June 06, 2011

New Year's Resolution: Clear Out That In-Box!

Joshua Poje

It’s that time again—time to live up to resolutions made for the coming year. The New Year provides a perfect opportunity to tackle such goals as organizing your professional life.

One area to start with is e-mail. In-boxes can be flooded with spam or even with an overabundance of legitimate messages; and lawyers fret about the ethical implications of putting so much of their confidential work online.

To help you get a handle on e-mail in 2009, we’ve assembled five tips that are worth turning into New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Use folders or labels
    One of the easiest ways to manage your in-box is to use folders or labels to sort your e-mail. Some lawyers sort e-mail by subject matter or date, while others create folders that mirror their firm’s paper filing system. Routinely sorting e-mails into folders keeps your in-box manageable, and makes it much easier to locate specific messages at a later date. Take this a step further by using “rules”—a common feature in most e-mail programs and services—which allows the automatic sorting of incoming e-mail based on factors like the sender name or subject. For example, you could set up a rule to automatically move incoming e-mails from a client into a pre-made folder to store communications with that person. (For more on creating rules in Outlook 2003, visit Microsoft’s Web site.)
  2. Get another e-mail address
    If you’re regularly wasting time digging through an in-box full of e-mails from your spouse, ads from Amazon, or the latest forwarded chain letters from your Aunt Sue, you may be a candidate for a second e-mail address. Additional e-mail addresses, usually through free web-based services likeGmail, are a great way of separating work and personal e-mail. Give out the personal address to friends and family and use it (or even a third separate address) when signing up for non-business services online. If you separate your e-mail effectively, you should find that your work in-box is only filling with important work-related e-mails, and you’ll be less likely to lose something important in the shuffle.
  3. Use practice/document management software
    Many specialized legal case and practice management software offerings can handle e-mail. If you’re already using such software to manage your calendar, contacts, case notes, and so forth, using it to manage your e-mail is sensible and efficient. Likewise, if your firm uses a document or records management solution like Worldox to store electronic documents, it can most likely be used to store your e-mail as well. Keep in mind, however, that when using a document or records management solution, it’s important to establish a consistent retention policy throughout the firm.
  4. Professional responsibility rules apply to e-mail
    Lawyers use e-mail to transmit and receive sensitive and confidential information on a regular basis. As such, it’s important for lawyers to recognize that local rules of professional responsibility apply to e-mail just as they do in any other circumstance. You should exercise extraordinary care in making sure you are sending e-mails to the proper address, and you might consider using encryption or registered e-mail when sending confidential documents. You should also be careful to avoid inadvertently transmitting confidential information via the metadata embedded in electronic documents, particularly metadata arising from a “track changes” feature. Finally, be aware that publicizing your e-mail address may place you in an awkward position if potential clients e-mail you confidential information before you’ve had the opportunity to run a proper conflicts check. 
  5. Don’t use e-mail for everything
    Many sites around the Web—from news sites to blogs—offer visitors the opportunity to enter their e-mail address and receive regular updates from them. While these e-mail updates are helpful, they can pile up quickly and lead to e-mail overload. Thankfully, most of these sites also offer their updates via a technology called RSS or Really Simple Syndication. With RSS, you can subscribe to a site’s content via their RSS “feed” and have that content streamed directly to an RSS feed reader of your choice. Thus, rather than digging through a dozen sites or having your e-mail box flooded every morning, you simply open your feed reader and browse through the latest updates from your favorite sites.

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Joshua Poje