January 01, 2019

Obtaining the Most from Office 365

Office 365 is stacked with productivity tools that can help law firms.

Ben M. Schorr

Perhaps you’re a member of one of the many firms that has moved to Microsoft’s Office 365 platform to get the latest version of Microsoft Office or to realize the benefits of the Exchange email platform. At this point you might be looking around and realizing there’s a lot more to Office 365 that you may be able to use to be more productive and efficient. In this article I’ll take a look at a couple of the lesser-known pieces of Office 365 and discuss how you and your law firm might optimally use them.

Before I continue, a couple of quick notes. First, in case you don’t already know, I work for Microsoft. Second, all of the things I’m going to talk about in this article are available to you today if you have an Office 365 Business Premium or Office 365 Enterprise E3 subscription. There are no extra charges for them if you have one of those subscriptions.

Office 365 Groups

Law firms are typically organized as sets of circles. You will typically have circles encompassing administrative, support teams and practice areas, and within those practices areas you have people and teams working on individual matters. If you tried to graph your firm’s operations, it would probably look like a busy Venn diagram. Groups in Office 365 lets you create virtual workplaces for those circles of people. When you create an Office 365 Group, you select people to be members of that Group and Office 365 will create a set of resources for those people to share.

With each Office 365 Group you get:

  • A shared email inbox, with its own email address. This is where Group conversations can occur. Members can also choose to get copies of the messages in this shared inbox sent to their personal inboxes. The Group’s email address can also be used as a central receiving point for things like court notices or relevant newsletters.
  • A dedicated calendar for events and meetings relating to the Group. Members can access this calendar through their personal Outlook or via the web browser.
  • A shared document library where members can store, share and collaborate on all sorts of files relating to this Group.
  • A OneNote notebook specifically for the Group. This is a great place to collect notes, gather research and share information.
  • A SharePoint team Site for the Group. People have written entire books on using SharePoint for collaboration and communication, but suffice it to say it’s a powerful platform for sharing information with your team, clients, co-counsel, etc. SharePoint lets you create document libraries, lists, workflows and other web apps that you can use both inside and outside your firm.
  • A Microsoft Planner plan. This is a web-based task and project management system that lets you create, assign and track tasks related to the Group.

How would you use this? You might create an Office 365 Group for a large matter and add the people in your firm who are working on that matter—the attorneys, paralegals, assistants, support staff and more. Those users can use the shared inbox to discuss the matter; add events, meetings and deadlines to the shared calendar; collect resources, notes and research in the OneNote; and upload documents, pictures and other files to share and collaborate on to the shared document library.

If you have outside co-counsel, or experts, you can add them to the Group as well.

All of these resources can be accessed by your team members from wherever they are (as long as they have internet access), on any device they’re signed in on—PCs, Macs, smartphones, tablets ... just about anything.

How do you get started? In Microsoft Outlook or Outlook on the web, look for New Group on the ribbon. Remember that you’ll have to have Office 365 to
use this.

What about Microsoft Teams? Another app that builds on Office 365 Groups is Microsoft Teams. This is a platform for teamwork built around persistent chat and online meetings. If you’d prefer a more immersive environment, with more real-time communications, then you might opt to use Teams rather than Outlook as your platform for collaborating. The primary difference when using Teams is that it’s organized around channels while Outlook uses email folders.

Teams is also taking over the voice chat and telephony role that Skype for Business has been handling in the past. Teams can also handle Voice-over-Internet-Protocol telephony so that you can connect standard Voice-over-Internet-Protocol handsets from manufacturers like Polycom or Cisco and use Teams as your firm’s phone system.

Microsoft Flow

Flow is a service for automating workflow processes. It lets you create flows that automatically do things when a certain other thing happens. It can automate processes within an app or service or automate processes that happen across multiple apps or services. For example, you can create a flow that when a new document is saved in a particular folder on your firm’s SharePoint site, it starts an approval process that requires one or more people in the firm to approve the document.

You can create a Flow button that initiates some action. For example, you can create a Flow button that logs the current time to an Excel table for time-tracking. And, as a bonus, these buttons can work on your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Flow uses connectors to various applications (including third-party applications like Twitter, Gmail or FreshBooks) to see triggers and take actions. New connectors are being added all the time.

How would you use this? You could create a Microsoft Flow that monitors Twitter for your client’s name and sends an email containing any tweets it finds to the Office 365 Group you’ve created for the client’s matter.

Or you could create a Flow that automatically adds a task to your Group’s Office 365 Business Plan when an email is received from the court. The possibilities are almost endless.

How can you get started? Go to flow.microsoft.com and sign in. There are learning resources, prebuilt templates and everything you need there.

Microsoft Forms

One of the newer services in Office 365 is Microsoft Forms. Forms lets you create surveys, intake forms, questionnaires and more that you can distribute and then automatically gather the results. Forms also has built-in analytics to evaluate responses, and the data can be easily exported to Excel for additional analysis.

How would you use this? Forms is a great way to get feedback from clients on the service you provided them or survey staff in preparation for an event.

How can you get started? Head over to forms.office.com and you can get started building easy-to-use forms right away.

Conclusion

Microsoft is continuing to evolve its Office 365 Business Premium and Office 365 Enterprise E3 in terms of bundled services and applications available to legal end users. With the numerous licensing options, Office 365 can provide reasonable IT solutions for almost any law firm.

Ben M. Schorr

Ben M. Schorr is a senior content developer at Microsoft and has nearly 30 years’ experience in legal technology, including nearly 10 years in-house with law firms in Los Angeles and Honolulu. He currently lives in Martha Lake, Washington, with his wife, son and assorted critters. Email him.

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