The #1 thing you will do in law practice

Every law school teaches the basics— torts, contracts, criminal law, legal writing, and the basic logic underlying major categories of law. If you take advantage of certain skills courses, a clinical, or externship experience, you may also learn important skills such as client interviewing, how to take a deposition, and courtroom skills.

What law school doesn’t typically teach is that after spending hours outlining, studying for all of those difficult exams, polishing your presentation for moot court competitions, and writing multiple drafts of major legal writing asssignments is that nine times out of ten:

The main task you will engage in as a lawyer is reading, writing, and responding to emails.

This isn’t an exaggeration. Your email inbox pretty much rules your working life when you’re in law practice.

Thus, regardless of where you are practicing geographically, what practice area you are in, and what practice setting you’re in (government, law firm, public interest, in-house), responding to emails in a timely fashion will be imperative to your success. Your supervisor will communicate with you by email, drafts of briefs will be circulated between groups of attorneys by email, opposing counsel will contact you by email, you will get at least some (and perhaps most) assignments by email, and meetings will be scheduled by email. If you are not in the habit of regularly checking email and managing your inbox, this very large component of law practice will be difficult.

So it is vitally important to start honing your email skills while you are in law school.

If you think that you get a lot of emails in your inbox as a law student, once you become a lawyer, you will be floored by the email traffic. So here are three steps you can take in law school to manage email and tackle your inbox like a pro.

1. If an email is sent to you and you alone, adopt a rule that responding within 24 hours is mandatory (unless the email is sent over the weekend)

Regardless of who is sending you an email (a professor, Rebecca Lamp, Anne Hamilton, or the Dean herself), if it is sent directly to you and no one else, the author expects a response. Respond even if you have to decline an invitation or tell them something you think they will not want to hear. For example, if the author of the email is inviting you to a meeting or program your schedule does not permit you to attend, respond quickly to thank them for the invitation and tell them that you have another obligation at that time.

One of my law school colleagues who is now a senior associate at a big law firm in DC especially agrees with this idea. She said:

“The thing I tell juniors is that just like it’s the cover-up and not the crime that gets you in trouble, it’s the lack of communication that causes problems.

As you note, people don’t reply because they don’t like the answer they’re going to give. They also don’t want to admit they are struggling to understand the problem or need an extension. Those things can be fixed. What can’t be fixed is that I think you’re sending me something by X time, and X time rolls around and I don’t have a usable work product either because I have nothing or because you sent something but totally missed the boat. If you had just told me sooner, I could have moved the deadline or added more resources or even just recognized that what I told you actually made no sense (since that often happens!) and done a better job on my end.”

The thing you really want to avoid is failing to respond to emails. It will be best for your career if everyone working with you knows that you are a reliable emailer and that communicating with you by email is an effective way to get things done. A polite, respectful, and prompt response to an email will not hurt your reputation. Ignoring the email altogether will.

I am a big fan of responding to emails to acknowledge receipt. Nothing is worse than sending a draft of a project to a supervisor or teammate and getting no response. It is really nice to get a “thanks for sending this, I will review it later” so you know the supervisor has seen your email and is aware that you met a deadline and the ball is now in their court. Start engaging in this email practice now to build the good habit.

Another one of my law school colleagues who practices IP law at a big firm in DC agrees with this sentiment and added on, saying:

“One of the worst pieces of “professional” advice I ever read (I think it was Huffington Post or Business Insider) was to never respond to an email just to say “thanks” or some single word that does nothing more than confirm that you got the email because doing so is “wasting their time”.

People get very agitated when met with radio silence. Even a simple “confirmed” can go a long way toward developing a reputation for responsiveness.”

And another law school colleague of mine who practices corporate law in New York said:

“YES. Inbox management is so key, and I had no clue it was even a thing before I became an associate. As a first year, if I hadn’t had a senior associate on an early deal who taught me her inbox management system I think would have immediately drowned. The only thing in your post I may have revised is that I believe 24 hours is way too long to respond to an email. You do indicate it is good to respond with at least a “received, I’ll get back to you by X,” on the same day the message is received, which I think is ESSENTIAL for client contact and good practice for internal communication as well.”

2. If email distracts you from getting major projects done, set designated times during the day to check your inbox

I totally get it. If you’re working on a long brief or major project that requires deep thinking, you only get your best, most focused work done when you are in what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D calls “the flow state.” Getting into that state requires focusing uninterrupted for long periods. I am the first to admit that checking email every 3 minutes is not compatible with the flow state in the least. So, set times during the day that are email check in times— say first thing in the morning, noon, and 4 and only check emails during those times while you spend the rest of the day in flow. You’ll get your deep thinking project done while still maintaining a 24 hour email response time.

If you’re really in crunch time trying to finish a project such as the day before a brief is due, set an out of office message that says you’re trying to meet a deadline and are not checking email until tomorrow. I have absolutely done that before when I just have to get something done. No one will get offended by a delayed email response if they know the reason for the delay at the outset and know that the delay is only temporary.

3. Be mindful that everyone has an email reputation and be honest with yourself about what yours is

Everyone has an email reputation. We all have people in our lives who routinely fail to respond to email, consistently take a week to respond, or don’t answer questions that we directly posed in an email to them. Don’t be that person. When you know that someone is like that, if you really need a response out of them, you are forced to communicate with them in different ways. When my husband and I were waiting on RSVPs to our wedding invitation, we both had a few family members who just didn’t read email so we had to call them directly or asked a family member who was regularly in touch with them if they were attending.

The office equivalent of this is just heading directly to the bad emailer’s office to ask them in person or calling them. If your email reputation is bad enough that people are resorting to going directly to your office or calling you for answers, there is some self-improvement that should be engaged in.

On the other hand, some people have a reputation for being such a reliable emailer that people will email the reliable emailer to figure out what is going on with something that they know an unreliable emailer is managing. So if you’re an unreliable emailer, you cause more work for the reliable emailers. That is never a good look in the office.

Pride yourself on being a reliable emailer.

I would go so far as to say that being a reliable emailer can overcome a lot of deficiencies in the work place.

For instance, if your supervisor emails you to tell you that the draft of the memo you sent her was not up to her standards and you respond promptly that you will get working on a new draft immediately, that signals that you are eager to improve and accountable. It signals that maybe your draft failed to meet her standards not because you didn’t put the work in and you don’t really care but because you are a new lawyer and you are learning.

You generate a great deal of goodwill and are way more likely to get the benefit of the doubt if you’re a reliable emailer.

So if you think your email skills could be improved, try implementing these three pieces of advice and you’ll be on your way to acing your inbox.

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