My friend and colleague Christian Stegmaier has penned (typed?) a thought-provoking post over at his new blog Lawyer as Service Professional. In summary, because email is the primary communications medium for clients, Christian posits those attorneys who choose to "manage" email (i.e. put off responses to clients) risk compromising their very role as responsive service professionals. In other words, email is the reality of client communication, so think very carefully about de-emphasizing or overlooking the importance of that medium.
I could not agree more with Christian's basic premise: attorneys are in the service business, and there is absolutely nothing to prevent clients from voting with their feet if we do not meet their expectations. Responsiveness is certainly one of the most important if not the most important (and consistent) ways in which attorneys can serve clients, and email by its very nature enables lightning response.
However, I want to mention a couple of ways in which undue email emphasis may limit a service professional's effectiveness toward her clients. First, the nature of what we do (deadlines, impending trials and hearings, etc.) requires attorneys to prioritize where we spend our time and attention. And the typical email inbox by default has a tendency to make the most recent message the most important. To quote David Allen, (about whom I have written previously here, here, and here) the inbox causes us to confuse the urgent with the important. In my view, taking steps to manage and prioritize your inbox is critical, if only so you can better separate the wheat from the chaff. If you are serious about prioritizing and managing your inbox, you must explore Scott Hanselman's Computer Zen. And there is no space or time to fully explore this point, but email is awful for collaboration with clients. As we move forward (irrespective of the current reality), we will all serve our clients better when we employ the best medium to facilitate that service.
Similarly, another critical service attorneys provide to their clients is thoughtful consideration of their cases, problems and issues. And as Jason Fried (and countless others) have observed, meaningful work (concentration and attention) cannot take place amidst too many distractions. More pointedly, a brief I am writing would suffer greatly if I answer email messages (or allow other distractions) while stringing together (presumably cogent) ideas. To Christian's important point, if client expectations demand immediate email responses, perhaps designating a staff person to provide personalized responses (in the same way your phone would get answered when you are unavailable) would make sense.
Finally, clients understand that our rapid responsiveness naturally gives way at times in order that we devote that full attention to the matters we do on their behalf. The client for whom we are arguing an appeal or motion, taking or defending a deposition, or trying a case fully expect and demand that the email requests of other clients remain unanswered and unviewed-- at least until those matters are concluded. And I certainly hope that the desire to provide lightning response doesn't take place on I-26.
In sum, email is the communications reality (at least for now), but that doesn't mean that the inbox need be the hub of a lawyer's daily existence. It is a useful tool, if managed properly but not for everything an attorney does. And sometimes only stepping away from that inbox, if only for short amounts of time, is the only way to recognize the reality beyond that interface.
Comments and responses always welcome at @jjpringlesc.