You’ve Got Mail! (And Unnecessary Stress): A Call for Relaxed Email Expectations in Legal Practice

Issue July/August 2023 August 2023 By Michael P. Dickman
Young Lawyers Division Section Review
Article Picture
Michael P. Dickman

Life in the 21st century places ever-increasing demands on us. A main contributing factor is the sense (and reality) of a constant barrage of information at our fingertips and in front of our eyeballs. The 24-hour news cycle, social media, podcasts, and the center of this universe — our smartphones — guarantees we always have something to capture our attention and distract us from the task at hand. Even a relaxing diversion such as finding a new show or movie is overwhelming and intimidating. A new streaming service is released every week with its own set of original programming. I’m not sure whether Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, AppleTV, Amazon Video, Paramount +, or the icon recently known as HBOMax has rights to the latest Minions release. How am I supposed to unwind!?

For lawyers, the information overload manifests sharply with the centrality of email communications in our practice.

This information overload, and email’s primary role in ensuring our plates are always full, increases stress and reduces productivity. Studies show that mere awareness of an unread email in your inbox reduces one’s IQ by 10 points. Even more striking is the concept of “Email Apnea,” which is an individual’s shift in breathing when responding to an email or text. This phenomenon is exacerbated when in front of a screen and reading/responding to messages for extended periods. Essentially, we are choking when receiving and responding to email correspondence. Surely, this detracts from the quality of work and the physical and emotional experience in undertaking it.

The COVID-19 pandemic spawned seemingly permanent shifts in work culture, including employers’ willingness to adopt a hybrid work model for the foreseeable future. Most would agree that this increased flexibility is a positive development. Nonetheless, there are concerns that greater access to remote work will lead some employers (along with opposing counsel, clients and other stakeholders) to demand rapid responses at all hours of the day and night. That is, if you are not spending time commuting to and from the office, get in front of your computer and respond to my message! Let’s avoid undermining these recent gains.

The Massachusetts bar has demonstrated a commitment to increasing lawyer well-being through a variety of initiatives, organizations and panels. The publication of the NORC report on Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts earlier this year highlighted some unfortunate, if unsurprising, findings. Most notable from the report is that 77% of Massachusetts lawyers reported burnout from their work (together with heightened anxiety, depression and alcohol/substance abuse). In that context, a culture shift is warranted.

If the bar is truly concerned about work-life balance and lawyer well-being, the community should envision a more respectful and relaxed way of communicating, via email and otherwise. To better achieve these ends, I offer some preliminary proposals.

  1. Schedule messages to be sent during “normal” working hours. Understanding that the realities and complexities of personal and professional life render it impossible for lawyers to only send emails on Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., many folks must churn through their inboxes during “off” hours. That said, unless a statute or court rule obligates a response by a specific date, lawyers should consider scheduling a message to be sent the following morning or next business day. Every platform has this scheduling ability. Lawyers, in accordance with their ethical obligations to exercise technical competence, should learn how to utilize it.

  2. Emphasize telephonic/videoconference communications. We have all received threatening or discourteous written communications from opposing counsel, shortly followed by a cordial phone call. Oftentimes, emails fail to capture the appropriate or intended tone of the sender. We also have been included on painstaking email threads with several participants going back and forth with no end in sight and furthering no goal. To avoid misinterpreting tone, disarm keyboard warriors, promote collegiality and maximize efficiency, hop on the phone.

  3. Reset response expectations. We should strive not to construe any “delayed” response as a sign of disrespect or misconduct on the other side’s part. To downplay this possible effect, however, we can communicate that senders can neither expect nor demand an immediate response. Via an out-of-office message or blurb in a signature block, lawyers can inform others that they may be unable to respond in a rapid amount of time for a variety of understandable reasons. In the era of email access on smartphones, lawyers feel increasingly obligated to respond during off hours, even when away on personal leave or vacation. Let’s do away with that notion.

* * *

Of course, counselor, Saturday at 4 p.m. is a terrific time to inquire about supplementing discovery responses I served seven months ago with an URGENT tag line. Allow me to pause the backyard barbecue and get those over right away. I must respond to this email with haste. Otherwise, I am not fulfilling my lawyerly duties.

* * *

A retort to a recommended relaxation of email communications is — well, how can I effectively represent my clients, company, constituency, etc., if I am not responding to emails promptly and substantively? Sure, everyone must meet certain demands and obligations. Lawyers may feel they will lose clients if they do not drop everything on a family vacation and respond to the latest missive. Or they may feel they are not advancing their interests in a case or matter if they take their eye off the proverbial ball for a brief period.

I am not advocating for lawyers to feel emboldened to disregard responding to written communications in a relatively prompt manner. And of course, there are always exceptions to my recommended, relaxed approach to email responsiveness — a true emergency (not a subjective one conceived by an unreasonable client), an unavoidable deadline, among others. In the absence of these circumstances, however, lawyers are doing themselves and the practice a disservice by adhering to a strict and unsustainable email response expectation. 

While our culture takes pride in one’s ability to multitask, the consensus from brain science is that a truly effective multitasker is a myth. By constantly task-switching, people drain energy that was devoted to the original task to adjust to the newest thought that popped into their head (or inbox). Lawyers can undertake their duties more effectively by remaining focused on discrete tasks instead of keeping one eye/ear always fixed on their email. Singular focus will breed better work product and clarity of thinking. I know that I feel more empowered as a lawyer when I choose to proactively engage in an assignment and turn off notifications, as opposed to playing Outlook Whac-A-Mole (trademark pending). For more insights into how the human brain works in today’s world, especially pertaining to these issues, I highly recommend The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D.

* * *

In conclusion, there is an undeniable benefit to email communications, especially compared with old ways of doing things — confirmation of submission/receipt of message, avoiding the cost and uncertainty of relying on the post office or other parcel service, reducing environmental impact by going paperless, etc. I am not advocating that we all declare “email bankruptcy.” 

That said, we should acknowledge the impact that the substance, tone, length and timing of a message may have on the recipient. 

These issues are not restricted solely to email as text messages and other forms of digital communications become ubiquitous in legal practice. The bar should strive to achieve the same sense of civility and understanding when sending texts or other communications. 

Greater intentionality and courtesy regarding these communications should support ongoing efforts to enhance lawyer well-being and reduce the stress of being a lawyer. Even if some aspects of legal practice have high stakes, that does not mean our community should not strive at every chance to improve collegiality, promote healthier work environments, and avoid needless barbs exchanged with opposing counsel, a disapproving client, or an underappreciated court clerk. 

Michael P. Dickman is a civil litigator at Kenney & Sams PC. His practice focuses on business, construction, and insurance coverage disputes. He is on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, as well as a council member of the MBA’s Access to Justice Section.