Email: The Silent Killer of Your Legal Success

Posted on 08-26-2017 by
Tags: email , outbox , focus , multitasking

red email

Email: Assassin of sharp lawyers, destroyer of deep-legal thought. 


Emails are the lifeblood of your legal practice, right? Like blood cells, emails are critical to your career survival. Lose a pint (of emails) here and there, and you bleed your legal career to death.

But that’s bull—a total fallacy!

Here’s the hard-to-believe truth: emails are the disease ... the deadly disease of your legal success.

Killing ... Obliterating ... Destroying ... Your Productivity

In his book Under New Management, Professor David Burkus explores radical management strategies, some of them so atypical they’re hard to believe (e.g., “Pay People to Quit” and “Lose the Standard Vacation Policy”).

How’s this for a radical business strategy:

Ban Email

(Now you’re thinking, “What! Never! That’s insanity!”)

But here’s the “why” behind the ban. As Burkus writes:

Corporate leaders across the globe are discovering that banning or limiting their employees’ access to email is making them more, not less productive. ... Email hurts more than it helps.

email hurts quote

The big hurt comes in the form of email pollution, which increases multitasking (it’s not a good thing) and distraction. Fragmented attention is the end result, and because of this, your skills as a lawyer are greatly diminished.

Endless emails lead to endless task-switching lead to reduced focus.

And all of this leads to inferior lawyering.

“Focused? I’m focused!” (No ...You’re Not)

You’ll argue that emails don’t make you an inferior lawyer; you’ll prove it with your Swiss Army Knife® of lawyer tools. For email management, you’re gonna pull out the “multitasking” tool.  By its simplest definition, “multitasking” is dealing with more than one task at the same time.

As a lawyer, you combat the lack-of-focus monster (i.e., email distractions) by multitasking; you do two things at once, and you do so optimally.

Optimally?  STOP kidding yourself.

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus, has this to say about your multitasking efforts:

“Multitasking” really means switching what’s filling the capacity of working memory—and routine disruptions [e.g., emails] from a given focus at work can mean minutes lost to the original task. It can take ten or fifteen minutes to regain full focus. [emphasis added]

Multitasking from emails to briefs and back again (and so on and so on) ... that’s a lot of focus lost, a lot of good lawyering wasted.

Tom Kite distraction quote

Destroying the Law One Email at a Time

So your emails + your multitasking = your fractured focus.

This equation is the death of deep-legal work.

You can’t deny it: the law is a highly-focused, deep concentration discipline.  A sharp mind is demanded by complex statutes, regulations and legal (often contradictory) opinions. But in the era of email distraction, deep-legal work seems to be dead (or at least dying). And if deep-legal work is dying, so is the law itself.

Discussing deep-legal work and concentration, Kate Simpson, writing for Canadian Lawyer, warns that:

These social and networking apps, and the never-ending drama of our e-mail inboxes, constantly pull us in, and away, from focusing on the deep tasks that form the bulk of the so-called knowledge work prevalent in law firms.

As Ms. Simpson points out, deep tasks form the bulk of knowledge work.

And if lawyers are distracted by email, these deep tasks are suffering.

And if deep tasks are suffering, so are law firms, lawyers, and clients; basically, the law as a whole. 

Save the Law/Save Your Firm

The solution to all this legal suffering is simple yet radical. As Professor Burkus highlights in Under New Management, banning email (though radical) is emerging as a smart, management strategy. A complete ban might be too radical, but limited bans are being tested by companies. Email-banning strategies include:

  • Internal email bans supplemented by better communication tools.
  • Restricting emails to normal workday hours.
  • Restricting emails during vacation periods.
  • Limiting email-checks to certain times each day.

And these strategies are proving successful on multiple fronts. With email banned, rewards are being reaped in:

  • communication;
  • collaboration;
  • productivity; and
  • focus/attention.

And as Burkus notes, banning email doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Research shows that restricting email check-ins can have the same positive benefits as banning email completely.

big little distraction quote

Radical Lawyer = Email Ignorer

Nine out of ten lawyers didn’t get this far. Most abandoned ship when they saw “Ban Email.” To the few who stuck around (let’s say there’s two of you left), one of you thinks, “Nice idea, but it can’t be done.”

I’m not speaking to that person.

I’m speaking to the other person, the one who thinks, “Tough, but I’m gonna try this.”

To the last hanger-oner, you’ve stumbled upon the secret to superior lawyering in the digital age. Maybe you’re not the best litigator. Maybe your motions lack elegance. Maybe you stagger through research.

But with one radical decision, you can improve where 99% of other lawyers refuse to improve.  

So ban email, gain focus and distance yourself from the distracted legal nation.

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