April 2023

The hardest part of being a lawyer? Email

By Cresston D. Gackle

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my email. The last thing I do every day is check my email. Somewhere between the third and fourth sentence anyone speaks to me, I check my email. 

I probably check my email in my sleep.

Email can be addictive. It’s a one-stop shop of notifications of new information on all my court cases as well as an interactive to-do list. Email also makes me feel needed; responding to email makes me feel useful. But because I have no boundaries around it, it intrudes upon my work, my life, and my relationships.

While email is essential to modern legal practice, it remains one of my most inefficient tools. I too often see (and use) email as a punting mechanism to kick projects between people until someone finally takes the next substantive step forward. Projects frequently stall out on receipt of a particularly long or next-steps-laden email that demands the receiver perform several tasks before responding—followed by an email that asks for clarification or updates. Email threads are a Gordian knot of information that saps everyone’s memory and accountability. Email is like a coping mechanism for anxiety about task completion: As long as something resides on someone else’s to-do list, it’s not on our own.

Email is also highly disruptive to completing other tasks. The escalating red number on my email app and the Pavlovian ping on my electronic devices signal yet another task that demands priority. The receipt of a particularly lengthy, obtuse, or disconcerting email can throw off a whole day’s plan for court hearings, preparation, or other tasks. Emails tacitly demand an answer before it’s reasonable to expect one both during and after working hours. Coupled with institutional demands of legal practice, email systems mean 1) work piles up while we’re away, building the dread of an inevitable return to a mountain of unread emails; and 2) everyone thinks their email is the one that should be answered first or within a set timeframe. Email persistently demands that we fail to keep work in its place: at work and during those working hours when we are not in the middle of completing other tasks.

Additionally, I’ve found email to be the worst kind of to-do list. Because it’s organized only by the time of sending and receipt, there’s no concept of priority in emails. Of course, we’ve all received “high priority” or “urgent” emails which in themselves are another grave misuse of email. Email is not designed for emergencies. It’s like putting a post-it note on someone’s desk saying there’s a fire on the floor below. 

Finally, email usually fails to convey tone and nuance. It’s not a very humane form of communication. I don’t know whether your ellipses convey impatience with me or the fact you’ve chosen to pause in your thought process as you composed your email. Nor is it helpful to receive a seemingly sharp email without being able to sense the sender’s body language and facial expressions. 

In short, email has deeply impacted my well-being as a lawyer. I have developed an unhealthy reliance upon a tool of communication never meant to be much more than a means of greeting someone and asking to set up a meeting. It is also the part of my work I take home, intruding upon my morning and nightly routines, my spare time, and the time I spend with friends and family. It breaks down the boundaries I place around my attempts at work-life balance, inevitably spilling into the time I devote to not working.

Email is a daily tax on my well-being. I’m a zero-unread-emails kind of person. I can’t stand leaving emails unanswered because ultimately I can’t find rest outside work unless the oppressive to-do list that is my inbox has been dealt with. And so I strive constantly for the ephemeral goal of an empty inbox.

In view of my poor relationship with email, in early September 2022, I added the following to my firm and public defender email signatures:

Thank you for sending me your message.
I appreciate your taking the time to do so.
To reduce interruptions to my work flow and to my life outside of work, I will be reviewing email for one hour per business day. I will not be reviewing email on Saturdays, Sundays, legal holidays, sick days, or vacation days. I will respond to your message in due time and I appreciate your patience in allowing me due time to respond.

At the time, I was checking my work email incessantly. As my partner and friends could attest, I had no boundaries around checking my email. It would be the first and last thing I did every day and the thing I’d do in every in-between moment.

So far, this experiment has been a partial success. I still check my email constantly both at and outside of my work. I haven’t been consistent with holding off on checking email until I’ve completed my morning routine. I have succeeded in responding to email very little if at all on weekends and holidays, even if the email seems to demand a more immediate response. My email response notice has become more of a mantra than a practice, something I strive to hold to but fall short of each day. I do think it helps remind me, and others who choose to read the small print at the bottom of my emails, that email should not be used for emergencies and that work is not my top priority in non-working hours.

I believe the way I use email must fundamentally change or else it will contribute to my exit from the profession. I should of course send less email and I should also respond to email more slowly. I should internalize that email is never for emergencies nor for the most important communications we have with each other. It has been and always will be a slow, shallow, and soporific puzzle of an activity, not a meaningful place to engage with others in problem-solving, discussion, or connection.

Rather than fighting through the slog of shallow and vague emails, I can envision a legal practice where communication only involves speaking directly to people, the kind of communication centered on collaborative interaction that is more human, more direct, and more connected. Perhaps someday I will simply delete my email address and tell people they can mail me everything they need to send me and meet with me to tell me everything they need to tell me. I believe that could be a healthier—and more efficient—practice than continuing with the way our profession currently uses email.

CRESSTON GACKLE is assistant public defender in the Third District Public Defender’s Office and a sole practitioner at Cresston Law LLC.

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