Using software that helps you better manage your law practice is one of the best ways for you to create new efficiencies (and avoid malpractice claims). Many lawyers are using Microsoft Outlook for this purpose. While it is not, ultimately, a substitute for a high-grade practice or case management application, Microsoft Outlook is a good general-purpose information manager suitable for a variety of tasks in a range of law firm settings. But are lawyers really using it to full effect?
Here are tactics and tips for how you can work more efficiently within Outlook—and how you can use it more effectively as a practice management tool.
Coping with E-mail
Let’s start with a topic that bogs down many lawyers’ days—e-mail overload. Here are simple pointers to help you better manage and cope with e-mail messages.
- To avoid having to type out or copy e-mail addresses, enter contact information in your Outlook Contacts and configure Outlook so that it automatically looks up e-mail addresses there. As you type in the letters in a name, Outlook will search your address book and automatically fill in the e-mail address as soon as it matches the person’s name.
- Enter full names in your Contacts, not just generic e-mail addresses. Using generic addresses such as “fred123@ aol.com” increases the likelihood that you will unintentionally send something to the wrong person.
- In the same vein, be extra cautious before you hit the Send button. Make it a habit to double-check that the e-mail is addressed to the correct person.
- To help keep your inbox a manageable size, use the Rules feature. Based on criteria you set, Rules will automatically forward, move to another folder or delete messages arriving in your inbox. Rules are especially helpful for handling messages from electronic mailing lists. Click on Tools, then Rules Wizard to create a new Rule. ( See Figure 1.)
- To more effectively manage messages that you regularly send to large groups of people (such as client newsletters), create Distribution Lists. They are collections of internal or external e-mail addresses within the Outlook address book that allow you to send a message to tens or hundreds of recipients by using a single e-mail address. To create a Distribution List, go to your Contents folder, select File, then select New and Distribution List.
Getting Organized with Folders
No doubt you have file folders to organize all the documents in your office. In like fashion, you should create folders within Outlook to organize and separate items of the same type—for example, e-mail folders for individual clients with whom you frequently exchange messages; a generic folder for other correspondents; and individual archive folders for various electronic lists to which you subscribe.
Simply pull down your Outlook Folder list, right-click on the existing folder of your choice and select New Folder to create subfolders, sub-subfolders and so on as needed. To make finding items even easier, make the names and structure of folders within Outlook identical to the main document folders on your hard drive.
Also, for quick access to your most frequently used folders, create links to them on the shortcut bar—just drag the folder from the Folder list and drop it onto the shortcut bar. Select View, then Folder List to see all your folders.
Working Remotely with Outlook Data
If you’re a laptop user, you can configure Outlook to keep a full duplicate copy of all your data on the laptop hard drive, as well as allow you to send or receive e-mail remotely. This setup will allow you to work on a standalone basis outside the office, reviewing e-mails, calendaring dates and so forth on the spot. Any changes you make while at court or elsewhere will be updated in the main database when you next synchronize.
If you want to leverage Outlook’s power with a PDA, taking key contact and calendar information on the road with you is easy. Most PDAs come with software that will synchronize and transfer all your key information from Outlook to the PDA. Although you can perform additional tasks on a more-expensive wireless device, a basic $100 PDA will suffice for essential calendaring and contact management. With Outlook and a PDA, you can eliminate the need to keep paper-based diaries when traveling.
Making the Most of Calendar View
Using the Outlook Calendar in Day/Week/Month view shows you both your calendar and a task list on one screen. Click on View, then Current View, and select Day/Week/ Month. Here, you can edit or change Tasks and Appointments. ( See Figure 2.) To do even more with Calendar view, try the following ideas.
- At the beginning of each day, print your Outlook Calendar in Daily Style. Click on File, then Print, and select Daily Style in the Print Style box. This gives you a one-page hard copy of that day’s appointments and tasks. Through the course of the day, use it as a scratch pad for miscellaneous notes. Review it at the end of the day to make sure you’ve completed all necessary tasks and updated all appropriate information in Outlook.
- To see the entire day without scrolling, make the default appointment length one hour, by right-clicking on the column that shows hours of the day and selecting “60 Minutes.”
- To gain extra space on your desktop, make the Outlook shortcuts bar narrower. To do this, move your cursor over the right-side border of the bar and drag and drop the double-headed arrow. Leave just part of the buttons and labels visible so you can see enough to identify various folders. To gain even more space, turn off the Folders list—click on the X at the list’s top right. To view the list again, click on View and select Folders List.
- For things that repeat, create recurring appointments, events or tasks. Do this at the time you create the item. Click on the Recurrence button to access the dialog box containing parameters for setting the timing of recurring items. Note that if you need to, you can edit individual instances of recurring items without changing the other instances. ( See Figure 3.)
Also, be sure to share your Calendar with your assistant so that he or she can add or edit appointments. This eliminates the need for your assistant to maintain and synchronize a traditional paper-based date book.
Managing Matters by Taking To-Dos to Task
You can use Outlook Tasks to help manage your files and make sure you complete all necessary tasks by required deadlines. Keeping in mind that only today’s and overdue Tasks appear by default in Calendar view, you can do the following to systematically track the work to be done on your files.
- Create a separate and main Task for every file that you have.
- In Calendar set your Tasks to be sorted alphabetically by Subject. Simply right-click on the column heading and select Sort Ascending.
- Start the Subject of Tasks with “>”, followed by the client name in capitals. This makes individual client matters easy to spot in Calendar view and on your scratch sheet. Create personal items without the “>”, and they will appear at the bottom of the Task list.
- After the client name, indicate in point form in the Subject area what is to be done next, what you are waiting for, what deadlines are coming up and the like. For example, “>SMITH c cl re mtg”; “>BROWN ltr fr jones in?”
- As you complete the current work on a particular matter, edit its Subject to add a description of what is to be done next and enter the appropriate future due date for that next step. That Task will then appear in your Calendar on the date the next step must be handled. If you want to keep a record of the work done on the matter, cut and paste the Subject lines into the body of the Task as you update it for work that is completed. (See Figure 4.)
- Create separate Tasks for other, minor matter-related deadlines or to-dos. Just make sure you don’t confuse these with the main Tasks for the matter.
- Set alarms on Tasks when you want to be reminded of a limitation period or other important deadline. These alarms will pop up in reminder windows on the dates or times specified.
You can also keep track of limitation periods in Outlook by creating Events entries on the appropriate dates, which will then appear in your Outlook Calendar. In addition, you can set Events alarms that warn you—via pop-up windows—of upcoming limitation period deadlines days, weeks or months ahead. Consider running a separate, hard-copy card system as a backup.
Making Outlook Work the Way You Do
To get the most from Outlook, you have to tweak features and change settings to make it match your individual needs and preferences. To change default Outlook settings, select Tools and then Options, which opens a dialog box containing dozens of configuration settings. Review them for any changes that can make Outlook work better for you.
Training is also key. Outlook is a complex program and, at times, the interface is not terribly intuitive. To really know its ins and outs, you must spend some time in formal user training. If you like self-paced learning, Keystone Learning Systems ( www.keystonelearning.com) offers training programs at basic, intermediate and advanced levels for all versions of Outlook, in either videotape or CD format, for about $160.
Still, Outlook Isn’t the Ultimate
The points outlined here will help you work in new ways with Outlook, but keep in mind that Outlook isn’t the ultimate case management product. It is people-centric and not specifically designed for use as a law practice management tool. There are a number of excellent programs specifically designed to help lawyers manage their legal matters and their practices from a matter-centric vantage. Ultimately, you want to consider using one of these because they are simply better at assisting in managing the information and tasks related to the practice of law. Time Matters ( www.timematters.com) and Amicus Attorney ( www.amicusattorney.com) are the most widely used, and there are dozens of others.
Make the most of Outlook if you are using it now, but consider working toward implementing one of the legal case management products that more closely match how lawyers work.
Dan Pinnington ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director, practicePRO at the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company.
SIDEBAR: Time-Saving Outlook Tips
These general tips review ways to move around and work with items within Microsoft Outlook with new efficiency.
Learn keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts help you complete the most common Outlook tasks while letting you work faster because you keep your hands on the keyboard, instead of reaching for the mouse. There are dozens of such shortcuts, but here are essential ones:
- Ctrl+Shift+M to create a new e-mail message
- Ctrl+Enter to send a message
- Ctrl+Shift+I to jump to the inbox
- Ctrl+Shift+B to jump to the address book
- Ctrl+Shift+C to create a new contact
- Ctrl+Shift+A to create a new appointment
- Ctrl+Shift+K to create a new task
- Ctrl+Shift+N to create a new note
Use plain-English dates. Outlook understands plain-English entries in date fields and will enter the next occurrence of the described date for you. For example, typing “tomorrow” will enter tomorrow’s date; “nov 4” will enter the next occurrence of that date; “one week” will enter the date one week from today; and “2 days” will enter a date two days from the current date.
Drag and drop items of one type to create another. For example, dragging an incoming e-mail to the task bar Contacts icon will create a new contact entry for the sender. Dragging an e-mail to the Calendar icon will open a new appointment. Information from the original item will automatically be transferred to the new item, avoiding the need to retype data.
Use a right-click for format and configuration settings. Many Outlook features and options, including formatting and configuration settings, are available with a simple right-click of the mouse. Each is “context sensitive.” In other words, you’re presented with a list of choices that are relevant to the item, field or text on which you just right-clicked. For example, right-clicking on an e-mail in your inbox presents you with Open, Print, Reply, Reply All, Forward and so forth. You can to this with almost everything in Outlook—try it.
Sort items to find information quickly. In all views, you can sort items listed in a column by clicking on the column’s title bar. Clicking on a column heading a second time reverses the sorting order. Note that the Sort feature works the same on column style information in just about every window or dialog box in all Microsoft Office applications.
Use virtual sticky notes. The Outlook Notes folder contains individual “Notes” items, which are the electronic equivalent of sticky notes. Use them to jot down questions or ideas, or to type or paste in any text or information that you want to set aside for quick reference in the future.