Volume 19, Number 8
DROWNING IN E-MAIL? TRY A RAFT
By Keely Dunn
Dealing with e-mail overload is one of the most pressing challenges for practitioners and law offices today. E-mails are on their way to replacing fax, courier, and snail mail communication as the accepted way for lawyers to communicate with their colleagues, opponents, clients, and other professional contacts, and we all send and receive e-mail from nonprofessional sources as well. But the sheer volume that results from how easy it is to send, forward, copy, and answer creates as many occasions for curses as there are for blessings.
You may have heard about products that will help you filter, archive, and make sense of your e-mail deluge, and about e-mail specialists who will spare no effort to keep you organized. However, the real truth is that, as with so many other things, the best way to deal with the e-mail explosion is not through technology but through developing better work habits: doing more with less.
What you need when you're swamped with e-mail is a RAFT-not an actual seaworthy construction but a series of principles that can help you deal with incoming mail instead of watching it accumulate
in the Inbox or in various hidden sub-folders. RAFT was developed by Tom Rowe of Practice Management Partners (www.practicemanagementpartners.com) and Bob McNeill of the McNeill Group (www.
mcneillgroup.org) after they realized it was as easy to shuffle virtual paper around virtual desks as it was with the real thing.
The RAFT acronym stands for the following steps:
Refer. Letting e-mails languish in your Inbox because you don't have the information necessary to answer is inefficient and unnecessary. Refer e-mails to the appropriate person at the start. Passing the buck, shucking off the work-whatever you call it-is, after all, why the Forward button was invented.
Act. E-mails are a terrific way to convey information quickly. However, once you've read that very salient e-mail, it will sit in your Inbox and grow moss with the rest of your expanding volume of messages. The Inbox is the procrastinator's dream: You aren't really forced to do anything with a message because, once it's marked as "read," it'll stay put until you do something with it. However, most people don't find it easy to take positive action from long lists of e-mails; we work better from to-do lists, with items prioritized, organized by due date, and, most importantly, crossed off when completed. This is the hardest but most important of all the RAFT principles: Turn that stagnant message into an action item. For example, if the e-mail notifies you of a deadline on a file, enter the task in your calendaring or case management system. E-mail confirmation of a lunch date becomes an appointment. Once the information you need is harvested, delete the original e-mail unless the message must become part of a client record, for example.
File. When you do need to hang on to an e-mail message, employ a method that lets you "file and forget." If the e-mail is related to a matter in your office, you should have a way to file it with the matter so you can easily retrieve it when necessary. If the content will be part of your knowledge base-for example, a listserv message that gives suggestions on attacking a legal problem in your field-you must be able to file it so you can use a number of search terms and intuitive scanning to retrieve it.
Many people use an elaborate system of e-mail subfolders to store messages. However, many e-mail products just don't do well with thousands of messages hanging around. Outlook, for example, suffers serious stability and speed problems if the file format that stores all Outlook data in one big file gets larger than 500MB-it will quite literally explode if it gets to 2GB.
When your e-mails are isolated in a database or file system separate from the rest of your client-related work product or personal or firm-wide knowledge base, it gets harder to find information you're looking for. The ideal system files your e-mail along with your other client data and work production in such a manner that you can globally search through all this material at once.
Trash. Once you've exhausted the other three possibilities, it's time to throw it away. Honest. "Delete" is not a dirty word!
What's the Difference?
The vast majority of e-mail users operate through one of three main levels of programs:
1. Stand-alone e-mail systems such as Outlook Express, Eudora, and Netscape Communicator-they do e-mail and nothing else.
2. Products in which e-mail is processed alongside calendar information, tasks, and other data records. These are often called Personal Information Managers (PIMs); Outlook is the prime example.
3. Case management products, the top echelon of software for the law office, that process e-mail in the same database as matter-centric case information: appointments, tasks, notes, research, documents, phone records, snail mail records, and the like. Using e-mail inside a case management system takes your e-mail productivity to the next level.
Because relatively few lawyers have yet to implement the wonders of case management software, this article concentrates on the first two levels, the ones most people currently use. As a user moves up (in this case, the lowest level is 1), fulfilling the RAFT objectives becomes steadily easier because e-mail becomes more and more integrated with the other types of information essential to your practice-appointments, tasks, contacts, documents, research, and so on.
Stand-alone e-mail systems can be more stable and easier to use than more integrated ones. Some people prefer not to combine personal e-mail into case management systems; instead, they choose to read their e-mail in a separate stand-alone program and move relevant pieces to their case management system later. Either way, if you're using Eudora, Outlook Express, or Netscape Communicator, you'll have to do a little more conscious work to employ RAFT principles than users of more integrated systems.
ã Refer. Just use the Forward button. What doesn't happen automatically, however, is tracking the delegation process, which can be done in a few extra steps with your PIM or case management program. As soon as you've delegated the item by forwarding it, create a new Task that will remind you to follow up the matter on a particular date.
Act. Again, you must look outside to turn the e-mail into an action item. For example, an e-mail that sets up a lunch appointment would require you to open your calendaring program and create a new appointment there. It's easier to allow mail to pile up when you have to switch to a different application, type the information you require, and/or cut and paste between the various data fields in the two applications.
File. First you have to get the message out of the program. I know, you're thinking about your incredibly elaborate subfolder system and wondering why you shouldn't just leave it there. Remember that e-mail is going to be isolated from the rest of your client work product: letters, briefs, scanned documents, and notes. Performing thorough searches for disparate elements is more challenging when they're stored in different places. In addition, creating a complete archival record is much easier when one folder contains the whole case file and can be pulled from the hard drive and stored on a CD-ROM. If you have to find all of the relevant e-mails in your subfolders and export them at a later date, you may be setting yourself up for another successful period of procrastination.
Each e-mail system has the ability to save an individual e-mail message as a text file. The .txt file format has the advantage of having been around for a very long time in the computing world. It's simple to do and can be read by a multitude of different programs, including the built-in Notepad program in Windows and all word processors. For posterity's sake, plain .txt files are thought to have more of an edge on future readability than archiving in more proprietary formats. Other file format choices are to save the mail as a word processing document (.doc or .wpd), a web page (.html), or in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf). The key is to File and Forget, which makes the next process even more essential.
Trash. Get rid of messages as soon as you convert them into action items. One way to make this process easier is to automate it by setting up macros triggered by either a mouse click or a combination of keystrokes. If you're worried that you missed that all-important programming course during law school, don't fret. Several excellent software packages make this an easy process (see "Shortcuts" on page 22).
You can create a macro that will save the active e-mail message as a text file and automatically fill in part of the new file name if you wish, await your input, and then delete the original message for you. When you deal with a high volume of messages, the ability to save even a few keystrokes will make you that much faster and, more importantly, that much more likely to deal with e-mail as it arrives in your Inbox, rather than weeks or months after the fact.
This is where Outlook comes in. Far and away the most popular e-mail program available, Outlook has a distinct advantage over the stand-alones, including its much less powerful kin, Outlook Express.
Outlook treats e-mail messages in the same way stand-alones do-downloads the message; parses out which part is the subject line, the message body, the attachment information, etc.; and presents each message as a data record in the Inbox. Understanding this is crucial because Outlook handles several types of data records other than e-mail messages: calendar items, tasks, notes, even journal entries. These data records share many fields in common: subject, date, category, and body are just a few examples.
This complex automated structure makes Outlook a powerful ally when you're RAFTing, as the following examples illustrate.
Refer a task when you're forwarding a message and automatically create a reminder to follow up. From the Sent Items folder, select the e-mail in which you delegated a task. Click on the message, drag it to the Outlook Bar (the navigation panel on the left of the Outlook window), and drop it on the Task icon. A new Task will automatically be created for the e-mail message that will share the same subject line as the original e-mail (thanks to Outlook's data inheritance functionality, hereinafter referred to as the Coolest Thing) (see below and "The Coolest Thing" on page 23). If you assigned the e-mail to a category like "Jones v. Smith 00-01," that will also transfer. Simply change the end date to when you'd like to follow up, and you're ready to go.
ã Act on an appointment or message by using that Coolest Thing technique. If you receive an e-mail scheduling a meeting or due date, simply drag and drop that message into the time slot on the appropriate day, add a little information, and you've quickly created an appointment-complete with the pertinent e-mail in the body of the appointment.
How many times has a message sat your Inbox simply because you didn't get around to adding the sender to your contact list? Act on that message by clicking either on the message in the folder list or on the opened message, and press the magic shortcut keys (Ctrl + Alt + C) to create a new Contact. This is another instance of the Coolest Thing in action, where the name and e-mail address fields are automatically transferred from the original e-mail. Numerous other possibilities are limited only by what might actually be useful for you and your practice.
Of course, once you've created an action item, you need either to File the original e-mail (for record keeping) or to Trash it.
If you use your e-mail RAFT diligently, you'll find that managing e-mail will turn that an ocean of stress into a highly productive action center.
Are you tired of executing the same keystrokes or mouse movements over and over? Is it time for you to automate your daily chores? Here are two popular programs that can help.
True to its name, ActiveWords converts "words" that you type on the keyboard into actions. A keystroke combination can launch a website, create and address e-mail messages, open files, substitute text, perform Windows shortcuts, and execute scripts and other programs. Available from www.activewords.com; $29.95/user for a one-year license term; 60-day trial.
Iolo's Macro Magic can perform the same actions as ActiveWords, but you can launch the macros you've designed using not only keystrokes but also shortcuts that can be placed and copied anywhere in your Windows desktop. Available from www.iolo.com; $39.95/user, $149.95 for up to five users; 30-day trial.
THE COOLEST THING
Everyone calls this the Coolest Thing they've ever learned about Outlook.
When you click on any Outlook data record (e.g., an e-mail) and drag and drop it into a different icon on the Outlook bar (e.g., calendar or task), you automatically create a new data record with many fields already filled in from the first record. Use the Coolest Thing to quickly turn e-mails into events, tasks into notes, or whatever other transformations you require.