Email Overload and the Bencher Election
Many of us feel overwhelmed by the volume of information impacting us—through email, social media, ads—and the information seems increasingly complex and urgent. We can’t process all of it, so we select what is important using ad hoc filters. As lawyers, communications from or concerning clients are paramount so they make it through our ad hoc filters. Communications from people close to us also make it through our filters. If you are like me, you worry that you have, somehow, missed something important. And sometimes going back to check your email feels like opening Pandora’s box—scary, dangerous, intimidating.
At Assist, we get how overwhelming everyone’s daily email volume can be. Here’s a story about what we learned about the effectiveness of mass emails.
Four years ago, we decided to reach out to all articling students in Alberta through a personal phone call placed by our peer support volunteers. The Law Society of Alberta had released its Articling Student Survey in which about one-third of all articling student and junior lawyer respondents reported experiencing harassment or discrimination during either their articling year or the recruitment period. We know that some students are aware of our services and supports but we also know that many are not. And we know that there are barriers—including stigma—that prevent students from asking for help. So, we flipped the issue on its head and envisioned wellness checks to all articling students to let them know that there were lawyers who cared about their well-being and to make sure that students knew how to access our programs.
To minimize wear and tear on our wonderful volunteers, we thought that an email telling students about our callout program would smooth the rough edges around the conversation of why the volunteer was calling. I carefully drafted our message, we gathered email addresses, we sent our email into the ether, and our volunteers began placing calls. While some students acknowledged having received the email, many were taken by surprise by the calls and said that they hadn’t received our email. It is possible that our message was caught in spam filters, but I think our message was more likely a victim of information overload. We can’t read and retain all the information that flows our way, and I suspect that the information about our callout was displaced in priority by more urgent, essential content necessary for their jobs.
We played around with the subject line and worked to make the message short and succinct for the next two years, but we continued to get the same feedback—many students had no idea we would be reaching out to them with a personal phone call. And then I had an inspiration. I remembered being a student and junior lawyer watching as more senior lawyers received dozens of holiday cards that were then displayed in their offices. Being both insecure and jealous, I hoped that one day I would receive a volume of cards like the partners instead of the one or two (or zero) cards that I received. So, last year we decided to mail holiday cards to articling students with our message that Assist cares and that one of our volunteers would be calling to see how they are doing. And there were no awkward conversations where students wondered if they were being pranked by someone pretending to be calling on behalf of Assist. The medium was the message.
This week, I received a letter in the mail from a lawyer I know. It was sealed and the envelope was stamped with the date it was received! I don’t know about you, but I don’t receive very much physical mail, except for quarterly GST reassessments and other CRA communications. I opened the envelope and found a personal letter endorsing a candidate who is running in the bencher election.
How many of us are aware that we are in the midst of bencher election season? Or was the information about the election one of those emails we scanned before concluding it didn’t require any immediate action and promptly forgot?
Electing benchers is an important responsibility for members of a self-regulated profession. Here is a quick review of our profession’s governance structure: Every three years, we elect 20 Benchers from our ranks, and four members of the public are appointed by the government. This election cycle, four lawyers were acclaimed by virtue of their position or region: Deanna Steblyk KC, who as President-Elect this year moves into the President role, Ryan Anderson KC representing the South region, Buddy Melnyk KC representing the Central region, and Stephanie Dobson for the North region. This means that we will be electing sixteen Benchers from the pool of 38 lawyers who have put their names forward.
You can learn more about the election here. Important things to know are that voting opens on November 14th and closes on November 21st.
In 2020, about 40% of eligible lawyer voters completed their ballots. This is roughly comparable to voting rates in general elections, so I suppose that it isn’t a surprising rate, but voting is an easy online process—you don’t have to leave your office, figure out where your polling station is and get there before it closes, or fumble for your ID.
Ah, but you say, I don’t have time to read 38 bios and even if I did, I still wouldn’t know enough to choose who to vote for. We have a solution for you. This is the second election (the first being 2020) where Assist has asked bencher candidates to complete a five-question survey so we can get to know them better. We are not asking questions about issues since candidates are not supposed to campaign on that basis, so we thought finding out more about them personally would help the Assist community feel more comfortable choosing how to vote.
Our first question is about their favourite song, movie or book. This gives a window of insight into who the candidate is in their non-law time. So far, no one has cited a law textbook! I care about who the candidates are as human beings because who we are as human beings will determine how we treat lawyers in the discipline process and will influence our global philosophies. It is also a softball question to make people comfortable.
And then we ask what volunteer activity they have found most inspirational or rewarding. We know that giving back is important both as professionals and from a well-being perspective (giving to others is a resilience strategy based on building positive emotions). When candidates talk about their meaningful volunteer activities, you can almost see their eyes light up—a second great insight into who they are.
We ask how candidates manage stress since we know that practicing law is stressful and that adding in the time commitment to serve as benchers will make stress management even more essential. We can often learn from another person’s stress management practices! I would be worried if a candidate responded that they didn’t have stress in their lives or feel that stress needed any particular attention, but that hasn’t happened yet.
We ask what well-being means to them. We all have our personal definitions of well-being and there are no right or wrong answers. We ask this question so that you can consider whether it is a definition of well-being that you want at the bencher table since lawyer well-being is part of the Law Society’s strategic plan and also forms part of our continuing professional development plans.
And, finally, we ask if mental health should be a priority in our profession. More than half of our responses today use the word “Absolutely” (with or without an exclamation mark) and the rest all say yes using different words. Now, not all candidates complete our survey—they are not obligated to do so and there may be many reasons that they choose not to do so. But I suspect that members of the Assist community would like to see candidates who recognize that mental health is an issue we can’t sweep under the rug anymore.
We are posting candidate responses as they come in, with new postings going to the bottom of the section—please just scroll down. So far, we have posted responses from 16 candidates, and they are worth learning more about. After you read a candidate’s response to our survey and you want to know more about them, you can go to their profile on the election website. Some have their own websites as well. Our little survey can be an entry point for you to become more comfortable with the process and who the candidates are.
Please visit our bencher candidate page. Please consider if you want to send a letter to your friends—or even an email—sharing your support of a candidate that impresses you.
But most of all, please make sure to vote—we want lawyers at the bencher table who are approachable and thoughtful and who care about well-being.