Dear Amicus Agony,
I am a recently qualified lawyer and I am the most junior in my litigation team. My bosses and senior associates often e-mail me after working hours, and even on weekends. Sometimes, when I do not respond immediately to their after-hours e-mails, they will send WhatsApp messages to my personal handphone number. I do not have a mobile phone issued by the firm. I feel like I do not have any personal time or space to wind down. I get a mild panic attack every time I hear e-mail alerts, especially when it is late in the night. This is exacerbated by the prolonged work from home arrangement as the boundaries between work and personal time are blurred. How can I deal with this intrusion into my personal space?
Waiting For Hope
Dear Waiting For Hope,
Congratulations on getting called recently, and welcome to the challenging but fulfilling practice of law! Practice can be demanding at times, but please rest assured that your seniors, peers and friends are there to guide you and help you. Below I share with you some tips and suggestions which would hopefully help you regain some sanity and personal time.
The first suggestion I have for you is to fight the urge to respond to e-mails immediately after regular working hours. When you constantly respond immediately, you create an expectation and reinforce the perception that you are always available. Over time, your boss or senior associate would know and expect you to respond immediately, regardless of the time of the day. While this is good (and expected) during normal working hours, you ought to set clear boundaries with your superiors and have them understand that you may not respond to an e-mail immediately at 11pm or 1am.
Of course, there would be situations where an urgent response is needed even late into the night (perhaps responding to opposing counsel’s supplemental submissions which were filed at the last minute for a morning hearing) but this should not be a daily occurrence. If there is an urgent deadline to meet, or if your senior associate has already told you to be on standby to make final edits to a set of submissions before it is filed, then you would have been prepared to work late. Otherwise, on a regular working day, fight the urge to respond immediately to e-mails late at night. Over time, your senior would understand that you may not respond quickly after hours, and will be nudged to contact you and expect replies only during regular office hours.
Trust me when I say I speak from experience. My superior used to send e-mails to me at 10pm (after she puts her kids to bed), and being an eager and enthusiastic young associate, I would respond immediately! This often escalates to back-and-forth lengthy e-mail threads. Sometimes, this morphs into calls as well as the boss finds that it is faster to give instructions over a phone call than through successive e-mails. Over time, I realised that this regular occurrence was unsustainable and I did not have time to rest and recharge if I kept responding to every single e-mail.
Instead, learn to exercise your “right to disconnect”. Ask yourself, can the e-mail wait? Does it really require immediate attention? You need to rest. This is even more important given the work from home arrangements amidst the pandemic situation. Furthermore, if you work with clients or instructed counsel in a different time zone, the e-mails can come in at any time of the day. There would be no end to the endless checking and replying of e-mails.
The second suggestion I have is to turn off all e-mail notifications and alerts or turn on the “quiet hours” function after regular working hours for your apps. This extends to all channels that your firm uses – be it Outlook, Slack, Teams, or Skype. (How often has an Outlook alert on your phone at midnight interrupted your much-needed sleep, winding down time or Instagram feed-scrolling?!)
Prior to discovering the “quiet hours” function, I must admit that I was guilty of checking every single notification as they came in – be it on Microsoft Teams or Outlook. Such are the perils and benefits of our hyperconnected society. I felt the need to respond to colleagues or my superiors the moment they pinged, whatever the time of day. After a colleague introduced it to me, I would say that my evenings are filled with much less distractions.
My third suggestion would be regarding WhatsApp (or Telegram) texts. This is a tricky one, as it is known as “instant-messaging” for a reason. As opposed to e-mails, sometimes your superiors find it more convenient to drop you a text. What I can suggest is straightforward communication with your superiors and colleagues. If the never-ending WhatsApp walls of texts from your bosses or seniors are bothering you, let them know nicely but firmly (preferably in a face to face setting) that you would prefer to receive work related messages through e-mails, and not through texts. Besides, it would be easier if all instructions relating to work are housed on a single platform (i.e., the Outlook mailbox), rather than interspersed between your e-mail mailbox and WhatsApp chat logs. It is important to set boundaries.
All in all, don’t feel helpless or feel that there is nothing you can do. Set boundaries at work. Demarcate what is work and what is your personal time. During regular office hours, when it comes to work e-mails, respond diligently and promptly. After hours, take it easy and resist the urge to respond immediately. Always ask yourself, can it wait till tomorrow? After hours, turn off notifications and utilise the “quiet hours” function on your mobile applications where possible; do not be a slave to your devices or e-mail alerts! Establish firm but clear communication channels with your superiors and colleagues, let them know how and when you are reachable, and when you are not. For your own sanity, peace, and quiet, you have to put your foot down. Above all, regular, frank and open communication with your seniors about how you are coping with the workload would do wonders; it would help to manage expectations both ways and make your work life a better one. I hope you find these tips useful! Hang in there, you’ll do fine!