Considerations before pushing the send key

The average worker sends and receives about 140 emails per day. And lawyers, of course, are above average.

Not to sound like a troglodyte, but I do worry that the constant flow of emails can prevent me from thinking. In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut published a short story called "Harrison Bergeron." The narrative took place in 2081, in a dystopian future where the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the Constitution provided that all Americans must be fully equal. As a result, no one was allowed to be smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. So government agents forced citizens to wear "handicaps": masks for those who were too good looking, heavy weights for the athletic, and loud radios to disrupt thoughts inside the heads of intelligent people. On my worst days, the buzz of emails reminds me of the loud radios in "Harrison Bergeron."

So I try to manage the email traffic. I get up early to undertake work that requires thought and concentration (usually writing). The email traffic around 4 a.m. is, luckily, light. I turn off my Outlook for an hour at a time during the day if I need to focus. And I try to set times during the day to respond to emails.

But I also want to spare others the pain of interruption. And so I've been studying the best ways to communicate via email.

Limit the emails: As a first step, I have started asking myself whether I even need to send an email. If a conversation will require more than three emails (back and forth), I generally try to pick up the phone. Email can be useful when someone is hard to reach on the phone, I need to send a document, or I want a record of the conversation (we are lawyers). But email might not be the right medium if the message is long or complicated or emotionally charged.

Consider tone: The American Psychological Association reports that an inability to step outside of one's own head may be behind e-mail miscommunication. And science has confirmed that we do frequently misinterpret email tone. Study participants sent and received email messages - half that were intended to be sarcastic and half intended to be sincere. And the participants felt pretty good about their ability to appreciate tone: writers believed that their intended tone and message were clear 75 percent of the time. And readers believed that they had clearly interpreted the meaning 90 percent of the time. But the readers of the emails actually misinterpreted the messages 50 percent of the time.

Consider message: I try to state my email's purpose in the first sentence, keep it brief, and close with a call to action (or an indication that no action is necessary). If there is a deadline, I put it in bold. I spoke on a panel recently with several in-house counsel. One of the in-house lawyers mentioned that "the worst" thing a lawyer could do was to forward an email that just said "FYI." She explained that "FYI" didn't tell her anything; she had to read the whole string to figure out why the person thought that she needed this information. Her complaint resonated (and I quickly thought back through my day in horror wondering if I had committed this sin). These days, I try to send emails that explain or justify their purpose: "FYI here is opposing counsel's promise to provide documents within two weeks."

Consider subject line: Subject lines can help us locate key emails in our Outlook haystacks. I try to take a few minutes to craft a title that (1) conveys the main point of the email; and (2) can assist with filing of the email (including the case or matter name in the subject line). I also view it as my general duty as a good citizen to change the subject line when a thread metastasizes and an email with the subject line "lunch" turns into a substantive discussion about deposition scheduling.

Consider greetings and sign offs: The one-person greeting is easy: Dear John. But groups can get tricky. I usually favor an inclusive "counsel," "team," or "all," when there are multiple recipients. And that's because I generally want to throw something at the wall when I am included on an email string that starts with the greeting "gentlemen." I usually sign my emails with a jaunty "best." It is brief and (I hope) professional sounding. Apparently, some millennials are using "xoxo" in an office setting. This seems like an (obviously) terrible idea, and I encourage all of us to advise against this practice if we see it in action.

Learn from direct marketers: There are people who have actual data about improving email response rates. It turns out that we are more likely to inspire a response if we provide our recipients with (1) binary options; (2) tangible requests; (3) our email is about 50 to 125 words; and (4) we send our email in the morning.

Studies have confirmed that a compulsion to immediately respond to work emails or worry obsessively about returning them leads to fatigue, lost sleep, and lack of focus. And more recent research showcases the long-term health effects of these issues - there is a direct link between these issues and an array of health conditions including hypertension, thyroid disease and heart failure. So I'm doubling down on my efforts to stem the tide. I won't send an email unless it is necessary. I will make my reader's job easy. And, whenever I can, I'll elect to pick up the phone. An added benefit? I'll never accidentally "reply all" on the phone.

Published: Wed, Jun 27, 2018