. I assumed that, if it was important, they’d email me again.” Needless to say, attorneys, especially the ones referenced above, are in dire need of email assistance.
At a recent showcase of the Top 100 Entrepreneurs in the US held at the United Nations, I heard a five-minute talk on handling email efficiently from Zach Ferres, CEO of Coplex.com. Although our techniques varied in a few ways, most of his presentation was how I’ve done email all along. But, I always try to give credit where due, and I owe much of being able to articulate the process of how I handle email to him. (See his version of the technique.)
I use Google Apps for my email server and use Gmail meter to obtain my email statistics. Last month, I received 5,817 emails and sent 3,122. If you are on Gmail, install this free tool and compare your inbox. I’d venture to bet that I’m in the top five percent of volume. I’m the managing partner of our law firm, which handles national MDL and complex litigation. I’m also the CEO and founder of our digital marketing company. I say all of this in the hope that you can accept the fact that I’m not just saying I’m very busy, I actually am very busy. Despite that, I answer 61 percent of my emails within one hour and 93 percent of emails within one day. Here is how I do it:
Scan and Process
Each morning, I scan my emails and process each one quickly. American Injury Attorney Group is in part a sales company, and I need to make sure that new leads are not being neglected. Most of these alerts are sent to the entire sales team; however, I get miscellaneous inquiries that need to be forwarded. In addition, I need to make sure that any deadline-specific emails for the law firm are handled right away. So, after hitting my alarm button, the first thing I do is open my inbox.
Handle or Flag
At this time of day, I use a technique to scan, process, and organize my emails via “flagging.” I typically wake up to around 80 emails. I use a service called “Unroll.me” to group my subscription emails and my spam so the 80 emails in my inbox do not include most of these types of email. I read each email and archive the email if it is not actionable. If it is actionable, I ask myself if I can simply reply or handle the email within two minutes. This amount of time is not set in stone, but it’s a good guideline to use as you decide whether or not to handle the email now or later. After a while, this decision will be second nature to you. Some things that factor into this decision are the sender, the subject of the email, the length of the email, etc.
If I can handle the email in two minutes, I do it. Examples of these emails are simple approvals for internal processes, delegation of the task to another person (I try to make sure the handling of the task is already understood within the company), or answering basic questions involving short emails. I am a strict follower of the rule that a manager should work 20 percent ‘in’ the business and 80 percent ‘on’ the business. If you spend your entire day handling tasks or working ‘in’ the business, you will never improve the business as a whole. To all you lawyers out there that still don’t get this: a law firm is a business!
If I cannot handle the email in two minutes, I flag the email using Google’s “stars.” I enable custom stars in the labs section of Gmail, but many of you will simply use flags or other similar email tools depending on your email service provider.
All of the above takes me from less than five to 20 minutes tops, depending on how much I decide to handle right away. After I get done with this, I get ready and go to the office. Once there, I can quickly scan my starred emails and prioritize my day. This is where I differ from many other techniques. I use a browser (and Gmail) extension called ToDoist. This also serves as my task management system. The reason I use this app is for the cross-platform compatibility, as our office is completely cloud-based, from client management system to document management to phone systems. This app also allows me to “one-click” an email and create a task. It actually turns the task name into a link to the original email. This way, I can use shorthand to create the task and not worry about having to copy and extract the email’s important info needed to accomplish the task. I also set the due date and the priority of the task. I’ve always heard that a task without a deadline is only a dream and I support that notion completely.
Once I create tasks for each remaining email and schedule them within my day, I’m finished with my email process. I have a full understanding of what’s happening with my team and know that no one is waiting on me to move forward with any projects. Further, I have fully mapped-out my task list for the day ahead.
Throughout the day, I try to close my email client each time I run through this process. I’m compulsive in the way that, if I see a new email, I can’t help but read it. So, I close my browser and I switch my iPhone to a manual fetch (only checks emails when I open the app). This way, I can stay focused on my daily tasks and only get back to emailing when I have time between those tasks. Many people think that they are “multi-tasking” by switching between tasks and emails and back throughout the day. But, many studies (show that it is far less efficient and your work product will suffer as a result. As you can tell by my level of email activity, I still manage to check emails five to 10 times per day. The difference is, I only check email when completing a task. This way, I’m not pulling my thought process in and out of my work each time I hear that ‘ding!’
So, to all you Luddites out there! Your emailing is broken. Fix it today. Some simple changes and readily available technology will help make your practice more effective for you and your clients.
Advanced Tip: Ever consider the amount of time it takes to move your hand to your mouse and back again each time you take action on an email? For Gmail users, activate keyboard hotkeys. This allows you to check, respond, forward, archive, and many more without ever touching your mouse. See a complete list of Gmail hotkeys.
About the Author
Anthony C. Johnson is managing partner at Johnson & Vines, PLLC and the CEO and co-founder of the American Injury Attorney Group. Follow him on Twitter @anthonycjohnson.