Task Management for Lawyers

By Ben M. Schorr

Being effective these days means being able to juggle a lot of different tasks on a lot of different deadlines. Luckily, technology has provided a number of tools to help you do that more easily and efficiently. This article explores a few concepts of task management and highlight products you can use to implement them. Given the space restrictions, I focus only on Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft OneNote, but many of my tips are applicable to other products as well.

Action Items
A core concept in task management is the “action item”—which is a fancy term for something you must take action on. These days, action items frequently come to you in the form of an e-mail message, but they can just as easily be things that you were assigned in a meeting or via a phone call. The defining characteristic of an action item is that it’s something you need to do . . . a “to-do.”

Sometimes an action item can be an item you assign yourself—a bright idea that comes to you in the shower, on the golf course, or at the gym. An action item can happen at any time. Obviously, action items often arise out of meetings with clients and colleagues; I would question the value of any meeting that didn’t generate action items for anybody. But action items can also arise when you least expect it. I often find that some of my best action items come during a shower or halfway into a run. That’s ironic because those are the times when it’s the most difficult to capture those items. If only my action items came exclusively when I was sitting in front of my computer, it would be easy to get those items into my system.

It’s important that you capture those items in a system of some kind—otherwise, you’ll have to waste a lot of brain cycles just trying to remember them all.

Creating Tasks and Appointments from E-mail
So, let’s say you’ve received an e-mail from a client and he is asking you to do some particular task, such as sending him a copy of his operating agreement. That’s an action item—it requires a response. Assuming you don’t choose to do it right on the spot, you will want to add it to your tasks list.

To do this in versions of Outlook prior to Outlook 2007, you’d drag and drop that e-mail to your Tasks Folder on the Navigation Pane. Outlook would then automatically create a new task item—using the subject of the e-mail as the subject of the task item and the text of the e-mail as the body of the task item—and prompt you to select a due date. All you need to do is select the due date and save the item. Done! Now your action item is scheduled in your Tasks Folder.

You might wish it was that easy to create an appointment item for those times when the client asks you to schedule a meeting. Well, your wish is granted. Just drag and drop the e-mail item to the calendar and a new calendar item will be created. The subject of the e-mail message becomes the default subject of the appointment item, and the text of the e-mail appears, in its entirety, in the notes field of the appointment. Adjust the start and end dates and times as appropriate, add a location, and then click “Save and Close” to add the new item to your calendar. Easy as that.

In Outlook 2007 (and 2010) the job is even simpler and cleaner because those versions feature the “To-Do Bar” (described below) and follow-up flags. On the message list, look to the right end and right-click the transparent flag icon. You’ll be presented with a set of options including “Today,” “Tomorrow,” “This Week,” etc. That’s Outlook asking you when you’d like to deal with this item. Make a selection and Outlook will automatically add this item under the appropriate day on your To-Do Bar. If you select “This Week,” it will be added on the last day of your work week. Same with “Next Week,” only a week later. You can do this very quickly and without having to create a second item in your mailbox (as you do when you create a new task item from the e-mail).

At this point you can even file that e-mail item into a subfolder—it will still appear on the To-Do Bar for you so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it.

Using the To-Do Bar
The To-Do Bar is a new feature in Outlook 2007. Microsoft found that people weren’t using the Tasks Folder in Outlook 2003 and earlier versions as heavily as expected. The reason: out of sight, out of mind.

The fact is that most people who use Outlook spend the vast majority of their time in the Inbox. And in Outlook 2003 (or earlier) you don’t see the Tasks Folder when you’re looking at the Inbox. Sure, those folks occasionally clicked over to the Calendar and saw the Task Pane there. Some of them had Outlook configured to start with “Outlook Today” and could see the tasks on there, but for most people the Tasks Folder just wasn’t part of their daily life. The To-Do Bar brings the Tasks Folder (and a bit of the Calendar) right to the Inbox view, where the user can see those items and work with them regularly.

By default, the To-Do Bar sorts by due date, but it can readily show items by category (if you’re using categories) or by importance. It appears on the Inbox and any other folder you like, so your action items are always close at hand.

Using the To-Do Bar is really quite simple. Tasks and items you’ve flagged for follow-up appear on the To-Do Bar under the day that they’re due. You can double-click an item to open it. When you’re done with an item, just click the flag (the same flag you used to assign the follow-up); the flag will be changed to a check mark (indicating the item has been dealt with), and the item will be removed from your To-Do Bar. Note that items checked as done are removed from the To-Do Bar but not from the folder where the item exists.

Using the Tasks Folder
The Tasks Folder is a great way to work with to-do items—both tasks and flagged e-mails—in a more robust way. The To-Do Bar is great for quick access to your list, but the Tasks Folder lets you see your task items in a reading pane as well as additional information about the task (like due date) in the view.

The other powerful feature of the Tasks Folder is the ability to create more advanced and filtered views so you can see and work with your tasks in more useful ways. When I do my weekly review—my weekly visit to the entire length and breadth of my task list—I do so in my Tasks Folder. The To-Do Bar is my quick list; the Tasks Folder is where I go to get more information and work in richer views.

Using the Calendar to Manage Your Time
The calendar is one of the most venerable and best understood formats for time management. It’s a place to keep items that have a definite date and time in your schedule, as opposed to task items that may or may not have a due date but don’t generally have a specific time associated with them. The most obvious example is an appointment or a meeting, but you may also want to use the calendar to schedule time to accomplish particular things. Think of it as a meeting with yourself.

Two features of the Outlook Calendar that are underappreciated by lawyers are Recurrence and the Date Navigator.

Recurrence. If you have a meeting or appointment that’s going to happen repeatedly, then you could go through and manually add the items on the days they’ll appear, or you could use the Recurrence feature of Outlook to automatically create a series of appointment items. Start with a single appointment item, then click the Recurrence button to set up a pattern. Just about any pattern you have can be reflected here—every day, every other Tuesday, the third weekday of every other month . . . you name it. If there is a pattern to the events, you can probably create an Outlook recurring appointment item to match.

Date Navigator. Have you ever had the experience of trying to plan your time and look at two or more nonsequential days? For many people that has meant quickly clicking back and forth between the days, trying to see which is the better choice. Outlook gives you a tool to make the process a lot easier. Simply click on the first day in the Date Navigator, then hold down the Ctrl key and click on each of the other days you want to see. Right before your very eyes Outlook will show you the days you want to compare, side by side by side. You can even move items between those days just by dragging and dropping from one day/time to another day/time.

Using OneNote with Outlook for Task Management
One of the best-kept secrets in Microsoft Office is Microsoft OneNote. OneNote is Microsoft’s free-form note-taking software, and it does a lot of things that lawyers love. It also integrates with Outlook in some interesting ways.

First, you can copy items from Outlook to OneNote to use as the basis for more extensive research and notes. If I receive an e-mail from a client with a request that requires a little research on my part, I’ll sometimes send it to OneNote, where I can take my research notes (including links from web pages) right there on the same page. I can annotate the original e-mail and easily share that note in real time with my entire team for their input.

Second, you can create items in OneNote that you designate as Tasks, which will be added automatically to your Tasks Folder and To-Do Bar in Outlook. With Outlook 2007 and OneNote 2007 (or later), those items are actually synced so that if you mark an item as complete in one program, it will be reflected in the other program automatically. And OneNote has the same follow-up settings as Outlook, so you can flag an item as due tomorrow, this week, next week, etc.

You can also use OneNote to take meeting notes during an event scheduled on your Outlook Calendar. Just open the meeting item in Outlook and click the “Meeting Notes” button to create a page in OneNote containing the basic meeting information and offering an area for you to take extensive notes. Take pictures of the white board and incorporate those pictures in your notes. Even capture audio recording of the meeting if you like. The OneNote page will have a link back to the Outlook appointment item, and you can find the OneNote page from Outlook just by clicking the Meeting Notes button in the item.

Being effective means capturing, processing, and tracking your action items—whether they’re tasks or meetings—in a reliable and repeatable way through a system that you have confidence in and are comfortable with.

Tools such as Outlook and OneNote can help you to organize and process your action items and keep a handle on your day.
  • Ben M. Schorr is chief executive officer of Roland Schorr & Tower, an IT management, law practice management, and strategic planning firm with offices in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Woodland Hills, California. He may be reached at bens@rolandschorr.com.

Copyright 2010

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