I picked up a couple of pet peeves while working as an associate attorney at several different law firms before starting my own shop over four years ago. Perhaps the most ridiculous phenomenon of some law firm managers I witnessed during my career as an associate is that some partners send follow-up emails an unreasonably short amount of time after the first email was sent. This tactic is often not useful and can lead to ill will and low morale around an office.
When I was an associate working at a midsize firm, I would often get emails from bosses after normal working hours. Generally, managers should refrain from sending emails outside of normal working hours, but I get how, in emergencies, sometimes this is unavoidable. Moreover, sometimes lawyers send out emails when they remember to do something so that they do not forget during the next business day.
In any event, one of the partners sent an email around 10 p.m. — around the time I usually go to sleep. I received the email during my end-of-the-day routine and did not think I needed to respond immediately, since it was not an emergency and could be dealt with during business hours. I felt like it was completely appropriate to respond to the partner first thing when I got to the office the next day.
At around 7 a.m. the next day, the partner sent me a follow-up email asking if I got the first email! I thought this was inappropriate on a number of levels. For one, this nonessential communication was happening outside of normal business hours when it could have easily occurred during business hours. Beyond this, the partner had sent a completely unneeded email without giving me enough time to respond to the first message. Any reasonable person could see that I may not have the ability to read and respond to the email already since they were both sent outside of business hours and within a short amount of waking time from each other.
At other points, partners might send follow up emails during the same day a mere hour or two after sending the initial email. Since people might be in court or working on time-sensitive matters, this is usually not enough time for people to respond to the initial email. Unless a partner knows that an associate is in an office and at their desk, they should not assume that just an hour or two of response time is sufficient before sending a follow-up email.
Such emails can lead to some negative outcomes in offices. Perhaps most importantly, unneeded follow-up emails can create more work for associates. This creation of additional messages that associates need to read and respond to can make it even more difficult for associates to keep track of all of the matters to which they need to respond. Also, these messages can be annoying, show associates that partners do not respect work-life balance, and show that partners do not have a sense of reasonableness around work expectations.
There are a few rules that partners and other managers can follow to make sure that they do not send too many unneeded emails. One rule? Just give people who are known to be working and not on vacation, a full 24 hours before sending out a follow-up email. There is a natural expectation that recipients of emails will respond to the messages within one day, and if they do not, this might be reason to send a follow-up email.
Of course, there are instances in which someone cannot wait a full day to confirm whether a recipient has seen an email and is responding to the message. However, the least amount of time that seems appropriate to give people before sending a follow-up message is half a day. If someone sends an email first thing in the morning, they should wait at least until the afternoon before following up. Moreover, if someone sends an email in the afternoon, it might make sense to follow up no sooner than the next morning. This gives people a reasonable amount of time to respond to emails without disturbance.
All told, associates and other professionals at law firms are usually busy, and sending unneeded follow-up emails can clutter inboxes and annoy workers. Partners and other managers should follow a few simple steps to ensure that do not send out too many unneeded follow-up messages.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.
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