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Tips to declutter bloated email inboxes

With the busy end-of-year period underway, many lawyers may feel overwhelmed by the constant pings of new emails coming through. Here’s how you can better manage your inbox.

user iconEmma Musgrave 19 December 2023 Corporate Counsel
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Speaking on a recent episode of The Corporate Counsel Show, Michael Milnes, senior corporate counsel at TPG Telecom, spoke about how he navigates an increasingly busy inbox.

“Email is one of these funny things where it’s very pervasive to an in-house lawyer’s work, and I’ve seen some incredible stats that some lawyers can spend as much as two-thirds of their working time in and around their inbox, so their email is effectively their job,” Mr Milnes said.

“If you talk to somebody about email, you get a negative emotional reaction about it. People dislike it; it makes them anxious or stressed.”


This anxiety and stress leave many lawyers feeling as though they’re unable to tackle emails in a proactive manner and are forever playing catch-up, Mr Milnes said.

“They feel like they work hard all day, and then they arrive the next day and the inbox is back to full again,” he said.

“I looked at my inbox earlier just to pick out some themes of what the inbox is being used for, and you’ll find emails [such as] draft documents: ‘Here’s my comments below’, and then somebody else has already replied saying, ‘Here’s my comments in red’, and then somebody else has chipped in with their comments and they’ve forwarded it on to somebody else … that’s already creating this kind of mental load of open loops.

“… I’ve seen stats on how lawyers use their inbox. People use it for communication, obviously, and there’s different kinds of communication, whether that’s broadcast or one-to-one or collaborative conversations.”

Lawyers also tend to use their inboxes for task management, something Mr Milnes advises against.

“That’s almost treating their inbox as the list of things that they need to do, which doesn’t allow a lot of space to then get on and do the kind of big strategic planning and bigger picture type things because they don’t naturally come through your inbox,” he said.

“Lawyers will often [also] use their email provider or their email software as their main sort of system of record. So, if I put a piece of information, I know it’s in an email, and I know it’s in this folder somewhere else. The way that the system is being used is kind of different to different people, and that can have knock-on problems about how we use it together as a team.”

Thankfully, there are simple strategies lawyers can put in place to reduce headaches associated with having an overactive inbox, Mr Milnes said.

“There are things you can do at a personal level and that I have been able to do over time [that helps] – things like setting up rules for law firm updates … and then scheduling some time to look at it each week rather than [letting] these things pop up,” he said.

“One thing I do is I have my version of Outlook set to ‘Open on calendar mode’, so when I open Outlook, I’m seeing a view of my day ahead rather than the list of emails that have come in. So, my focus is on how much time I have available and what I need to get done rather than who has asked for what and who sent what.

“I know some people say, ‘You should bunch your emails and you should check your emails just twice a day,’ [but] that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. People can be quite anxious knowing that their emails are stacking up in the background and then start getting phone calls saying, ‘I sent you an email this morning, why haven’t you replied?’ So I don’t think that necessarily solves it, but I think there are things that you can do at a team level and strategies that can really transform the volumes of emails that are coming through.”

The first step to reducing email volumes is to start looking at how you’re using your inbox, according to Mr Milnes.

Be quite mindful and spend some time just thinking about how you actually do use email, and if you’re a leader in a team, how your team uses it. [And then] depending on how you work, there are different things you can do.

“For example, anything that is a repeated process should not really unfold by email. When I say a repeated process, [I mean] something like getting a marketing approval from a legal team or contract review and moving on to signature. Things like that are different each time, but they operate within a structured process: the contract comes in, somebody else looks at it, the procurement team might look at it, the legal team needs to look at it. It unfolds in a process.

“At the moment, what happens is this uncoordinated, unscheduled conversation: ‘Here’s an email, please see my comments’, people chip in. It’s all very unstructured and just rolls forward in this kind of uncoordinated way.

“A process could be that somebody uploads it to a folder, and if you upload something by Monday by 5pm, then on Tuesdays between 10–11am I’ll look at that folder, and I’ll add my comments, and then Wednesday, you pick it up. Working with colleagues and other teams to come up with a process where work can just unfold without the need to have to talk about the task is the kind of the ideal for a repeat process.”

Next, team leaders should consider making themselves available at certain hours/days during the week to simplify the process of booking meetings – without the need for back-and-forth emails.

“Sometimes, people will send emails because they’re trying to grab your availability and a bit of your time because they feel that your time is a scarce resource, and obviously, that is correct as a busy in-house lawyer. But [for example] if you make it known to teams that on Tuesdays at 2pm for one hour, I’m always at my desk, I’m always available to talk to anybody in the team [it will create a smoother process] … It’s good for non-urgent-type stuff, and it just clears things up a lot more quickly than sending emails.”

Another tip is to create a shared document between team members rather than using email to rely on communicating about certain matters.

“[If you and I] speak very regularly or email each other very regularly, instead of sending you an email about something, what I might agree to do is have a shared document with the two of us. And every time I think, ‘I need to speak to X about X’, instead of sending you an email saying, ‘Have a look at the below, what are your thoughts?’ I will put it into our shared document,” Mr Milnes said.

“And then every Thursday at 12pm, you and I can meet for 15 minutes, and we open up that document, and we just go through the list of things that we’ve accumulated during the week.

“That’s a very quick and efficient way of taking care of those tasks and moving them along without having to email each other back and forwards and clutter our inboxes.”

NB: This transcript has been edited slightly for publishing purposes. You can listen to the full episode here:

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