Email really does require a level of maintenance and I wanted to share the rules that I actually created around email, the email inbox, and why I constantly struggle with email.
In this episode, we discuss:
- The email requires a level of maintenance.
- Setting rules and boundaries around communication through emails will help you to prioritize.
- How to use the tools that are available electronically to manage what is getting in your inbox.
- Making time to check and deal with email and how to stick to it
SEE THE FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Allison Williams: [00:00:05] Hi, everybody. It’s Allison Williams here, your host of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you to grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.
Allison Williams: [00:00:30] Today we’re going to talk about Email. Now, I know you’re probably thinking what a boring topic. Why are we covering the topic of email? Why is this something that we’re actually getting a full podcast episode on? But it really goes to the title of the episode, which is Crushing the Email Chaos, because one of the things that I have noticed in my own life, and this is something that I always like to bring to you guys, I always like to, you know, bring you the real of being a successful business owner. Because I know for a lot of you, the conception of yourself as a, as a successful business owner hasn’t yet materialized. And I want you to see elements of where you are in your journey, in the people that you aspire to, the people that are right alongside you, and the people that are not quite where you are. Because there is a certain human element to a lot of the strategies that we talk about here at Law Firm Mentor that I think a lot of people just kind of overlook. They think these are the, these are the top-notch strategies. These are the things that you get to when you’re over successful or when you’re going to grow to the stars. And the reality is getting a hold of ourselves and controlling ourselves, our emotions, our thoughts to lead to a more successful life is at the heart of the human journey.
Allison Williams: [00:01:55] So with that, one of the things that I always like to share with you guys is the real of my own struggles. And one of the things that I am notoriously bad at is email. I will just own that right now. In fact, I’m looking at my phone right now and if you go to the icon on the bottom, I have an iPhone to go to the bottom. You know how they have those icons across the bottom? Well, my email icon says that there are 68,626 email messages as of when I am recording this June 3rd, 2022. And I have a very, very, very brilliant best friend who is team inbox zero. And she always tells me how much anxiety is caused by simply seeing the number of emails that I have in my inbox. And I tell her all the time, obviously, I’m not waiting to respond to 68,000 people. So it’s not that they’re active emails, but they’re emails that I haven’t sorted, emails that I haven’t moved from one place to another. Now, those of you that follow this podcast know that I actually have two seven-figure companies, and so I actually have somewhere around 25 different email inboxes altogether between generic emails, payment emails, standard communications, CEO communications for my law firm, CEO communications for my coaching business. So all of those inboxes are not necessarily directing communications to me. But I do have a tendency sometimes to just kind of stop the rules that I put in place that made email so much less stressful for me. And since most of the communications where I am needed are not getting access to me by virtue of email, I’m less concerned about falling off the wagon right now in my career than I was when I was a lawyer. And God forbid missing an email could mean missing a client deadline, or missing an urgent communication from an adversary, or, God forbid, missing something from a court.
Allison Williams: [00:03:59] So email is definitely something that since we use it the way that we do in our society, it really does require a level of maintenance that may be something that you could have overlooked in a different profession or even in a different stage of your career. So I wanted to share with you guys the rules that I actually create around email, the email inbox, and part of what’s precipitating the thought of sharing this with you guys right now is the fact that I’m looking at my email inbox and say, Yeah, we need to get back on the wagon. We need to, we need to get back on to our own little system here because we definitely have let some things slide.
Allison Williams: [00:04:40] So the very first thing I always tell lawyers about email is that creating rules around email is really important. Now, when I say rules around email, I’m not talking about the rules that you can install in your G-Suite inbox or your Outlook inbox. Absolutely, those are a part of creating rules. But here when I talk about rules, I’m talking about the global creation of rules. Meaning when are you going to respond to email? How frequently are you going to respond to email? Have you told the people who are sending email communications to you when they are likely to expect a response? I think so much anxiety for us as business owners and as lawyers, in general, tends to rise around the idea of being perpetually available to every person who needs you. Right now, in my law firm, we have well over 200 clients. If all of those human beings and all of their adversaries, all of the adverse parties, and all of the adverse attorneys, and all of the experts, and all of the guardians at Litem, and all of the court personnel associated with all of those cases had an expectation that as soon as they send me a communication, I will immediately snap and get right back to them. That would be impossible. I would literally do nothing all day except respond to email, and even then I couldn’t possibly service at all.
Allison Williams: [00:06:00] Now, luckily, I have nine attorneys in my law firm, so that now is not the load that’s on my shoulders. But for a lot of you, you’re at a stage in your business journey where that is on your shoulders, right? Every client is, quote, your client. And so if you don’t set rules and boundaries around when people can expect to hear from you, the instantaneous nature of email, the idea that I am communicating in real-time with a person, that feeling is there for the person who sends an email. And even though we oftentimes will bash clients and sometimes even adversaries who will expect an instantaneous response, I want you to really think about your own email behavior. Most of us don’t send an email and then diary 24 to 48 hours out for us to receive a response. A lot of us send a communication and then it’s out of sight, out of mind, and then we circle back and say, okay, I haven’t heard from this person. Let me follow up. You may be following up 4 hours out, could be 10 hours out, could be two days out. But what is the expectation of the person on the other side? Usually you don’t know. So if you don’t create rules to educate others around when they can expect to receive communications from you, how can you really get upset when someone on the other side of communication from you doesn’t immediately respond to you because they don’t have the same expectation you do.
Allison Williams: [00:07:24] So much of this is really around setting expectations. And that includes all emails, right? Not just emails from people external to your company, but even within your own company, you should be devising rules around what is appropriate for email versus what is appropriate for Microsoft teams or Slack versus what is appropriate for a text message to your private cell phone versus what’s appropriate not to be put in writing other than to request a meeting to discuss something. When you start to create that framework, then it becomes a lot easier for you to know when something sent in an email is urgent or does require your actual time commitment now versus later. Now another part of the creating rules is that you do want to use the tools that are available electronically to manage what is coming into your inbox. I use this nifty little tool called Sane Box, Sane Box, and the same box will filter all communications that come in. So the very first time someone emails me, they don’t land in my inbox, they land in my sanebox, and I have to then program them to be permitted into my Sane box or pardon me, into my inbox. The beauty of that is that if you want to give out your work email so that you can receive a freemium or a downloadable, or maybe even if you purchase something for your business, that’s not likely to recur and you don’t want to get promotional emails, or coupons, or things like that in your inbox, you can simply sort them into your sanebox so that they don’t ultimately come into your inbox. That means you’re still going to look at them at some point, but you’re not going to look at them every day. They’re not going to interrupt your day with those communications.
Allison Williams: [00:09:09] Another consideration is that when you are creating rules, you want to create a filtering system so that you know when you’re going to respond to certain communications. So one of the easiest things that I have ever done this was like the, the most simplest little trick, if you will, to make my inbox cleaner when I was actively litigating cases at a high volume most of my days, this is when I first started my law firm and I only had a paralegal. I didn’t even have an associate yet is that I had a folder for clients so that every communication came into my inbox from a client. I would program their email to come into the client’s inbox. So it didn’t just land in the inbox, it landed in the client’s folder. And then within my client’s folder I had the name of every single client. So that communications that came from a client would go into the client’s inbox and then later I would manually move it into the appropriate inbox sorted.
Allison Williams: [00:10:09] Now, at some point I delegated this responsibility, so that means that my client inbox would be installed onto the outlook of another team member. And so every time Susie Smith would email me, Susie Smith’s email would automatically go into the client’s inbox. So I wouldn’t even see it. And then my secretary would ultimately drag and drop it from the client’s inbox into the Smith comma Susie inbox. And the beautiful thing is you can move email around by dragging and dropping it without ever opening it so that it remains highlighted. Then you’d have a specific time of the day when those communications are going to be accessible.
Allison Williams: [00:10:52] Now, for some people, I’ve had the question asked to me, are you going to also do a sort on adversaries in courts, etc.? Well, the challenge with doing that in the same fashion as you handle your clients is that you may have adversaries that are only on one case, or depending on your practice area, you may have adversaries that are on a multitude of cases. So you don’t want John Doe, the attorney, sending you an email that always goes into Susie Smith’s inbox, because ultimately he may be emailing you about Susie Smith, he may be emailing you about Beth Jackson, he may be emailing you about John Smith and so forth. Right. So you probably want to have an adversary’s inbox just so that, you know, it’s a communication from an attorney. But then you’re going to have to look at what the subject of that email is in order to sort it appropriately. And for the most part, if you ask nicely to your adversaries, hey, can you put the client name or the, or the legal matter in the subject heading just before you email me so I know where it goes. Then again, your team can sort it to the appropriate inbox so that when you are later looking at it, you are looking at it through the lens of the appropriate case. Doing this, by the way, saves an inordinate amount of time. And for those of you that are saying, man, having a staff person to have to be involved in this is going to take time and money. I want you to think about the fact that you are probably a three, four, five, six, $700 an hour lawyer. Don’t know what your rate is or even the economic value. For those of you that don’t bill hourly, I don’t know what the economic value is of your service, but it is probably higher than the secretary and most certainly higher than someone like a VA. You can get a virtual assistant now for a few dollars an hour. Right. And while I don’t personally like to participate in what I consider to be in some places oppressive economic labor, there are companies that pay what is considered to be at or above a living wage to personnel in other countries, but they are at a lower cost than personnel here in the US.
Allison Williams: [00:12:59] So you can ultimately give what is an appropriate wage for a staff person without being a part of an oppressive labor situation and be able to save yourself some money in the process of staffing up, especially when you’re younger, when you’re newer, and when I say younger, I mean younger in the ownership of a law firm, when you’re newer to it and you really are at that scrappy stage where you have to be very conservative financially. So creating rules around this and using whatever resources are available to you to automate that process for you can really save the mental chatter that happens when your email inbox is just kind of exploding.
Allison Williams: [00:13:37] Okay. Strategy number two is that for your email to crush your email chaos, you really have to make time to check and deal with email and you have to stick to it. Now, what I mean by this is I know the instinct, right? I have, I have definitely been one of these shiny object or squirrel type people where my inbox is open, it’s up, it’s staring at me, and then I’m doing something else, right. I could be working on a legal brief and then all of a sudden I either get the ping notification, oh my God, I’m getting an email. So you look over or if you’ve turned your volume off, you see the floating email in the bottom right hand corner of your inbox. Or it could just be that you look up and at one point you had only a few email messages, and now you see a long list of email messages that are demanding your time and attention.
Allison Williams: [00:14:32] Well, one of the things that you want to do is you want to get out of the habit of seeing distraction because even though you may intellectually opt not to deal with something, even though you’re seeing it, just the very fact that you are aware of it and it’s coming into your awareness tends to be a distraction from what you are focused on, because you have to think about, am I going to deal with this now or am I going to deal with it later? Right. And if you don’t know what it is, sometimes just that, God, what is that? Is it something urgent? Is it somebody following my rule? Is it someone breaking my rule? Is it something that’s going to cause a disruption to my weekend? Right. Your mind can oftentimes go down the spiral if you don’t have it managed. So one of the things that can help you manage your mind, help you manage your thoughts around all of the chaos that’s coming at you, is to simply not let it come at you. Keeping your inbox closed while you are working on other things tends to help with that, and making sure that you have a designated time for checking your email is really going to be beneficial.
Allison Williams: [00:15:38] Now I can already hear some of you out there that are screaming, Hey, wait a minute, I have a really needy client and that client just won’t stop emailing me and if I don’t answer within an hour or two, they’re going to call, and call, and call or they’re going to email, email, or email. Well, here’s the thing, you have to be the leader of your law firm. As the person whose name is on the door. You don’t have the luxury of opting out of being a leader. You are a leader by virtue of being hired by a client. You are a leader by virtue of owning a law firm. So that means you have to set the rules as to how people will engage with you and what is or is not acceptable. And when you step into that authority, when you tell people not rudely, not dismissively, not in a way that says, I don’t want to be bothered with you, but in a way that says, I create these rules in order that I can be my best self for you, just as I must be my best self for my next client, for my previous client, for every client that I represent. You deserve that, as do they. When that message comes through resoundingly to the person to whom you are giving a rule, the rule doesn’t land like my lawyer doesn’t want to be bothered with me. The rule lands like my lawyer is of such high quality, and of such high character, and of such premium desirability that people are lining up for them. And I get my moment. My moment is my moment, right? My moment is not split between me and 50 other people, right? It’s not. Oh, God, I get to have my itch scratched right now. It’s Oh, my God, my lawyer is in high demand. I get the piece of him or her when I need him or her and all the other time. That time is dedicated to other things because my lawyer is not somebody who has ample free time. Right. Lawyers with ample free time are typically not in high demand. Right. So you have to convey your value through everything that you communicate to your client. And the very fact that you are creating structure does that.
Allison Williams: [00:17:44] The other thing to keep in mind is that when you create a time to deal with things, you have a certain level of confidence that it will be dealt with. So if you don’t even have the box open, but you open up your inbox at, let’s say 11:40 p.m., and you know that 12:00 is going to be the time that you’re going to deal with the inbox. Then you can say, Here’s the order in which I’m going to deal with it. Things in my client folder, things in my advisory folder, things in my court’s folder, things in my inbox, right? And you can have a process and a system to do that so that you can be more efficient in moving through your email when you actually deal with it, instead of having your mind kind of bounce from thing, to thing, to thing your mind is focused on email, email, email, email, email. And for those of you that are resistant to doing things like capturing your time or billing your time, depending, depending on your business model, this is a way that can expedite that, right? Because if you’re just sitting between the hours of 12:00 pm and 2 p.m. and banging out all of the reviewing and responding to emails, then you can actually delegate having someone go through your inbox and say that two hour time period needs to be divided between the people that you’re sending out communications to. They can simply look in your inbox and do that. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of that because I do think there is something that can be lost in translation when a team member is reading what you have written to have to discern it, because then they have to read it well enough to get the flavor of what the purpose of the communication is versus you simply doing that yourself. But it’s better to have someone do it than to have no one do it and to have you say, I’ll just get around to that later and you never get around to it. And then when you’re hungry and it’s time to issue some bills, you’re like, Oh crap, I just got to get these out.
Allison Williams: [00:19:32] And you forget an hour or two here, an hour or two there, an hour or two here, and next thing you know, ten, 12, 15, 20, 40 hours of that month are gone because you didn’t capture them because you didn’t get around to it. Right. So contemporaneous billing really helps with that. We actually have a training here at Law Firm Mentor all about how to maintain and capture all of your billable hours. If you’d like that resource, you can click on the link in our show notes. We’ve included that in this episode for those of you that would benefit from that.
Allison Williams: [00:20:03] Okay. Third strategy in crushing your email chaos. And this is the one that’s probably going to be most triggering for all of you. You have to remove your email from your phone. Now, I remember we had a really, really powerful group coaching call here at Law Firm Mentor, and it was during one of those calls where someone presented the topic that they were just overwhelmed by all that was on their plate. So I started asking some questions and the thing that they kept coming back to is all the emails coming at them. So we talked about email management as a strategy, and then I asked the person, How are you currently dealing with email? And the person told me, Well, every morning I get up, I wake up at 6 a.m., go to the bathroom, come back, lay in the bed for another 10 minutes and during that time period, I am usually checking social media, checking my email, checking my calendar for the day, kind of kickstarting the day. And so they’ve already taken in ten, 12 to 15 communications that have come in since they left the office the night before. And they’re absorbing all of the problems of the day before they even get out of bed in the morning. They haven’t even given themselves time to breathe, time to stretch, time to exercise, time to eat a healthy meal, time to spend time with their kids, time to get up and get themselves psychologically prepped for the day. They have just jumped into the shit of the day before the day has even begun. So we talked about that and explore that as a theme. And it turned out that quite a few people I asked the question, How many of you have done something similar that you roll over, grab your phone, and dive into email before you’re really up and running. And quite a few of our clients have done that, and I personally also have done that. Right. And now I have become mere expert at managing my mind. Very few things that could put be put in an email to me could ever cause me emotional disruption to the point where I’m actually thinking about it after I’ve read it. So I don’t really have this concern anymore, which is the reason why I have reinstalled my inbox on my phone.
Allison Williams: [00:22:18] But for a lot of our clients and myself included, at one point in time I was where my clients are. I’ve been on this journey for a long time and I remember different stages where I have been on the journey. I have told them, Remove your, your email inbox from your phone. And you could just see the blank stare. It was almost like I had told them to, like, go home and shoot their mom in the face. I mean it was just that bizarre a suggestion. But when we really explored it. And I said, How many of you deal in what you consider to be an urgent practice area? Criminal defense, family law, civil forfeiture? Right. There were a whole host of different areas where people had someone reaching out to them about something that they consider to be urgent. And then I started exploring those problems. Right? If the person is in jail and you have not yet been retained, there could be an urgency there because there could be an opportunity to actually secure a client that you might miss if you don’t answer your phone. But probably the average person who’s looking for a lawyer to get their loved one out of jail is not emailing. They’re calling. Right. And for the people that practice in family law, you know, pick up and drop off being at 5:30 and the child is not brought home, that person again, is probably not going to email their lawyer. They’re probably going to call their lawyer.
Allison Williams: [00:23:47] And so for those of you that deal in crisis mode, there is a way to install the crisis mode back phone, if you will, so that people can get that urgent access when there is truly urgency. One of the things I highly recommend is that you actually define out for your clients what is urgency, right? What is an urgent matter versus something that they just feel an urgent feeling about that happens not to be a legal emergency, but defining out your legal emergencies and giving them urgency access to you is definitely something that is good business practice for a law firm, allowing people unfettered access to you because they have an emotional urge that says this is an emergency, is really the product of not setting reasonable expectations. And if you set reasonable expectations, the greatest barrier to enforcing the urgent expectation or the expectations that you set for other people is you right. You are typically the thing that stands between the rule that you set and the client’s compliance, because you are most likely to have practiced in a certain way that says, I step in fetch for every client that comes through my door or I lose the client, right? We learn that message from other lawyers that have trained us, that have taught us others, that practice beside us, and we take in that toxic message, and then we run ourselves like slaves and wonder why we’re burned out.
Allison Williams: [00:25:15] So I’m not suggesting to you that you immediately throw caution to the winds and tell your client, Yeah, I’m not answering anymore. Have a good life. You know, you don’t want to dismiss your clients, but you do want to reset your relationship in a way that is most productive for you and for them. So that you can be a better version of yourself for you and for them. They get something out of this too, and taking email off your phone is one very powerful strategy that allows you to be free of the mental stress that oftentimes will wear you out, and wear you out of the practice of law long before you even get to your office. All right. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. You have been listening to another episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. I’ll see you on our next episode.
Allison Williams: [00:26:12] Thank you for tuning in to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. To learn more about today’s show and take advantage of the resources mentioned. Check out our show notes. And if you enjoy today’s episode, take a moment to follow the podcast wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating and review. This helps us to reach even more law firm owners from around the country who want to crush chaos in business and make more money. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor, everyone. Have a great day.
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is the Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.
Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm by 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest-growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.
In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining, and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications, and money management in law firms.
My favorite excerpt from the episode:
TIME: 00:20:36 (38 Seconds)
So we talked about email management as a strategy, and then I asked the person, How are you currently dealing with email? And the person told me, Well, every morning I get up, I wake up at 6 a.m., go to the bathroom, come back, lay in the bed for another 10 minutes and during that time period, I am usually checking social media, checking my email, checking my calendar for the day, kind of kickstarting the day. And so they’ve already taken in ten, 12 to 15 communications that have come in since they left the office the night before. And they’re absorbing all of the problems of the day before they even get out of bed in the morning.