The tyranny of email

While there are occupational hazards common to all barristers across time and place (wig hair, poor eyesight, vitamin D deficiencies), there are no doubt some occupational hazards peculiar to particular periods of history. For example, barristers of yesteryear no doubt had to try and avoid getting their robes sprayed with mud by passing carriage wheels as they walked to court. In 2023, a largely overlooked (albeit relatively minor) occupational hazard facing barristers is the tyranny of email.

This seemingly innocuous mode of communication has achieved an unparalleled dominance over office workers’ lives under the guise of facilitating communication. This is a danger to which barristers are not immune. Its benefits are significant, of course, but because it is accessible anywhere and at any time, and enables the sending of numerous documents very easily, it has enabled an always-on culture and facilitates a kitchen-sink approach to briefing.

Sadly, I came to the Bar too recently to experience the halcyon delights that practice without email must have brought. I can’t imagine how comparatively glorious the lives of barristers in the last century must have been when, presumably, after the last post had arrived for the day, it was impossible for solicitors to get written work to you unless they ran down the street with it. I imagine this encouraged much greater discernment as to what work needed to be settled by barristers. Email has enabled work to be transferred from a solicitor’s desk (or client’s desk) to a barrister’s desk at the click of a button. This means that work which should be done properly is often not, and work which should be that of the solicitor becomes that of the barrister. The rise of e-briefing has only enhanced this. In the days of yore (last century), someone had to stand at a photocopier, insert documents’ dividers into folders and physically deliver those folders, in order, in order to dump material on a barrister. Now, the same task can be accomplished while working from home at no additional expense to the client, at least until the barrister is required to wade through the documents.

A central aspect of the tyranny of email is its 24/7 nature. Sometimes I receive more emails from solicitors in the same time zone as me after 5pm than I do during the day. No doubt there are good reasons for this, and those emails do not always require an immediate response, but at least some of the time there is an expectation that barristers will be monitoring emails and will respond after hours. Even if there is no external expectation, it is difficult for barristers to escape the feeling that there is always a disaster lurking in the inbox and it’s best to check it, as forewarned is forearmed. Aside from the initial brief, nearly all of our work arrives via email, and so it is difficult to escape this feeling. I recently read a book that espoused only checking emails once a week or so. This is unthinkable to the modern barrister. I hazard a guess that most barristers in 2023 check their emails more frequently than that when they’re away on holidays!

A further danger associated with emails is the uncertainty one experiences as to the veracity of the sender in the present age of the rise of e-scammers. While I’m fairly certain that the email purporting to be from the Finance Minister of Oman who wishes to brief me is not in fact from him, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a scam and a legitimate email. Once I received an email purporting to be from Doyle’s Guide telling me that I would be listed in a forthcoming list, and inviting me to pay for a photo to go with my listing. As I had never before been listed in Doyle’s Guide and the list was for an area of practice that I would not consider to be an area of speciality of mine, I assumed it was a scam and dutifully notified my clerk that a new variety of scam email was circulating, preying on unsuspecting barristers’ vanity and insecurity. No-one was more astonished than I to see my name appear in Doyle’s Guide the following week in the list referred to in the email.

Likewise, receiving a ‘please see me’ email with no context apparently from one’s head of chambers can be unnerving, until one establishes that the sender is a scammer in electronic disguise. At least the emails requesting that I purchase five iTunes gift vouchers on my head of chambers’ behalf are fairly easy to spot as spam. Of all the requests a floor leader may make of a barrister on his or her floor, the purchase of something associated with mass entertainment of the non-alcoholic variety is the least plausible one.

One hopes that email will recede to its rightful role of servant rather than a master, and barristers of the future can be afflicted by a fresh occupational hazard in its place. BN