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July 29, 2021 5 minutes to read ∙ 1100 words

The Legal Burnout Solution: A Mindful Approach to Email

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp

Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.

—Bernard Meltzer

When email became an essential business tool about three decades ago, little did we know the adverse impact it would ultimately have on productivity, mental health, and even communication itself.

Because more than 90 percent of communication relies on nonverbal cues, email, by nature, is inherently prone to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Especially in a work culture dominated by a mindset of doing things as quickly as possible, it is easy to get caught up in the stress of the moment and send emails that we later regret. Further, when we operate out of reactivity, we are prone to making embarrassing and potentially dangerous errors that can even lead to ethics complaints.

Consciously slowing down both before and during the emailing process, however, can save us tremendous time and effort in the long run. For example, when we practice mindful emailing, we are less likely to strain relationships due to hastily drafted or ill-advised correspondence. These simple steps can help you stay calm and cultivate conscious communications even in the face of emotionally charged situations.

Mindful Email Practices

  • Stay relaxed and present. When corresponding via email, make it a habit to connect with your body—take several slow, deep breaths, relax your shoulders back and down, sit up straight, feel your feet grounding into the floor, and objectively observe any physical sensations and emotions that arise. Notice and then let go of any thoughts or emotions that come up and gently bring yourself back to conscious breathing. Even taking just 30 seconds to one minute to connect to your body and breath can get you out of “fight or flight” and start up your body’s relaxation response. This is a good time to consider whether an email response is the best method of communication. In some circumstances, it could be more effective to communicate verbally—by phone or in person.
  • Reread and reflect. When drafting an email—especially one in response to a contentious communication—take a deliberate pause before hitting “send.” Step away from the email for a short time, or even overnight, and revisit it with fresh eyes to be sure it accurately conveys your intended message. Focus on reading the email objectively and redraft any areas that could possibly be misconstrued—even if you wouldn’t personally read it that way, could someone else misinterpret the particular words or sentiment? It may be helpful to read the email aloud to yourself or even to a colleague to get his or her opinion on perceived tone and word choice. This process can also be helpful when receiving an email, as we may imbue certain meanings that the sender did not intend.
  • Be compassionate and positive. Especially in tense or heated exchanges, it’s critical to remember that you are communicating with another human being. In these difficult moments, try visualizing the senders or recipients in your mind. Actively tell yourself that they are doing the best they can with what they have. Put yourself in a positive state of mind by focusing on something you are grateful for in your life. Aim to channel these genuine feelings of thankfulness and appreciation in your correspondence. As the old adage goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
  • Incorporate a formal meditation practice. To further deepen a sense of calm, relaxation, and focus during the emailing process, consider integrating a mindfulness meditation practice into your routine. Beyond strengthening our ability to be mindful, practicing meditation can help reduce stress, curb emotional reactivity, and avoid unforced errors in our communications. Before sending an email, make it a habit to take a pause and practice a short meditation; afterward, reread your email for accuracy, fill out your recipient fields, and then hit send. Find a method that resonates with you personally and incorporate it into your everyday routine. As a starting point, try out box-breathing or alternate nostril breathing, which are simple, science-based practices proven to deliver fast results. Meditation is truly the gift that keeps on giving as its benefits are cumulative, meaning the more we practice it, the more we can maximize its positive effects.
  • Don’t over-prioritize email responses. Be mindful not to fall into the trap that you need to drop whatever you’re doing and immediately respond when an email comes in. When we over-prioritize email responses, we ultimately reduce our overall productivity and create undue stress. In practice, living in this mindset keeps us tethered to our devices so that we never allow ourselves true downtime to relax and recharge, which is a recipe for burnout. (How often have you gone on “vacation” only to keep your phone on you at all times?) Unless the email is truly time-sensitive, such as a court filing deadline, release yourself from the urge to instantly respond or even respond within 24 hours. Instead, schedule a set time each day to send and answer emails so you can maximize your efficiency. Communicate to your clients and colleagues in advance and set the expectation when you will be out of the office or unavailable, such as evenings, weekends, and vacations; at those times, be sure to leave behind, silence, or turn your phone off! You are a human, not a machine.

Boston-based litigator Christopher F. Earley recently took this advice to heart. As he worked on enhancing the efficiencies of his law firm, he took a hard look at his own habits and found that he devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy into email management. One of the efficiency measures that he adopted was to limit the number of times he checks email to twice a day: at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Earley reported, “I was pleasantly surprised at my increase in productivity as a direct result of forming one new habit.” He added, “Refraining from checking email is really a matter of self-discipline, and my daily meditation practice definitely helps me control impulsive behavior, which includes randomly looking at any type of communication.”

Moving Forward

Incorporating even one of the above suggestions into your daily routine can help decrease miscommunication while increasing productivity and improving mental health. If you are interested in learning additional simple strategies designed to promote stress resilience, email us at [email protected], and we will forward you our Mindfulness Resource Guide geared specifically to legal professionals.

In next month’s column we will outline specific self-care actions each of us can take in honor of National Wellness Month, celebrated in August.

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Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (, a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 10, Number 12, July 2021. © 2021 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.