Law Career Development
"Which one are you? There are two types of people in the world: those with hundreds of unread messages, and those who can’t relax until their inboxes are cleared out.” Inbox Zero vs. Inbox 5,000: A Unified Theory, Atlantic.
According to Muppet Theory, based on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters, people are either Chaos Muppets or Order Muppets. Chaos Muppets “are out-of-control, emotional, volatile.” Whereas, Order Muppets “tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows.” Interestingly, Justice Stephen Breyer is described to have Chaos Muppet traits whereas Chief Justice John Roberts is described to hold Order Muppet traits. As relevant to email correspondence, Chaos Muppets such as Cookie Monster and Ernie will probably lose your email due to their impulsive and disorganized nature whereas Order Muppets such as Kermit the Frog, Bert or Count von Count will not lose track of an email due to their obsessive character traits. Regardless of where you fall on the philosophical Muppet character spectrum, as an aspiring attorney, you must stay on top of your inboxes as highlighted in Part I of this blog post. On the bright side, both Chaos and Order Muppets can easily manage their inboxes in three simple ways: (1) calendaring time throughout the day to check emails; (2) triaging emails as they come; and (3) responding diligently when necessary.
CALENDAR TIME THROUGHOUT THE DAY TO CHECK EMAILS
This is easier said than done, but nonetheless setting blocks of time throughout the day to manage emails establishes peace in your hectic day and keeps you in focus. Cami McLaren, from Above the Law, suggests there is a new paradigm for attorneys’ time management where “it is not one in which you work faster, but where you make better and smarter choices.” McLaren challenges us to change our way of thinking about how we manage our time apart from the patterns and habits we developed in our academic and professional lives. For example, rather than “stopping every 20 to 30 minutes (or every four to five minutes) to check your email,” it is more productive to “check your email less frequently” by calendaring 30 to 45-minute blocks throughout the day. Perhaps you can do this in the morning, afternoon and late evening. However, during those times you should devote your time and focus on only checking, responding and triaging emails and after the time is up, spend the rest of the day ignoring your inbox. McLaren reasons that calendaring your email routine actually frees up more time because:
First, when you check your email at a specific time, that is all you are doing; your brain is not distracted, but is focused solely on your email. By the same token, during other parts of the day, you are not distracted by your email and are more efficient at each task. Second, you are not wasting precious minutes throughout the day constantly transitioning from one thing to another.
Setting up a daily routine to check emails during specific times throughout the day seems counterintuitive, especially since we are bombarded with constant notifications from our smart phones and computers (where you can hear it, see it, and even feel it!). Consider turning off those alerts (this could easily be applied to text messages as well) so that you can remain focused on the tasks at hand. Why should we immediately succumb to our attention-seeking notification alerts when it’s not going anywhere? (The phone can ring if the message is that important.) If you absolutely feel you can’t live without checking those alerts as they come, perhaps check it every hour as a five-minute mental break. Law students should start implementing McLaren’s model not only in managing emails but also in the academic study of law and ultimately in the practice of law. (See more of McLaren’s New Paradigm.)
Set up a user-friendly filing system to organize your email the moment they arrive. Rather than opening up an email and then letting it sit in your inbox, move it or label it under a specific category, or even commit to deleting it. This can be done by utilizing your email’s folders or “labels” tool if using Google.
First, set up several folders each under a specific category. The categories are determined by the action required upon receipt. For instance, a folder can be one of the following: email requiring a response or task; email requiring no action; email requiring no action BUT contains information you need to keep, in other words, an archive folder. For emails requiring a response or task either respond to it right away if time permits, or move it to a “To-Do” folder. This is your “action” folder that acts as an informal To-Do list. The “To-Do” folder acts as a reminder of emails that require your attention but not necessarily right away. Upon receipt quickly make the judgment about your time restraints and if responding might take more than 2 minutes, move email to the “To-Do” folder and get back to it during one of your set block times to check emails. Then, once completed move to the appropriate archive folder. For emails that take less than 2 minutes to respond to, don’t forget to archive it in the appropriate folder as well. Additionally, for emails requiring no action and also contain information you don’t need to keep, simply delete. This can be applied to newsletters with no pertinent information, spam or junk mail, or email advertisements. However, for emails requiring no action, but contain information you need to keep, archive it rather than deleting it. This applies to newsletters and the like, but mainly applies to instances when you’re absolutely done with an email and no longer need to attend to it. You can set up a general archive folder or set up a more detailed system. This more detailed system can be categorized broadly such as “Law School Fall Semester” or “Law Research” or “Coupons”; or it can be as specific such as “Property Law” or “SFDA’s Office” or “Maui Vacation Plans.” You can even create subfolders under a folder or under another subfolder and so on.
Ultimately, the goal of email triage is to keep your inbox empty, which can make us more organized and as a result less stressed! Also, when you need to get back to that email, you’ll know exactly where to find it.
As discussed above, if a response to an email could take less than 2 minutes or so, do not put it off. Send a brief and quick, concise response so that you can archive it and get one more email out of the way. Also, if you don’t have the time to send a quick response, move it to your “To-Do” folder and get back to it later.
On another note, sometimes it’s best to quickly acknowledge that you received an email, especially when the email is specifically addressed to you (unlike when you are CC’d on an email, which does not call for a quick response). Quick responses can be as easy as: “thanks” or “will do.” This lets the sender know that you received the email and the sender will less likely send you another email with the same content.
In conclusion, do not underestimate the power of emails in your future legal career. Technology and online communication will continue to run our lives, so embrace it, don’t fight it! Moreover, neither Chaos Muppet nor Order Muppet is better than the other. Regardless of which character traits you fall on the Muppet spectrum “[r]emember the old rule of thumb: Too many Order Muppets means no cookies for anyone.” Be kind to yourself. Now that you have all the tools to manage your inbox, have fun with it! Once you’ve developed the habit of effective email management, you’ll be far ahead of the game in your law practice. Ready, set, go!
Additional Reading: Effective Email Strategies for Law Students and Lawyers by Susanne Aronowitz, previous GGU Associate Dean for Law Career Development.