Email has become the bane of many lawyers’ existence. Like kudzu in the South of many years ago, it can quickly grow to overwhelm everything in its path, choking your inbox and strangling your will to continue to practice law. As we’ve moved from paper-based systems of documents to electronic ones, the task of organizing, filing, and finding these documents has shifted from clerical staff, who were usually very good at it, to lawyers, who often are not. It’s possible, though, for any lawyer, who is willing to put in a little time and effort, to develop a few skills and a system that can keep the chaos at bay and will let email facilitate – rather than hinder – the practice of law.
Aim for an Empty Inbox Each Afternoon
The holy grail of current email management is the empty inbox. This is often referred to as Zero Inbox, RAFT (Refer, Act, File or Toss) or OHIO (Only Handle It Once). The idea behind all these systems is that you deal with each item in your Inbox only once by doing what lawyers hate most to do: making a decision now about how to handle the message, taking the necessary action immediately, and never looking back.
When an email comes in, you must decide immediately whether it is something you must do, something you can forward to someone else in the office to do, something you would like to keep for future reference but need not act on, or something you will never do, no matter how much time elapses or how much the sender pleads. At this point the two minute rule comes into play.
If you can handle an item in two minutes or less, whether that means doing it yourself or forwarding it with appropriate instructions to someone else, then you must handle it immediately. This will usually be the case with items which you Refer, File or Toss, whether by just deleting or sending back a quick, but polite, message denying the sender’s request. (Caveat: All of these little two minute items can add up, so be sure that you allocate an hour or so at the beginning of each day, or a half hour a couple of times throughout the day, to handle them. If you are anxious to get on to other work, there is a tendency to overlook these items for the time being, but doing so will make the system fail.)
If the item cannot be handled in two minutes or less, then it needs to be sorted into either a high priority or a low priority folder or immediately turned into a task and scheduled for an appropriate block of time so that you can get it done.
There is a split of opinion as to whether or not it’s a good idea to use a folder full of messages as a “to do” list. I think it all comes down to how you best handle scheduled tasks. If your tendency is to file them away and never get around to looking in that folder again, then it’s much better to drag them either to the calendar or otherwise add them to your To Do list, however you maintain it.
The Zero Inbox system is great for getting the Inbox cleared out, which always makes its owner feel better and also helps you to avoid the situation where your Inbox becomes so cluttered that you can’t effectively tell when you have important new messages. But it doesn’t do much to tell you where to put the stuff that you’ve RAFTed out, so it’s up to you to set up adequate systems to make sure you actually get the work done on the items which are deferred.
Drag to Calendar or Tasks
Leaving a bunch of email messages in your Inbox as reminders is an awful way to try to manage your work. One of the best ways to get email messages out of the Inbox and into the spot they will do you the most good as reminders is to simply drag them from the Inbox to either the calendar or the task list.
Just click on the email message you’d like to turn into an appointment or task, and drag it over the icon for either the calendar or the task list and hold it there. A new appointment or task window will open, with the subject and body of the message already included. All you have to do is select the date and time for the appointment, or the start and end dates for the task, and save and close. You can then either file or delete the email message, secure in the knowledge that you’ve got its contents and now it’s scheduled so that you’ll actually work on it.
(Hint: Outlook 2010 lines up your open windows in the order in which they were opened, which may make you think you’ve “lost” the appointment or task you’re trying to create. Put another way, it puts the appointment or task to the back of the other windows you have open. Just hover your mouse over the Outlook icon in the taskbar and then mouse down to the last window in the open Outlook items, and it will be there.
Filter Messages Using Rules
Outlook makes it very easy to set up rules to filter messages before they even reach your inbox, or to quickly file them away once they do.
To easily add someone’s messages to your Junk folder (you can always change your mind later), in Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010, right click on a message from the person and select Junk Email | Add to Blocked Sender List or Block Sender. The message in question, and all future messages from that address, will automatically be moved to the Junk E-mail folder, where they’ll stay until you either decide one or more of them are important and refile them, or delete them. If you change your mind, you can select the item and then click the “Not Junk” button, although it may take a few times before Outlook catches on.
Outlook Rules let you create customized filters to separate and file incoming mail based on an almost limitless variety of criteria. You can create rules to filter messages based on who they are to (yourself alone or groups or mailing lists), who they are from, and words in the subject or body of the message.
To create a rule within Outlook 2003 or 2007, click on Tools |Rules and Alerts, and the Rules and Alerts dialog box will open. Select New Rule, and you’ll get a Rules Wizard which will walk you through the process. Outlook 2010 has a Rules icon on the ribbon, under the Home tab, in the Move group. From this icon you can create new rules or there is a default option to always move messages from that person to a location of your choice.
You can also filter messages into folders, flag messages from a particular sender, or even delete designated messages without ever having to look at them. The Alerts feature will also allow you to designate a special sound when you receive an email from a particular person, such as a managing partner, extremely demanding client, judge or the e-filing system.
Message filtering is particularly useful because it allows you to set up folders for different cases or levels of priority and send specific types of messages straight to them. Once you set up the folders and create the filters, incoming mail will be directed to the right folder. You can drag these priority folders into your Favorites, along with the Inbox. Then, all it takes is a glance at your Favorite Folders to see which folders are highlighted and have a number after them to tell when you have new messages that may need immediate attention and when new messages can wait until later.
Here is an example of Favorite folders into which various types of email is filtered. These messages are low priority and never go into the Inbox, but you can do the same with high-priority messages from a particular sender.
Make Filing Simple with SimplyFile
SimplyFile (http://www.techhit.com/SimplyFile/) is an Outlook ad-in that helps you file email in the right folder, quickly and easily. After you download and install it, it will index your existing email, learning your filing system. You’ll need to be patient with this process because, depending on how much email you have, this may take several hours and slow your system down until it’s finished. It’s a good idea to plan to do this right before you leave for the evening.
Once the index is completed, SimplyFile will prompt you to file new messages in the folder in which it thinks they belong. Users I’ve talked to report that it’s right about 90% of the time. When it’s not, there is a QuickPick feature that provides you with a list of the best additional possibilities. At $49.95 per seat, you can’t afford not to try it. There’s also a 30 day free trial, and multi-user discounts.
By: Laura A. Calloway, Alabama State Bar, Practice Management Assistance Program