I had an unhealthy relationship with work emails. We’re now divorced – I’m happier and more efficient.

I used to check work emails at 3am. Yes folks, that’s 3 o’clock in the morning.  Here’s an insight into my old routine: wake up, pick up phone, click on email icon. Or, wake up, pick up phone, go downstairs for glass of juice, click on email icon, look like burglar with tiny torch illuminating face.

Later, on my way to work, I’d be checking emails again. Walking along the path, head dropped, sliding my finger down the screen, refreshing all the way to the Metro station. And then I’d have another look whilst on the Metro, because, you know, something might have happened.

Home from work. iPad out. There’s that email icon again. With numbers next to it. YOU’VE GOT EMAIL. EMAILS. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LOOK AT THE EMAILS.

I suspect you may be getting the point. I won lots of lovely prizes last year. But funnily enough, the one I most deserved but didn’t get was “Compulsive Work Email Checker of the Year“. I am saddened this prize does not exist. And also not to have received what would have undoubtedly been a delightful granite bust of someone looking really miserable.

Because the compulsion to check work emails out of hours is not fun. Even if you’ve convinced yourself it makes you a really efficient colleague (spoiler: it doesn’t. More on this later). Or that your job is so important that you can’t possibly not check emails (again, hate to break this to you, it’s not). Or that it will make you feel better, because you’ll be ultra prepared for any request, new piece of information, or coming of the apocalypse.

That last one was my personal favourite. I was emotionally tied to checking my emails because I like to be super ready for all eventualities. If I could see at 3am what I needed to do later that day, I could run through my plan of action. If I read that email asking for something during my dinner, I had an entire evening to work out how I was going to reply. If I responded to the email directly before the funeral (yep, true story) then it would all be sorted for at least the next two hours, and no-one would be waiting for me to reply.

Something had to give (and it did). But, really, if your partner is telling you, with worry all over their face, that the first thing you did when you left the cinema was to look at your work emails (true story, again), then you should be getting those signals loud and clear. Time to sort this out. So I did. And I’m sharing this because I was that person. And I read so many articles, like this and this, and I still came up with really creative reasons as to why it wouldn’t work for me.

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If you’ve clicked on this because you too have an unhealthy relationship with work emails, then please rest assured that you can break that cycle. Honestly. You can. And life will be so much better. I promise.

This is what I did.  I’m not saying it’ll work for you, but hey, if I can change the habits of a lifetime anyone can. Here we go:

Take emails off your portable electronic devices

I know, I know. You should have seen my face when people used to tell me they didn’t have emails on their mobile. Now, I wait with glee to be on the receiving end of that face. The other day I think I may have sung “I don’t have emails on my phoooone” to a colleague, so happy that it was true. And then I waited for (and got) the face. It’s a swift combination of “are you technologically incompetent?” (nope), “have you joined a cult?” (not that I know of) and “you must get nothing done” (I do).

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What would we have done before we had emails on our phones/tablets, eh?

How about this? Be more prepared. I am actively more prepared because I can’t rely on my phone to tell me what I’m doing or going to do. I print off travel plans days in advance and put them in my bag.  I work out what I’m going to focus on each week, and then stick to it. I know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it because I have a really clear idea as to how the week is going to pan out. I’m no longer running around relying on a device to tell me what’s next.

Genuinely (I promise I’m not making this up), I’ve become more efficient since I stopped checking emails out of hours. In the last few weeks, I’ve taught students, written an article, reviewed four colleagues’ teaching and filled in the associated forms, set up a writing retreat (and retreated), corresponded with over 60 individuals for a large project I’m working on, got an international team of wonder lawyers together, mentored staff for various awards, sorted out an abstract, marked coursework, and second marked. And that’s just what I can think of right now. I’ve done more. All in work time. I’m quicker. I make decisions with less hesitation. Rather than leave something to simmer*, I deal with it in work because I no longer have the ability to draft emails late into the night.

*fester/panic over

Be out of the office (like, really out of the office)

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The best thing about having email free devices is that when you are not at your desk, you are really not at your desk. My lunch used to consist of speeding along, phone in hand, to the closest sandwich shop frequently checking whether anything was occurring at work and not really paying attention to anything else.  Today, I had a wander for half an hour and realised that The Doobie Brothers’ What A Fool Believes was playing in one of the shops. The Doobie Brothers were probably on all the other times I went for my lunch. But I wouldn’t have noticed, because I was too busy being busy. And that, my friends, is a travesty.

You’re also not at the office when you’re eating breakfast, or having dinner. But you force yourself to be there in spirit if you’re sitting with your phone/tablet on your knee/table/cushion etc. A head full of work, all the time.

When I leave the office now, I really leave it.

Check your emails at specific times of the day

Back in the day (those dark, miserable, granite bust deserving days), my working from home consisted of repeatedly looking at my emails whilst I worked. So I was on top of anything coming in. And totally distracted. And waiting to be distracted.

Now, I have a lovely out of office reply that says I’ll be checking my emails at 12pm and 3pm and I’ll respond as soon as I can. And I do. But outside of those times I’m getting on with things that are important, like reviewing a colleague’s application for HEA Fellowship, or designing teaching activities, or writing a section of my next article. And I can give those tasks my full attention. Because I’m not on the lookout for the little envelope in the corner.

My other half was overjoyed when he realised I had done this. Primarily because it was his idea, but also because I had long rebuffed his suggestions for dealing with emails with things like “but I need to be available” and “what if I don’t know what’s happening?”. Back in the day, the idea of checking email at certain times would have sent me into howls of laughter. How would people cope if I didn’t reply right away? Turns out they’re fine, actually.  I get things done. I’m clear about when I’m dealing with emails. No-one has batted an eye at my new routine.

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Pay your colleagues a visit 

The more you learn about your own email habits, the more you realise how you impact on other people. I now make a special effort to use email as minimally as possible. If I need to attach something – fine. If I’m working from home and have to get a quick message out – that’s okay too. But if it’s a longer chat I need, I pick up the phone or go pay my colleagues a visit.

There’s two reasons for this. First, I’m really conscious that I add to other people’s inbox and I know how that feels. I’m actively trying not to do that (still working on that one). Secondly, talking to people is nice. You can do nuance when you chat. You can be funny and not come across as weird. You can sort things out together in 5 minutes, rather than spend 15 minutes constructing an email, then waiting for a reply, then when one comes  in take another 10 minutes sorting out a response.

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If it’s urgent, someone will call 

Things can wait. If they can’t, and its urgent, you’ll get a phone call. No-one emails you to tell you your dog has gone missing in the woods.

Some final thoughts….

I very nearly didn’t write this blog. I’m not a fan of evangelising, and I’m certainly not out to be an ‘advice’ guru. But then I read Melissa Febos’ amazing article Do you want to be known for your writing, or your swift email responses?. Everything Melissa said rang true. But she truly hit me in the gut when, right at the end of the article, she wrote Do Not Die of Emails. She’s absolutely right. Email is great, and after writing this blog I’ll probably send one or two. But, when email starts to control you, rather than the other way around, it will sap your soul.

I’m going on holiday tomorrow. Las Vegas. I’ve sorted everything out, put it all in place. I’ve done last minute urgent favours for colleagues (crucially, taming your emails does not mean you turn into a selfish idiot). And I’ve got my out of office ready. This time (for the first time in over a decade) when I write “I’m out of the office”, I actually will be. And it will be joyous. And I will be on holiday, and return a refreshed and better colleague. See you on the other side.

The Dark Knight Rises: what next for business & commercial law clinics?

For those who were unable to attend, this is a transcript of the keynote address I gave to the first UK Business & Commercial Law Clinics Roundtable #CLCR17 on 3 March 2017. 

Slide 1

Good morning everyone. I’m delighted to see so many people here at the inaugural Business & Commercial Law Clinics Roundtable.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Patrick [Cahill] and team for all their work in bringing us together, for what will undoubtedly be a fantastic day of collaboration and discussion.

And what I’d really like to encourage is discussion about the grittier aspects of running a B&C law clinic. Because we often say, “isn’t clinical legal education wonderful?”. And, yes, indeed it is. But what really matters at a roundtable like this, is that we have an open conversation about the issues that make life a little bit difficult. And then share how we’ve dealt with those issues.

Today, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on issues that have arisen during my six years leading a B&C law clinic and writing/talking about this type of work.  So: let’s go back in time.  Let’s go back to 2014.  A classroom with 6 students. Students working in our B&C law clinic. All sat round a table. Discussing what we do. With me.

Slide 2

And I laugh and say to my students, “We’re like Bruce Wayne. People think we’re really awful – rich and egotistical. The reality is we’re doing good. But no-one knows about it”.

Bruce Wayne is a fictional billionaire industrialist who lives in Gotham City. To most, he represents the archetypal narcissistic, self-indulgent and shallow playboy business owner. By night he is of course Batman. A superhero.

Despite Batman’s selfless actions, his work habitually goes unnoticed by the general public and he is often vilified in the press. One of the epithets he is known by is The Dark Knight. This phrase appears in the 1939 comic “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom”. Wayne says “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…”

And in the film of the same name, Batman, represented here by Christian Bale, is rejected by the public and demonised by the media. He continues to work in the shadows; safeguarding justice but out of view.

Like Bruce Wayne, those involved in the business world are subject to snap judgements and negative stereotypes. Aggressive, ruthless, greedy.

Lawyers who assist business owners do not fare any better. Indeed, we are often portrayed as the greater evil. Does anyone know this joke?? Why won’t sharks attack corporate lawyers? Answer: Professional courtesy. And in a recent series of The Apprentice in the UK, where one of the candidates was a commercial lawyer, Lord Sugar quipped that “it’s always nice to see a lawyer tortured”.

As a clinician who leads a B&C law clinic, I have frequently found myself in the position of having to defend our work. And I find that curious because – like every other law clinic I have come across in the past six years – my B&C law clinic does exactly the same thing: it provides free legal advice to members of the public in our local community.

At the heart of our Law School is the Student Law Office, a real solicitors firm. I know many of you have been to visit. And if you haven’t or you fancy a repeat visit, we are hosting the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference in July this year. All are welcome. It’s a fantastic conference and if you need any more details please do let me know. Okay, that’s my plug done!

Approximately 180 students work in the Student Law Office each year. They are divided into teams of six, known as firms, and each firm is supervised by a designated Senior Lecturer who is a qualified and experienced lawyer. Each firm deals with an area of law. So we have firms who provide housing advice, firms that deal with crime, firms that advise on employment issues etc etc. Students are continuously assessed on the work that they do throughout the year by their supervisor. The Student Law Office module is a key part of the final year of our students’ degree. It accounts for almost 40% of a student’s final year grade.

Our  B&C law clinic is part of the Student Law Office. We – myself, Victoria, and our colleague Anna – supervise those firms. And we’re doing exactly what the other firms in the Student Law Office are doing – except we’re helping companies, social enterprises, entrepreneurs.

So what’s the problem? Why the need for a defence?

Here’s the nub of it. There is a narrative attached to clinic that says we should only focus on low income clients, and low income clients dealing with personal issues.

Now I should make it clear that I have no issue whatsoever with clinics that do that. It is up to each clinic director to decide how their clinic works.

But, the focus on financial poverty – a traditional view of poverty – has promoted the idea that B&C law clinics, especially those like mine that do not means test, cannot possibly be consistent with a social justice mission.

Now the Batman line was throwaway, designed to make my students laugh – and to bring on board a little pop culture into my classroom. But there is truth at the core. B&C law clinics (of all models) have been maligned in the literature.  I always remember being struck when I read that the move away from clinics for the poor was being equated to clinic losing its soul. Wow, that’s powerful imagery. And terrifying for someone who wants to promote B&C law clinics. But B&C law clinics are doing good and they can be socially just, even if they don’t focus specifically on the poor. We just need to be willing and able to open ourselves up to new narratives.

Slide 3

In order to move forward, we need to do two things:

  • we need to fracture the mythology surrounding businesses and the stereotypes that they are all run by multimillionaire playboys:
    • 99.9% of the 5 million enterprises in the UK are small to medium businesses. the reality is that most are home-grown creative projects developed by people who have skills, talents and services to offer. I’m going to sound like a politician here, but… The success or failure of these enterprises is directly linked with the prosperity of the country. A thriving business community means a strong economy, which in itself brings investment and employment opportunities.
    • Imagine that you are a 30 year old woman with a family who is running a successful online business, mostly from home. You are looking to expand. New premises and international trading are in your business plan for the next 12 months. You would like help with trade mark registration and understanding how the law protects consumers. This may include having a set of terms and conditions drafted for your website. You come to the clinic and over the course of an academic year you are provided with most of the advice that you require. You use the money saved to help fund an undergraduate student as a marketing assistant for a summer placement. That’s the sort of clientele we’re talking about. No multimillionaire playboys here.
  • Let’s have another look at this idea of social justice. I think we’re still using a one dimensional definition of social justice. The definition that focuses on financial poverty.
    • All forms of business law clinics –whether they means test, or structure their model like ours – are promoting social justice. Because they are giving students the opportunity to learn about the commercial world in a real life environment. It’s not called Clinical Legal Education for nothing!
    • And why shouldn’t education include business and commercial work? The majority of my students are not from wealthy backgrounds. They often tell me they are the first in their family to go to university. They strive to get an interview with large corporate firms in our region. Working in a B&C law clinic gives students an experience that allows them to go into an interview and talk about networking, commercial awareness, how to deal with professional conduct issues that frequently arise in commercial practice. It helps them to stand out. It gives them confidence. To provide that experience, is to me, at the heart of what social justice is about.

Slide 4

So, let’s own our Batman status. It’s time for the Dark Knight to Rise. Where do we go next? My call is three-fold. Lets:

  1. Come together as a network. Build on events like these. Support each other.
  2. Challenge the notion that assisting the business world cannot be congruent with a social justice mission. Even if your clinic is going to means test, or restrict its advice to particular groups – it’s your clinic, you do what you think is best. But, let’s look towards an all-encompassing vision of what social justice can mean and be.
  3. Publish more peer–reviewed work.  We need to get B&C law clinic research out there. There is an appetite for it. My article on UK B&C clinics published in Journal of Legal Education last year has been downloaded more than 240 times. Let’s get writing.

Thank you.

 

 

 

National Teaching Fellowship

Regular readers will know that last year I was lucky enough to be selected by my institution to apply for a National Teaching Fellowship award. I am delighted that, in my first blog post of 2017, I am able to report that I did it – I’m now an NTF! Well, I will be once I’ve been to the super glam awards ceremony in a few weeks’ time.

You can read my NTF profile here. And, the news release here.

This post is not about blowing my own trumpet. I’ve had an abundance of hugs, emails, very lovely words, and lots of ‘very proud”s from my mum. I’m definitely feeling all the love (if I was inclined to put emoticons in blog posts there would be a large smiley face here).

Instead, I want to do two things:

  1. Thank everyone who supported me on my NTF journey; and
  2. Encourage others who don’t think they could possibly go for an award like this to jolly well go ahead and do it.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team

On page 1 of my NTF application, I told a story. A real one, set way back when I started my first teaching role. I wrote about the members of staff that filled 21 year old me with confidence. Confidence to walk into a room and teach students often much older than myself. Confidence to design seminars and workshops on topics I had just got to grips with. Confidence to speak up in meetings which, even now, I would find intimidating.

I was out there, doing my thing, day to day in the classroom. Little, 21 year old me. At the front of the room, walking round the tables, encouraging participation, discouraging disruptive behaviour, and probably making awful jokes (I like to make jokes, which teacher doesn’t?). When I look back now, I realise I was never alone in any of the classrooms I frequented. I was enveloped, cushioned you might say, by an invisible bubble of mentorship. The sort of mentoring that doesn’t announce itself, but quietly, stealthily builds you up and shapes who you are. Now, aged 36, I’m fortunate to still be in receipt of the mentorship ‘bubble’. I’m surrounded by colleagues who help me find my direction, who model excellent practice, and who provide practical and emotional support.

And, throughout the years, there have been countless teams, with countless members, encouraging, supporting, laughing, crying, having a good whinge, providing solutions, rolling metaphorical sleeves up, sharing the load. Being there. You don’t get to where you are alone. I certainly didn’t. Thank you.

You could make a wish, or you could make it happen

I was sat on the left-hand side of an East Coast train carriage, next to the window, in a two seater when I started following the NTF twitter account. A slightly fuzzy memory – as it’s an old one – but it’s there, fixed in my brain. I can smell the dusky seat covers. I can feel the phone in my hand, and my OH’s leg pressed up next to mine. I can see me scrolling through the enthusiastic tweets on learning and teaching, and I can sense the longing to join in. But I didn’t. I sat there and scrolled and read and dreamed about being a part of the NTF community.

As I’ve said before, I nearly didn’t put an application in.  And you know what? That application was tough. Night upon night on the sofa, candles burning, music on, crafting something that embodied what I was about. Worrying that something that embodied what I was about might raise eyebrows, or be totally off the boil. Revising, rewriting, cutting bits out, digging hard to say – eloquently – what came so naturally to mind but could not for some reason make it out on to the laptop keyboard. I’m unsure I’ll ever produce such an intense piece of work in that sort of timescale again.

Just getting to the point of submission was a major achievement. Honestly (really honestly) I didn’t expect to be successful, and I felt absolutely fine about that. I was in my PJs when I got the news. I walked upstairs, into the bedroom, stared at my OH and said ‘Guess who’s an NTF?’. And then I made him read the email just in case I’d got it wrong.

Dreams do come true sounds a bit too schmaltzy – even for me. But, what I do know is that things don’t happen unless you give them a go. So do it. Just go on and do it. It may not work. Heck, most of my stuff never does. But every now and again, it might. It just might.

Photo, Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne (c) Elaine Campbell, 2016