The State of Email Bankruptcies

It’s been roughly four years since Larry Lessig called attention to the problem of so-called “email bankruptcy,” described in this article in Wired Magazine. Essentially it’s a type of sheer volume overload, where it becomes so overwhelming that the recipient “gives up” even trying to respond to the messages. In this case, the recipient sent out an automated message notifying the senders that they should not even attempt a reply.

Part of this is that Professor Lessig is a visionary and very popular, and the same could be said of any well-known “public intellectual” figure (our very own set of celebrities!). But I think this question is still lurking four years later: how do you deal with the creeping numbers of emails? I’m not talking about spam, but more just large volume from people you do know or should know or have some responsibility to.

I have a mixed relationship with email. I wonder if this is partially an age/lifestyle question. I went through high school without having an email account, only to go to a college where the phone sat unused and dates were made by sending a flirtatious email (far easier than getting up the nerve and getting past the awkwardness to ask out/be asked out in person!) All through law school, email was “fun.” I used to joke about my email addiction; partially I think the addiction is that it is a gamble – you never know what might turn up in your inbox. That long-lost friend gets in touch, someone starts a “flame” war, you get news of a breaking case.

Somewhere in there, working for the firms, actually, email (and keeping it up with it) turned into something to be “managed.” Step away from the computer to talk to someone and you might miss an entire conversation. Further, as easy as it is to insult someone on email (forget about tone), it’s equally as easy to insult someone by not replying at all, or in some cases replying late (if s/he really cared, my message would be opened rapidly and with glee).

I wonder though, if some of us don’t go through varying phases or cycles of email bankruptcy (perhaps selectively so). How many of us keep email open all day? Check emails from the phone? Read email only on weekdays? Read emails only during certain hours in the day? Print all their email out and mark it up (someone down the hall from me actually does this)? Check emails while on vacation? Go through a month where you answer only minimal emails only then to become very chatty the next month?

It is probably not the most efficient to keep email open all the time, but I always have had an email addiction, so I do that three or four days of the week when I’m working. I do try to prioritize student emails to make sure that they are getting answers fairly quickly, although that gets difficult when you have a Business Associations class approaching 100 students.

Are norms and best practices and efficiencies coming into place for this? Do any law schools have guidelines or suggestions for those who are getting overwhelmed? I ran into some short self-help articles and I’m sure if I went to the business section of the library or local bookstore I could probably find many general materials on effective use of email. But what about the law firm and specifically law school environments. Are there any special characteristics that might lend themselves to best practices there?

You may also like...