[Continuing the email theme, here is an article on email management that I wrote in 1998. Some of the references are outdated, but the basic principles of email management have not changed too much over the years. Spam and, increasingly, spam filters have diminished the value of email for business purposes and greatly added to the difficulty of managing email.]
Taming the E-mail Tiger
Many attorneys are finding that they increasingly rely on communication by e-mail. They are also finding that at times their e-mail mailboxes look as if a blizzard had hit them. It is not uncommon to find attorneys who receive well over a hundred new e-mail messages a day.
Internet guru Jakob Nielsen in the September 19, 1999 issue of his essential Alertbox newsletter (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990919.html) notes that surveys say that whether people get 10, 100 or 1,000 e-mails a day, they all say that the number they get is "overwhelming." The volume of e-mail will only be increasing. In the same newsletter, Nielsen stresses the importance of "protecting your mailbox."
In other words, you want to manage your e-mail before it manages you. I sometimes call this "taming the e-mail tiger." Fortunately, most e-mail packages, especially newer ones, provide you with valuable management options. You can also use techniques not specific to individual programs to take control of your e-mail. A great idea is to implement these techniques while your volume is low so that you can have them in place as your e-mail volume grows.
There are four points in the e-mail process at which you can have a significant impact on e-mail management: before a message sent to you, when you send a message, when or as you receive a message, and when you store or delete a message. An approach that attacks each of these four points will bring you the greatest benefit, but taking steps at any one or more of them will also help you.
Before E-Mail is Sent to You.
The strategy here is to reduce the volume of unwanted e-mail and make sure that the messages you want come to your main mailbox.
There are several sources of heavy e-mail volume.
Using the Internet for commercial services or buying products is likely to result in your e-mail address becoming available to direct e-mail marketers who will hit you with all kinds of commercial e-mail, commonly known as "spam."
A second potential source of high message volume is an e-mail discussion list. While these discussion lists can be enormously valuable if they relate to specific topics of interest to you, some of them can generate hundreds of e-mails on a daily basis or when a heated discussion is going on.
A third source of e-mail volume can occur if you indiscriminately make your e-mail address available to clients, friends, co-workers and everyone else you meet.
The best first step for you to take is to have both a "work" e-mail address and a "home" e-mail address and make every effort to limit the use of the work address to business-related e-mail.
Obtaining free e-mail addresses has become an easy thing to do. Yahoo and Excite provide free e-mail addresses. Law.com and the ABA can even provide you with a more upscale-looking free address.
After obtaining a "home" e-mail address, use it any time you are asked to supply an e-mail address for commercial or informational purposes that might lead to spam mail. Use your work address only for important mail that you want to handle in the work setting.
Blocking certain types of messages can also help you. Your Internet Service Provider, your firm’s network administrator and some e-mail programs, such as Outlook, can set up "spam filters" to block e-mail from certain locations or with certain words or phrases in the subject line or body of the message. Look into what options you might have available.
Consider the potential volume of any e-mail discussion list before you subscribe to it and resist the urge to subscribe to every interesting discussion list you find. A good option that many discussion lists have is a "digest" subscription – you receive one large e-mail a day containing all the messages posted to the list that day topped with a table of contents.
In short, being thoughtful in how and to whom you give out your e-mail address can go a long toward protecting your mailbox and making your mailbox manageable.
Managing Your Outgoing Mail.
The first decision you must make is whether you want to keep copies of all the messages you send. I cannot imagine why you would not, but I have been surprised by several lawyers who did not want to keep copies of the messages they sent.
Assuming that you decide to keep copies of your outgoing e-mail, how do you do so? Most newer e-mail programs automatically store copies of all your sent messages, usually in an easily accessible folder called something like "sent mail." In some programs you have to turn that feature on, so don’t assume that copies of your e-mail are being kept. In my experience, about 30 seconds with the manual or a help screen and clicking in a checkbox or two will enable this function.
Some e-mail software (usually older programs) will not store copies of your outgoing e-mail. The easy solution is simply to send an extra copy of each message to yourself. The best technique is to send a "bcc" (anachronistically, "blind carbon copy") which does not show your recipient that you are doing this. Some e-mail programs do not have a "bcc" function, so simply "cc" a copy to yourself. You’ll get the copy, but your recipient may notice that you sent the copy to yourself.
You can also save yourself a lot of time and trouble with e-mail addresses by using your e-mail program’s "address book." Rather than try to remember and type in individual addresses every time you send an e-mail, put the addresses into the address book under the person’s name. You can then select the person’s name off the list when you send an e-mail and have the e-mail address automatically entered for you on your message.
A final, important technique for managing outgoing mail is to make good use of the subject matter line and use descriptive phrases that will help you locate what is in the e-mail. Too many people use no subject, terms like "message," or clever phrases, and then have difficulty later finding the message later. While the more powerful e-mail programs have "find" functions, it may be difficult to remember the exact words you want to search for. A good subject line also helps your recipient notice your message and manage it appropriately.
Managing E-mail When or As You Receive It.
Your e-mail program will put all your new e-mail into a "new mail" folder or an "in box." The contents of that folder are what you see when you open your e-mail program. Most programs give you many options to create additional folders and move mail among them. More powerful programs allow you to set up routines known as "filters" or "rules" that will automatically handle e-mail based on directions you can establish.
The first technique that you want to use with incoming messages is to delete everything that you don’t need to keep and all "junk" mail. Change your mind or make a mistake? Many e-mail programs can be set to keep deleted mail in the "recycle bin" for a period of time (including forever) before it is irretrievably deleted. In other words, you have ways to undelete if you make a mistake.
Therefore, it pays to be aggressive in deleting mail from your in box. Deleting unnecessary messages will reduce clutter and make it easy to find the messages you want to find. Similarly, dealing aggressively and immediately with your e-mail by replying quickly or forwarding messages can help you manage your in box.
A second important technique is to select the best "view" for your e-mail. I’ll use Microsoft Outlook as an example. In Outlook, you can set up a "tri-pane" view that shows all your mail folders in one pane, the contents of your Inbox or the folder you have selected in another pane, and the first roughly 20 lines of the selected message on your screen before you even open the message. Using this tri-pane view can help you scan e-mail messages quickly and delete spam or other messages.
In addition, Outlook has ten ways to view e-mail (by sender, by topic, last seven days, unread, etc.) and gives you ability to create custom views. You are highly likely to find a view that can help you best manage e-mail. You can also sort within the views in a number of ways.
You will definitely want to create additional folders and organize your received mail in folders. Choose the approach that works best for you. I prefer to create folders for individuals, groups or projects. I like to be able to go to a folder called "Newsletter" and know that I can find all the e-mails I’ve gotten related to this newsletter in one place. Others might prefer action folders: "reply needed", "ASAP", "to file", et al.
The simple fact is that any of these folder techniques will help you greatly and organize old mail while keeping your in box clean for new mail.
Once you create the folders, you simply move relevant messages into each folder after you have received them.
"Rules" or "filters" can make this task even easier. Some e-mail programs allow you set up rules for dealing with e-mail. Generally, these are simple "if-then" rules like "if subject line contains the words ‘get rich quick’, then delete message on arrival" or "if sender is X, move message to X folder on arrival". Outlook has a great feature called "organize" that simplifies the creation of the most commonly used rules.
This technique can be a very powerful way to manage e-mail. Many people especially like these rules for e-mail discussion lists because they automatically move all the discussion list mail to a folder. The folder contents can then be read at leisure and the list messages do not overwhelm your in box.
If your e-mail program has this feature, it’s well worth your time to learn how to use it.
Storing, Archiving and Deleting Old E-mail.
On several occasions I’ve talked with an attorney who commented on how "slow" his or her e-mail program was performing. When we checked, the slowness was the result of a "new mail" folder or "in box" that had thousands of messages going back several years.
While from a management standpoint, the easiest thing to suggest is to delete and archive old messages, deletion and archival raise some thorny issues and there are many nuances.
Recent court cases indicate that old e-mail can come back to haunt you, either because you still have it or because it has been deleted. Just ask Bill Gates. Keeping all old e-mail can also, over time, take up storage space. There is developing law in this area and a lot of subtle issues. I will not make any blanket statements, but will suggest that you are well advised to pay attention to these issues now and consider adopting firm-wide policies on e-mail storage and deletion. [Note: Email retention and deletion policies have become immensely important over the years.]
Two other points to consider:
First, as significant matters and details are handled increasingly by e-mail, it is vital that these messages become part of the client or case file. Or that you know that they exist and can locate them immediately when they are needed. What if your client provided key information to a summer law clerk by e-mail and you are unaware of it and then cannot find out once you do become aware of it? Think carefully about ways to integrate e-mail into your case management or document management systems.
Second, remember, as I suggested earlier, that deletion does not mean that a message is "deleted." Even if you go to a policy that mandates, for example, annual deletion of e-mail, you will want to make sure that it is fully deleted. There are software programs that can ensure that your deleted messages and files cannot be later retrieved and meet deletion standards set by the Department of Defense. These types of products should be considered if you adopt such a policy on deletion.
E-mail is a marvelous tool, but it raises a number of its own problems. With a few relatively simple steps, both e-mail issues and e-mail itself are manageable. Keeping in mind the idea of "protecting your mailbox" and taking advantage of some common sense techniques and a few features of your e-mail programs, like rules, of which you might not have been aware can help make your life a little easier.
This article appeared originally in the November 16, 1998 issue of Lawyers Weekly USA and was reprinted on several occasions.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (https://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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