The Email Tightrope for Law Firms
Email might actually be the most important tool in the lawyer’s toolbox. It allows for easy and intuitive communication, file sharing, document review, and a host of other tasks. Best of all, everything about it is nearly instantaneous. But like any form of digital technology, email — and the way that we use it — has evolved over the years. Your current Gmail account is nearly unrecognizable from the AOL account that you used in 1996. In order to use email effectively as a lawyer, we have to remain cognizant of the balance between how we use it, how our clients use it and how our client expect us to use it.
We’ve all had that “special” client; they have endless questions, endless concerns, and their fears cannot be allayed by anyone other than their lawyer. You know, the same lawyer who’s at the courthouse for the rest of the day. Inevitably, the client will eventually stop calling the office, and will send a detailed email to the lawyer.
The upside of this is that your intake personnel get the phone line back. The downside is that the client, in keeping with the expectations attendant to digital communications in the 21st century, will invariably expect a fast response in a medium that wasn’t designed for fast responses.
When email became popular in the 1990’s, it carried two major selling points: (i) the message was delivered almost instantly; and (ii) the recipient had the opportunity to respond at his or her convenience. Twenty years later, however, the use of this technology has evolved to where the sender expects instant delivery and instant response, or something close to it. While email technology and all of its bells and whistles are certainly well intentioned, many of its users have become conditioned to expect respondents to be as expeditious as the technology itself.
I really don’t remember emails carrying such a stringent expectation when it first began to get popular. Part of that was the difference in volume; I might have gotten a half a dozen emails per day in 2001, compared to the 70 or 75 daily messages that I receive today. But there’s no arguing that the recipients also expect a quicker response.
I often feel like certain clients use email almost as an instant messaging service where both parties are sitting at the computer, paying attention to nothing other than the conversation at hand, speaking and responding to one another in real time. While that technology is another immensely useful tool for lawyers, it isn’t the same thing as email. Email wasn’t designed to be used for instant messaging, and it shouldn’t be. Responding to each message the moment it’s received will eat up your workday, sabotage your productivity, and eventually destroy your work-life balance.
You and I know this. We can talk about it (or even email each other about it!) until we’re all blue in the face, and it won’t change anything. The problem at the end of the day lies with how we can establish reasonable expectations for responding to emails, with clients who aren’t always completely reasonable. The expectation is always different from client to client, and it will also change as the representation progresses (which we discussed in an article titled ‘Empower Your Team With Better Client Communications.’) This makes it really difficult to strike that elusive balance between making the client feel like a high priority (which is hugely important) and allowing yourself to remain productive (which is also hugely important). So what are some ideas for “walking the client-email tightrope?”
Make an affirmative effort to become familiar with each client and his or her expectations and habits. The earlier in the representation you do this, the less likely misunderstandings will be. The client might have “email time” set aside in the mornings or afternoons. Evening fatigue might bring with its increased anxiety about the case. Be aware of the circumstances and respond to them in a way that sets the client at ease.
Tell your client that he or she is a priority. There’s no better way to make the client feel important than for the words to come out of your mouth early in the representation. It establishes rapport and the client will appreciate it.
Make it your standard operating procedure to wait a set amount of time before responding to non-emergency emails. This ensures that your emails are responded to in the order in which they were received, which engenders consistency. Make sure that you tell your client about this practice.
Also make it your standard operating procedure to establish a window of time in which you must respond to an email. Clients don’t appreciate it when you take more than a week to respond; you wouldn’t appreciate it, either. Have policies in place to ensure that messages don’t fall by the wayside.
Try to be as consistent as possible with your response times. When you answer the first email in two hours, the client will start to expect two-hour response times to all of their emails. Be cognizant of the fact that it’s a lot easier to establish an expectation than it is to change an existing one.
Be patient. You’ve spent years handling tough situations; for your client, this is most likely a new experience. Try to see things from the client’s perspective. This will help you keep your cool when the client loses theirs, and the client’s confidence in you will soar when they see your composure in the face of adversity.
Juggling effective communication with client expectation is difficult. Try as you might, you won’t be able to keep everybody happy all the time. But by putting an email response system in place and sticking to it closely, you can make sure that client emails are responded to in a consistent, effective and efficient way. This will keep the clients happier, increase your productivity, and help you sleep better at night.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h