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Getting Important Things Done

Redefining What It Means to Be ‘Responsive’ to Clients

By Jay Harrington

Is your hyper-responsiveness creating email overload and more stress? Finding focused time to get important work done requires defining “responsiveness” on your terms.

Early in my legal career, I assumed that “being responsive” meant that I needed to respond immediately to emails from clients and colleagues. As a result, I spent a significant amount of my normal working hours in my inbox playing digital ping pong. I had to rely on the early mornings, evenings and weekends to get important work done that required lots of sustained concentration.

The more responsive I was, the more email I seemed to get — one reply sent begetting another received — leading to a vicious cycle of distraction and unproductivity.

This caused a lot of stress, and, as I later learned, it wasn’t necessary to work this way. In most cases, clients and colleagues aren’t looking for an instantaneous response. They simply want a clear understanding that their message will be responded to in a timely fashion. And “timely” rarely means instantaneous (unless that’s what you’ve trained people to expect).

This was an important revelation for me because it allowed me to start scheduling set times during the day to check and respond to email instead of monitoring every message that came in like an air traffic controller. During the interim periods, I could tackle more important-but-not-urgent work, which meant fewer late nights, less stress, and higher quality work for clients.

The Trouble With Spending Too Much Time in Your Inbox

In his book “A World Without Email,” Cal Newport explains that the human brain simply isn’t optimized to jump between “executing work tasks” and “managing an always-present, ongoing, and overloaded electronic conversation about those tasks.” Switching from topic to topic, and client to client, via an endless stream of emails causes us to pay a heavy cognitive price. It’s distracting, exhausting, and makes it nearly impossible to apply intense concentration and creatively solve problems — which is, in a nutshell, a lawyer’s job, right?

If you find yourself spending way too much of your finite time in your inbox, then you’re not only adding to your stress, you’re also limiting your effectiveness.

But don’t just take my word for it. As Sixth Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge explains (in the interview excerpt below), there are diminishing returns to one’s efforts to be hyper-responsive. In fact, being hyper-responsive may lead clients to question how much actual value a lawyer is capable of delivering.

“[I]t’s just foolish to cultivate a reputation as somebody who responds to emails within minutes. What that tells your clients is that you’re an unreflective person who doesn’t do sustained, analytical thinking.

Respond to things quickly if they require it, but otherwise, make a priority of setting aside those bigger blocks of time to think. Most clients will respect that.”

One of the other problems with working so much in your inbox is that it’s really hard for someone who bills their time to keep track of (and justify) their time when so much of it is spent reading and responding to emails. There is a difference between corresponding about work and actually working.

The list of problems could go on, but hopefully, we’re on the same page that too much focus on email leads to too much stress because too little work is actually getting done during the normal workday.

Three Ideas for Avoiding Email Overload and Getting Important Things Done

So with that understanding in mind, let’s turn our attention to a couple of ideas for managing all the inputs.

  • First, schedule time for processing messages and communicating. The nature of my workdays changed dramatically for the better when I started blocking specific times each day to check and respond to emails. It is, of course, impossible to get by as a modern-day lawyer without email. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get by without it for significant periods of time each day. While your needs may be different, a 30-minute block each morning and afternoon is plenty of time for me to stay on top of my messages. And because I know I have allocated time toward email each day, I don’t have the constant urge to check my inbox—I know that time is coming soon enough. (Read “Four Time-Saving Hacks for a More Efficient Workday.”)
  • Second, try to limit the number of emails you send. The more emails you send, the more you’re likely to receive in return … which you’ll be forced to reply to … and so on. Think twice before initiating an email exchange. Only copy others when necessary. Look for opportunities to replace unstructured email exchanges with scheduled conversations.
  • Third, establish communication policies with clients and colleagues. Because most of us never take the time to think about what it means to be “responsive” to clients, we default to thinking that faster is always better. But as we learned from Judge Kethledge, getting tagged as someone who is hyper-responsive can actually harm one’s reputation. The other problem is that we train our clients and colleagues through our actions to expect rapid responses from us. It’s not reasonable to expect that a lawyer can or should respond to every email within one hour, but if that becomes the norm, then anything beyond the one-hour threshold seems tardy in comparison.

The Solution to the Problem Is Clear Communications

If you communicate what to expect from the start, rather than allowing your actions to set expectations for you, then you can remain more in control. For example, it’s hard to imagine a client objecting to a policy that all emails will be responded to — with at least an explanation of when to expect a substantive response — by the end of the business day, particularly when paired with an invitation to call if something is urgent.

Now, of course, some of this is easier said than done amid the whirlwind of law firm life.

If you’re a junior lawyer, you’re going to have a hard time telling senior partners that you didn’t immediately get back to their emails because you “don’t check email outside of your 30-minute email time blocks.” Accordingly, you may have to schedule more blocks, more frequently early on in your career. But you should always be looking for opportunities to diminish the role of email during your day.

Honing your ability to bring intense, undistracted focus to your work and delivering outstanding results for clients is the key to gaining the power to define “responsiveness” on your terms.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

For more time management tips for associates, read “How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day” and “Why Are You at the Office Until 10 p.m.?” by Jay Harrington.

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Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @harringj75.

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