Filing Client E-Mail

Three years ago I conducted a twtpoll asking for feedback on how law firms file client e-mail.  I wanted to know:

  • Who files the e-mail in your office – lawyers or staff?
  • How is it filed – electronically or in paper form?

The results were mixed.  Here are some of the comments I received:

  • “Attorneys are supposed to file (e-mails) in Time Matters, but they end up in folders in Outlook, junking up the e-mail memory.”
  • “Lawyer (solo) files e-mail in Clients’ Outlook folders.”
  • “We use Gmail … and use search to find (messages).”
  • “We label e-mails with appropriate matter/client name in Gmail and archive or backup as needed.”
  • “E-mails are printed and placed in the client’s file.”

These answers illustrate four common problems:

  • Law firms using Web mail are not filing client e-mail on their local hard drive or server.
  • Lawyers are treating Outlook and Gmail folders as a filing cabinet for e-mail.
  • No one is really addressing the issue of who should be filing client e-mail (if filed electronically).
  • Gasp!  Some people are still printing e-mail!

Three years later, I would love to report: problem solved!  But firms continue to struggle with this task.  Therefore, here is a reprise of my original post with additional suggestions on how to properly process and retain client e-mail.  (Spoiler: Keeping it in your inbox is not the answer.)

E-Mail Must Be Properly Filed

E-mail should be segregated by client and saved electronically in the same network or local folder where Pleadings, Correspondence, Research, etc. are stored.  Create a specific subfolder within the client’s main folder, or include e-mail in Correspondence.  Use inbox organizers, filing assistants, and other techniques to make the process easier.

Storing e-mail with other client documents allows you to have a complete electronic record that everyone in the firm can access.  When e-mail sits in your inbox, no one else working on the case can see it, and no one else will know what is going on.   As you accumulate more and more messages, your inbox becomes bloated.  Merely archiving or backing up e-mail is not an ideal solution for several reasons:

  1. E-mails may be archived in their original HTML format which typically consumes more space than e-mails preserved as .txt  or .pdf files.
  2. Attachments may or may not be captured by archiving.
  3. The archive may reside in the cloud – not the end of the world, but the whole idea here is to maintain a local copy of your client e-mail communications.
  4. If you need e-mails pertaining to a particular client, you will have to restore the entire archive or backup.  This is time-consuming, space-consuming, and will involve work on your part to sort, search, and identify the specific messages for which you are looking.

Decide Who Should File Messages

Solos with No Staff

If you are a solo practitioner with no staff, you will be filing your own e-mail.  I recommend the “file as you go” approach.  As you receive or send client e-mail, save it immediately into the client’s electronic folder on your hard drive or server and delete the copy in your inbox.  If this gives you pause, then create client folders in your e-mail program as a temporary holding place.  Let me repeat that:  temporary holding place.  I understand many attorneys like to leave e-mail in their e-mail program because they find it easier to work with.  I can live with that. For a time. But at some point you should create a routine to move e-mail messages out of your e-mail folders into the client’s electronic folder on your computer.  There are many ways to do this easily and efficiently.

Solos with Staff; Law Firms

If you have staff, or are in a firm, you have other choices.

Option 1:  Forward e-mail to your secretary or assistant for electronic filing

Pros:  Forwarding e-mail means you stay in control.  Private or confidential firm e-mails remain in your inbox.  Only client e-mail is forwarded, with the benefit of keeping your staff person in the communication loop.

Cons:  You remain in control of your inbox.  If you aren’t good about forwarding messages, it defeats the purpose of this approach.  In addition, your IT Department may not appreciate such a scheme.  Every time you forward an e-mail, three copies exist:  the original that hit your inbox, the copy you forwarded, and the forwarded message received by your secretary or assistant.  Unless you are diligent about deleting the first two, your firm will be storing all three.

Option 2:  Give your secretary or assistant full access to your inbox

Pros:  If you give staff access, the e-mail will get filed.  Staff and others will be in the communication loop.  If you don’t want to be bothered with filing your own e-mail or forwarding it, this may be the approach for you.

Cons:  Staff will have to wade through a lot of messages to tackle this task.  Firms who choose this option must refrain from sending sensitive information to attorneys via e-mail.  As an alternative, confidential documents such as employee evaluations or law firm financial statements can be posted in a secure place on the server accessible only to those who have permission rights.

No matter which approach you use, here are some additional tips to make the process go more smoothly:

Train Staff

Make sure staff understand their role in filing e-mail – whether they do so directly from your inbox, or upon receipt when you forward messages.  If the “people” part of this process fails, you may end up with no record of your electronic correspondence.

Keep Personal E-Mail Out Of Your Business Account

Many lawyers and staff are already overwhelmed by the amount of e-mail they must process.  Slogging through personal e-mail in addition to business e-mail makes it more difficult to find critical, time-sensitive messages.

Keep personal e-mail personal.  Doing so will save space on your business server, protect your privacy at work, and prevent business e-mail from bouncing back to the sender because your inbox is full of personal messages.

Zap the Spam

Use a spam filter to keep the garbage out of your inbox.  Postini, MailWasher, POPFile, Spamfence, Spamihilator, and K9 are all good products.  (Remember to check your quarantine summaries daily in case your spam filter is holding back a legitimate message.)

Take Back Your Inbox by Unsubscribing

If you order software or products online, you have probably acquired e-mail subscriptions you don’t want or need.  Sure, you can delete these messages from your work e-mail – just as you delete spam – but wouldn’t it be better if you never saw the messages at all?  The truth is that deleting e-mail means reading e-mail – or at least skimming through your inbox.  Talk about a time waster!  Get serious about unsubscribing!  “Constant contact” updates and broadcast e-mail product announcements have Unsubscribe links – usually at the bottom of the e-mail message.  Look for the link and click to get off these lists.  As you shop online in the future, use your personal e-mail (not your business e-mail) for purchases.  (Or better yet, set up a separate free e-mail account used exclusively for online shopping.)  The goal is to reduce your business e-mail to only those messages that relate to your law practice.

Don’t  Use (Outlook) Rules to “File” Client E-Mail

Don’t get me wrong.  Rules definitely serve a purpose.  I use rules (based on domain name) to direct Listserv messages to designated folders.  You can use rules to copy and forward all e-mail coming from a court domain to your assistant so he or she is copied on court notices.   What doesn’t work is relying on rules to “file” client e-mail.  Even if you were willing to suffer the tedium of creating a rule based on each client’s e-mail address, client’s don’t always use the same account to communicate with their lawyers.  And of course, trying to base a rule on a subject line is impossible.  How many times have you received (or sent) an e-mail with NO subject line?  Or continued an e-mail thread based on a subject line that ran its course?  Rules require consistency to work properly, and subjects lines don’t offer that security.  In addition, Rules created while you are connected to your office Network typically don’t run when using Outlook Web Access or similar remote access apps.

Get Your E-Mail Off the Web

I find it ironic that folks who are leery of cloud computing (SaaS) don’t give their Hotmail, GMail, or Yahoo!  accounts a second thought.

When you leave e-mail on a Web server, your confidential client data is not entirely under your control.  If your provider’s server is down, or you can’t get on the Internet, you can’t get to your information.  Macs and PCs both ship with e-mail programs.   Poke around.  I guarantee a preloaded program is available on your computer.  Set it up to download your Web mail.  This doesn’t cost you a dime.  Go to your Web mail’s Help page and search for instructions on how to download Web mail to your specific program.  For Google, log in to Gmail, click on Help, and click on POP under “Other Ways to Access Gmail.”  Google offers instructions for setting up Apple Mail, Outlook Express, Outlook 2002, 2003, and 2007, Thunderbird, Windows Mail, the iPhone, and other mail clients.

Once you are downloading e-mail to a local program on your computer, you can save it, print it to PDF, or at least archive it locally (my least preferred method of saving e-mail – see the issues discussed above).  Remember:  the idea is to sort e-mail by client, get it out of your inbox, and into the client’s file on your network or local hard drive.

If you absolutely, positively, cannot be persuaded to download your Web mail, then I strongly recommend you print messages to PDF.  If you don’t own and can’t afford Adobe Acrobat, then download a free PDF writer.   As you open and read each Web mail message, simply “print” it to your PDF printer and save it on your hard drive or server in the client’s electronic folder.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2012

Postscript

I’m proud to say I took my own advice this past summer.  After “doing as I say,” I cut incoming e-mails in half.

Organizing Paper Files

Why am I writing about how to organize your paper files when going “paperless” is all the rage?  Because 6,269 views of Setting Up an Effective Filing System tells me there is still a demand for information on this subject.

I uploaded Setting Up an Effective Filing System to Slideshare three years ago.  The article first appeared in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin in June 2000.  Learning how to organize paper files remains a popular topic because most firms continue to operate hybrid systems.  For some, the paperless part of the practice consists solely of word processing documents and e-mails saved in client folders on the network or computer.  For others, going paperless occurs at the end of the life cycle when the file is closed, contents are scanned, and the paper file shredded or given to the client.  In either case, the active, working file continues to be paper-based.  I am happy to share tips on paper file management because I strongly believe that well-organized paper files lead to well-organized computer files.

Setting Up an Effective Filing System addresses the following topics:

  • Alpha vs. Numeric Filing Systems
  • File Media – Folders vs. Binders
  • How to use Color Coding
  • The Connection Between Files and Client Relations

It also provides examples of how to organize file materials in three practice areas: Corporate, Personal Injury, and Domestic Relations.  The complete article can be downloaded here.

For those who were expecting a follow-up post on how to create Actions in Acrobat, my apologies.  I promise to get there, but was motivated to publish this first as I continue to receive requests for copies of my filing system article.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2012

Snail Mail in a Paperless Office

So you’ve taken the plunge.  You’re going to scan and OCR all the paper in your office and store client documents in PDF format.  Now what? 

First things first

Establish a protocol for the proper disposition of paper after scanning.  As a general rule, keep original documents whose authenticity may be disputed, or those with particular legal importance (original signed contracts, original executed wills, etc.)  Paper not meeting these criteria (or other criteria identified by the firm) can be shredded or forwarded to the client after scanning. 

Here are some recommended procedures:

One person should be responsible for opening all incoming mail, sorting it, and date stamping it.  In a paperless filing system, date stamping can also be accomplished after the mail is scanned by applying a date and time stamp in Adobe Acrobat.  Click on Tools, Comment & Markup, and select Stamps.  Under “Dynamic” choose the “Received” stamp or follow the steps to create a custom date and time stamp.

If the person opening the mail is also in charge of a central calendar or the docket system, this person should review the mail and pick out any dates or time limits.  These dates should be entered immediately into the system(s) and an appropriate notation made on the piece of mail.  This can be accomplished before or after scanning.  To make the notation beforehand, place a checkmark next to the docket date, initial it, and then scan the document.  To make the notation afterward, use Adobe Acrobat to create a custom “Docketed” stamp to apply to the mail after it is scanned in as a PDF.  

If the person opening the mail is not in charge of the calendar or docket system, a docketing request should be completed for each date or time limit and e-mailed to the person in charge of the central calendar or docket.

At this stage, scanned mail can be forwarded electronically to the assigned attorney and his or her secretary.  The secretary should review the mail and note dates and items of importance.  If possible, the secretary should also meet with their attorney(s) to review incoming mail and tickled files each day.  This meeting is an excellent time for questions to be answered, schedules coordinated, and items delegated to the secretary for completion.  Document or case management software can greatly facilitate this process.  These programs store scanned, unread mail directly in the client/matter electronic file, not the attorney’s e-mail inbox.  Once in the program, unread mail can be protected from deletion, backed up with the remainder of the client/matter file, and easily flagged for follow-up, forwarded to another person, or sorted by any number of criteria (date received, client, matter, description, or status:  reviewed, not reviewed, or on hold). 

Keep in mind that the mail handling procedures described above apply to all incoming documents and transmissions, including faxes, hand-deliveries, and items received by messenger.  E-mail should be saved electronically to the client’s file.

Color Code Your Electronic Folders

I have long been a proponent of color coding as a means of improving the efficiency of paper filing systems.  When I speak to lawyers or legal staff about file management, I recount how we color coded files in the early 1980s when I was a legal assistant:  “Red for domestic relations, Green for real property, Yellow for personal injury cases,“ and so on.  Almost 30 years have passed since I learned that system, and it’s still ingrained in my mind.

To say I was thrilled when I heard about Folder Marker from Courtney Kennaday is an understatement.  (Virtual “fist bump” to my fellow practice management advisor from the South Carolina Bar.) 

Why Should I Color Code?

By associating a color with a folder type you can quickly find what you’re looking for.  It’s that simple.  When Ms. Smith calls about her divorce, it’s easy to pick out the red file sitting on your credenza or the red folder on your computer.  If documents need to be filed in the Jones real property and personal injury cases, the appropriate green and yellow folders can be distinguished – in your paper or electronic filing cabinet.

If you prefer, you can use plain folders for main client files and color code subfiles:  Blue for legal research, Yellow for pleadings, Red for discovery, Green for witness statements. 

No matter which approach you choose, color coding will save you time.

Paper Filing Systems

Many of the tidbits I shared in Setting Up an Effective Filing System are still valid today.  If you struggle with organizing your paper files, check out this article.  Also see the resources on the PLF Web site at Practice Aids and Forms as well as Books from the PLF.

Using Folder Marker to Jazz Up Your Electronic Filing Cabinet

Folder Marker from Arctic Line Software allows you to mark electronic folders based on:

  • Priority (high, normal, low)
  • Project completeness level (done, half-done, planned)
  • Stage of development (one, two, three, four, etc.)
  • Type of information stored in them (work, important, temp and private files)
  • Status (approved/rejected/pending)

How?  Install Folder Marker, find a folder you want to mark or color code, right click, then select Mark Folder.  You can also launch the Folder Marker application and browse to mark folders.  Distinguish files based on the criteria above or skip all of that and just apply color:  Right click on a folder, choose Mark Folder, then Colors.  To color multiple folders at one time, just <Ctrl> or <Shift> Select, right click, and follow the same steps. 

I’m just getting started, but here are a few of mine:

Download a free 30 day trial of Folder Marker here by choosing Download at the top of the page.

Arctic has a free version for home use.  It’s scaled back, but still offers the ability to mark folders, change folder color, work with multiple folders at once, and change folder icons.  The enhanced home version is $24.95, the pro version for the office is $34.95.  Confused?  Check out the product comparison chart.   How-to articles are posted on the bottom of Arctic’s home page, but the product is pretty easy to use.  If you have Vista and you want to jazz things up even more, check out Arctic’s “60+ amazing professional Vista folder icons for everyday use.”

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

I love color coding, so I don’t know how impartial my opinion is, but I give this little application a thumbs up.  I made the full move to paperless recordkeeping before we relocated our offices in 2008 and haven’t looked back.  Anything that helps me find information more quickly or better organize my electronic filing cabinet is a plus in my book.

Note:  This is not a paid endorsement of Folder Marker.  Practitioners should always conduct their own research when buying products or selecting vendors.

Copyright 2009 Beverly Michaelis

 

Words of Wisdom for Filing Client E-Mail

In a recent twtpoll I asked for your feedback on filing client e-mail.  I wanted to know: 

  • Who files the e-mail in your office – lawyers or staff?
  • How is it filed – electronically or in paper form?

The results were mixed.  While I take heart that the majority of firms are electronically filing e-mail, it’s clear we have a long way to go toward streamlining this process.

Here are some of the comments I received:

“Attorneys are supposed to file (e-mails) in Time Matters, but they end up in folders in Outlook, junking up the e-mail memory.”

“Lawyer (solo) files e-mail in Clients’ Outlook folders.”

“We use Gmail … and use search to find (messages).”

“We label e-mails with appropriate matter/client name in Gmail and archive or backup as needed.”

These answers highlight three common problems: 

  • Law firms using Web mail are not filing client e-mail on their local hard drive or server.
  • Lawyers are treating Outlook folders as a filing cabinet for e-mail.
  • No one is really addressing the issue of who should be filing client e-mail. 

E-Mail Must Be Properly Filed

E-mail should be segregated by client and saved electronically in the same folder where Pleadings, Correspondence, Research, etc. are stored.  Create a specific subfolder within the client’s main folder, or include e-mail in Correspondence.  Use inbox organizers, filing assistants, and other techniques to make the process easier

Storing e-mail with other client documents allows you to have a complete electronic record that everyone in the firm can access.  When e-mail sits in your inbox, no one else working on the case can see it, and no one else will know what is going on.   As you accumulate more and more messages, your inbox becomes bloated.  Archiving or backing up is not an ideal solution for several reasons: 

  1. E-mails are saved in their original format which typically consumes more space than e-mails preserved as .txt  or .pdf files. 
  2. Attachments may or may not be captured. 
  3. If you need e-mails pertaining to a particular client, you will have to restore the entire archive or backup.  This is time-consuming, space-consuming, and will involve work on your part to sort, search, and identify the specific messages for which you are looking.

Decide Who Should File Messages

If you are a solo practitioner with no staff, you will be filing your own e-mail.  However, if you have staff, or are in a firm, you have other choices. 

Option 1:  Forward e-mail to your secretary or assistant for electronic filing

Pros:  Forwarding e-mail means you stay in control.  Private or confidential firm e-mails remain in your inbox.  Only client e-mail is forwarded, with the benefit of keeping your staff person in the communication loop. 

Cons:  You remain in control of your inbox.  If you aren’t good about forwarding messages, it defeats the purpose of this approach.

Option 2:  Give your secretary or assistant full access to your inbox

Pros:  If you give staff access, the e-mail will get filed.  Staff and others will be in the communication loop.  If you don’t want to be bothered with filing your own e-mail or forwarding it, this may be the approach for you.

Cons:  Secretaries will be wading through a lot of messages to tackle this task.  Firms who choose this option must refrain from sending sensitive information via e-mail.  As an alternative, confidential documents such as employee evaluations or firm financial statements can be posted in a secure place on the server accessible only to those who have permission rights.

No matter which approach you use, here are some additional tips to make the process go more smoothly:

Keep Personal E-Mail Out Of Your Business Account

Many lawyers and staff are already overwhelmed by the amount of e-mail they must process.  Slogging through personal e-mail in addition to business e-mail makes it more difficult to find critical, time-sensitive messages. 

Keep personal e-mail personal.  Doing so will save space on your business server, protect your privacy at work, and prevent business e-mail from bouncing back to the sender because your inbox is full of personal messages.

Don’t  Use (Outlook) Rules to “File” Client E-Mail

Don’t get me wrong.  Rules definitely serve a purpose.  I use rules (based on domain name) to direct Listserv messages to designated folders.  You can use rules to copy and forward all e-mail coming from a court domain to your assistant so he or she is copied on court notices.   What doesn’t work is relying on rules to “file” client e-mail.  Even if you were willing to suffer the tedium of creating a rule based on each client’s e-mail address, client’s don’t always use the same account to communicate with their lawyers.  And of course, trying to base a rule on a subject line is impossible.  How many times have you received (or sent) an e-mail with NO subject line?  Or continued an e-mail thread based on a subject line that ran it’s course?  Rules require consistency to work properly, and subjects lines don’t offer that security.

Get Your E-Mail Off the Web

I find it ironic that folks who are leery of SaaS don’t give their Hotmail, GMail, or Yahoo!  accounts a second thought.

When you leave e-mail on a Web server, your confidential client data is not under your control.  If your provider’s server is down, or you can’t get on the Internet, you can’t get to your information.  Macs and PCs both ship with e-mail programs.   Poke around.  I guarantee a preloaded program is available on your computer.  Set it up to download your Web mail.  This doesn’t cost you a dime.  Go to your Web mail’s Help page and search for instructions on how to download Web mail to your specific program.  For Google, log in to Gmail, click on Help, and click on POP under “Other Ways to Access Gmail.”  Google offers instructions for setting up Apple Mail, Outlook Express, Outlook 2002, 2003, and 2007, Thunderbird, Windows Mail, the iPhone, and other mail clients. 

Once you are downloading e-mail to a local program on your computer, you can save it, print it to PDF, or at least archive it locally (my least preferred method of saving e-mail – see the issues discussed above).  Remember:  the idea is to get the e-mail out of your inbox into the client’s electronic folder.

If you absolutely, positively, cannot be persuaded to download your Web mail, then I strongly recommend you print messages to PDF.  If you don’t own and can’t afford Adobe Acrobat, then download a free PDF writer.   As you open and read each Web mail message, simply “print” it to your PDF printer and save it on your hard drive or server in the client’s electronic folder.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2009