March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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E-mail Strategies
Battling Message Overload
by Kathleen Call
Is your inbox a flood that threatens to drown real priorities? Put these pointers into action.

There's no question that e-mail has made it easier for legal professionals to stay in touch with clients, colleagues and staff. As e-mail's popularity has grown, however, so have related time management problems. It's increasingly difficult to maintain productivity while responding to messages promptly.

In a recent survey by my company, The Affiliates, lawyers said they receive an average of 48 e-mails a day, both business and personal in nature. That means a new message arrives about every 10 minutes during the average workday. Without a clear system in place for managing these messages, they can easily steal valuable hours away from other priorities. What's a lawyer to do? Here are tips for managing your e-mail effectively.

  • Use a schedule. Set aside blocks of time to review your messages, such as at the beginning, middle and end of the workday. You may want to turn off the audio notification feature to avoid being distracted when new messages arrive. If you're worried you might miss important time-sensitive information, your technology staff can set up e-mail filters that will enable you to distinguish urgent messages from others that can be stored for future reference.
  • Organize and archive. You need a message organizing system that you'll actually use. For instance, if you have too many e-mail folders or ones that have confusing names, you may never sort your messages effectively. It's often a good idea to create separate files for each of your clients so you can access related e-mails quickly when needed. Periodically delete or archive old messages to keep your system easier to manage-and to avoid reaching the maximum set by your network administrator.
  • S ave non-urgent messages for later. It's natural to want to respond to every message right away. But if you do, your productivity will suffer. Briefly scan the content of messages, responding immediately to the most urgent communications. Then use later work hours to clean out your inbox and reply to people on less important issues.
    Learn to delegate. Forward appropriate messages to your staff for action. Be sure to include a brief accompanying note, explaining the priority level of the e-mail and providing necessary instructions.
  • Create a second account. Ask friends and family members to use a separate e-mail address to reach you with personal messages. This will help you stay focused on business correspondence during your workday. Use the additional account when signing up for e-newsletters or other lists to help avoid distractions at the office.
  • Keep responses short. You'll save yourself time, and those on the receiving end will appreciate it, when you send succinct replies. Just make sure your answers address all questions asked and offer sufficient detail to reduce the "ping-pong" effect of additional communications.
  • Use templates. If many of the e-mail inquiries you receive concern the same issues, consider creating standard responses that you can store on your computer and use when needed. You can still customize the responses, but having a basic framework will save you valuable time.
  • Know when to call instead. If you sense an e-mail thread could go on indefinitely before reaching a successful conclusion, it's best to pick up the phone. Sometimes it's just more efficient to call to quickly resolve a problem, convey a sensitive message or clarify a concern.
  • Respect others' time. Think before you send an e-mail to someone-ask yourself whether it's essential that this person receives this information. If you don't flood others' inboxes with unnecessary communications, they'll recognize that a message is important when you do send one.

You'll Gain More Hours in the Day
Learning how to prioritize and organize messages can make all the difference in your workday. You'll find that you accomplish more when you're online and that you have additional hours for priority work when you're offline.

Kathleen Call is Executive Director of The Affiliates, a staffing service based in Menlo Park, CA, specializing in the placement of legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments throughout the United States and Canada.