E-mail Auto-responders: Good, Bad, and Ugly

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

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In today’s smartphone world, opposing counsel and potential clients expect fast responses to e-mails.

If you’re going on vacation or will be unable to access e-mail, turn on your auto-responder and provide the right information.

The good

“I will be out of the office until September 20, 2012 and will not have access to voicemail or e-mail. If you need immediate assistance, please contact NAME at NUMBER.”

In my humble opinion, you should only turn on an auto-responder if you will be gone for an extended period of time and/or will not have access to e-mail. I define extended period as at least two business days.

Assuming that criteria is met, your auto-responder should provide the following information:

1. How long you will be gone;
2. Who the sender should contact instead of you (if applicable); and
3. Whether you will have any access to voicemail/e-mail.

Language like “I will have limited access to voicemail and e-mail” sends mixed signals. Does that mean you will respond to e-mails? Does that mean you are still working? Whenever I see that language, I assume the recipient will respond, but slower than usual. The bottom line is that it is not entirely clear and may cause more problems than good.

The bad

“Thank you for your e-mail, I am currently out of the office.”

Auto-responders with little or no information are frustrating. I have no idea what the above example means. Until when? Who should I contact instead? Do you still practice law? When will you be able to respond?

It’s better than nothing, but it could a lot more helpful. In today’s day and age, opposing counsel seems to expect a response to an e-mail that same day and definitely within two days. Clients likely have the same expectation. Potential clients usually want a response ASAP, so letting them know you are gone is a good idea. But be sure to include enough information to make it helpful.

The ugly

“Hi there. I’m not around right now. I’m headed on vacation and will try and avoid e-mail and voicemail. The following week, I will have limited access to voicemail, so if this is an emergency, please call my cellphone. If this is Susan, sorry about the last minute change.”

To be honest, I recently saw an auto-responder just like that. That’s information overload, confusing, and generally unhelpful. I don’t want to make a flow chart in order to understand whether I will get a response this year. One, there are no dates. Two, it’s not clear if the person will check e-mail and/or voicemail. Three, there is no emergency contact. Four, you should never assume people have your personal cellphone number. Lastly, Susan should be sent a separate e-mail if she needs to know something.

Not rocket science

If you’re going to be gone, turn on your auto-responder. Let people know how long you will be gone, whether you will/can access e-mail, and who to contact if necessary.

I promise it will make the world a better place, one e-mail at a time.

(photo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlgosalbez/3901133600/)

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  • shg

    The worst part about this post is that it’s necessary to write at all. We’ve created unreasonable expectations of 24/7/365 availability. It wasn’t always this way. Clients and potential clients understood that we worked, and were occasionally busy with other people’s cases. They recognized we sometimes left the office, maybe even went on vacation, and weren’t put off or upset by it. This was a normal and acceptable part of life.

    And now, we need to ponder how best to provide the bad news that we’re not available at their beck and call. This isn’t a good thing.

    • No argument here. I’m not a fan of the “always-available” trend either.

      It’s possible I incorrectly delivered the message, which was: if you’re gone, let people know, and here’s what your message should say.

      • shg

        Since I had nothing substantive to add, I figured I would just hijack the post and go off on a personal pet peeve of mine. You delivered your message perfectly. I’m just a PITA.

  • Cameron

    In our office we are having a discussion about ditching smartphones. Of course I am writing this in a coffee shop on my iPad. All the technology is good, but we need to put limits on it. Sam Glover has talked about controlling client expectations by charging higher rates for after hour access and having the client agree to those rates. He can probably state it better, but if the client chooses to call or expect an email response at 9:00 pm, it will cost them.

    • See my reply above, I certainly agree there need to be limits. If you are gone, however, I think common sense and professional courtesy should motivate a person to create an autoresponder that explains: (1) they are gone until_____; (2) who to contact if there is an emergency; (3) whether you will have access to your voicemail/e-mail.

      • Cameron

        I agree. Especially in a small office or solo where someone is not always answering the phone or available to check email and voice mail. My business partner works remotely in Michigan for much of the summer and travels to Portugal in March. We forward phone calls as needed, have plans in place to answer when necessary, and an auto-responder to turn on when needed.

        I generally only turn on the auto-responder when I will not have access to email or voice mail for about 36 hours. I might consider letting people know that I will have limited access if I can specify when that might be. For instance we have wi-fi at our lake house, but I will only check once a day, that kind of a thing. I won’t say that I am at the lake though.

        With our practice, Estate Planning, Wills, Trusts and such, the pace is a bit slower than litigation and immediate response is not always needed.

        • You deserve praise for restraining yourself while at the lake house! Although I’m guessing you wish you could resist the urge entirely.

        • If you’re checking (and responding) once a day, I don’t think an auto-responder is necessary.

          • Cameron

            Which is why I usually don’t turn it on, but the temptation is to not check at all!

  • Always-on autoresponders are atrocious manners. Like this one:

    Greetings,

    In an effort to increase productivity and improve client service, I am currently checking and responding to email twice daily, at 12:00pm ET and 4:00pm ET.

    If you require immediate assistance or response that cannot wait until either 12:00pm or 4:00pm, I invite you to contact me via phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

    Thank you in advance for your understanding of this shift in firm policy to allow for greater efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.

    Sincerely,

    xxx

    • That’s just silly.

      • Oh, I’ve got more.

        Hello all;

        Due to recent high workload and influx of cases, I am currently checking and responding to email twice daily at 11 am Central and 4 pm Central time. If you require urgent assistance (very urgent!) that cannot wait until either of those times, please call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx. If you need assistance and it is not an emergency, but cannot wait for email response, please call xxx-xxx-xxxx and ask for my assistant, xxx. She is wonderful and should be able to take care of your needs.

        Thank you for your understanding as I work to be able to accomplish more for my clients!

        xxx

        • Barf.

          • Agree.

            Anybody with that large an influx of mail should have (a) at least one assistant with the bandwidth, the competence and the access to comb through the lawyer’s inbox and filter out anything that the lawyer doesn’t need to personally deal with and (b) some sort of automated process (like Outlook Rules or alternate email accounts) by which routine mail (ECF, newsletters, etc.) gets sorted out. I’ve done that for lawyers with heavy email loads myself, and it’s a damn sight more effective than that stupid, self-important autoresponder.

      • This is my absolutely least favorite:

        Thank you for your email. I will contact you after I have had a chance to review your question.

        I’m considering an autoresponder for autoresponders: “Thank you for your auto-response. I will review it after I have had a chance to hire a robot.” But I’m afraid it would break the Internet with an endless loop of auto-responses.

        • shg

          You have inspired me. Though I’ve never used an autoresponder before, I will now follow your lead and create one perfectly suited to my temperament.

          “I am not available to read or respond to your email. If you were important to me, you would know how to reach me. When I return, I may or may not bother to read your email. If I do read it, I may or may not bother to respond. If you do not hear from me, it means that I don’t give a damn about you. Have a nice day.”

          I was going to add a smiley face at the end, but I thought it would be too much. I don’t want to go over the top.

          • I think you could add a few more may or may nots to that.

            My actual favorite auto-responder goes something like this:

            I am on vacation. I am not checking email, and when I return on [date], I am going to delete everything in my inbox. Please feel free to email me again after [date]. If the subject of your email was so important that you need help before [date], please contact [name], who can help you now.

            • shg

              I don’t warn about that. I just do it. Warning people seems too self-absorbed.

        • Hey, Sam –

          If you ever find yourself in the mood to actually do that, let me know and I’ll show you how. In Outlook Rules, you can actually auto-respond to just the auto-responses by choosing “which is an automatic reply” in Step 2 of the Rules Wizard.

          Sure, it might break the Internet, but it’ll take down that other person’s inbox first. (Life is full of little trade-offs.)

    • Wasn’t that what Tim Ferriss recommended you do in The Four Hour Work Week?

      Rachel Rodgers will be so disappointed.

    • This is almost verbatim from “The 4 Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. When I read it in the book, I thought it sounded like an interesting strategy. The concept is to turn off distractions, e.g. email, telephone, texting, Facebook, etc., set the expectation that you will not provide immediate responses, and give yourself uninterrupted time to focus. This focus tends to increase efficiency and effectiveness enabling you to get more done in less time.

      To Deborah’s point below…in the book, Tim Ferriss then goes on to advocate the hiring and empowering of virtual assistants to read and respond to your emails at the designated times. In fact, that is likely the only person who will respond when you email him directly