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Time Matters Throws E-Mail Junkies a Life R-A-F-T

by Robert S. McNeill

Depending upon whom you ask, e-mail is either the greatest thing to happen to lawyers since the invention of the word processor, or the worst thing to happen to lawyers since the invention of the word processor. The point is that e-mail is a double-edged sword.

Sure, it lets you communicate instantly with anyone on the planet. Trouble is, it lets everyone else on the planet communicate with you at (their) will. And, it’s addictive.

For some reason hitherto undiagnosed by medical science, lawyers who have a receptionist, a secretary, an assistant, and a paralegal all guarding access to them by phone, in person, or by mail open every e-mail as soon as their computer pops up with, "You’ve got mail!" Junk mail that would never get near a lawyer because it would be deep-sixed by the staff gets opened immediately, and becomes a huge time-waster. E-mail that would get categorized as "do later" if it were of old-fashioned, hard copy, mail, gets instant attention if it arrives as e-mail.

E-mail is taking on more and more of the characteristics of hard copy mail, i.e., it’s not just for fun anymore. Messages from clients and other attorneys, contracts and other attachments, all arrive via email that a couple of years ago would have been sent by regular mail or overnight courier. If you advertise your e-mail address on your business card, you ignore incoming e-mail at your peril because people actually expect you to read and act on e-mail they send you very quickly.

Yet, we treat e-mail like we’ve been taught not to treat hard copy mail. We let it sit in an electronic inbox, or, at best, several inboxes, and it piles up and up and up.

Unfortunately, we never seem to get around to taking care of all of it, and it keeps piling up, day after day, month after month, and year after year, until a couple of hundred e-mails or more pile up, we get frustrated, and we delete everything more than three months old without looking at it because, "If it’s that old and it hasn’t bitten me in the backside by now, it must not be that important."

Imagine what would happen if you let your hard copy mail sit on the corner of your desk, and pile up and up and up. Even if you divided it into different piles, it would still stack up to the ceiling eventually.

Open up your e-mail program right now, and count the number of e-mails in your folders. If you have less than 10, you can stop reading. If you have more than 100, tell your staff to hold your calls and lock the door until you finish this article.

The way lawyers have learned to handle hard copy mail efficiently is probably some version of the RAFT method, which basically translates to: handle a piece of mail once and only once, and either:

  • Refer it to someone else.
  • Act on it.
  • File it.
  • Toss it out.

You can use this method without any computerized law practice management system, but Time Matters® gives you the tools to cut through your e-mail morass like a warm electronic knife through digital butter.

Using Time Matters to handle your e-mail means never having to print an e-mail and file it in a case file. Using Time Matters means you don’t waste time physically filing the e-mail, and then waste more time physically retrieving it; or worse, not knowing that it’s in the file to be retrieved.

For example, you send an e-mail to a client and tell her "X" one day, and then she calls the next day and speaks to your associate who tells her "not X" because he didn’t know about the e-mail you sent.

At best, you may have saved the e-mail to a folder in your e-mail program, or printed the e-mail to be filed. It is problematic whether anyone else in the firm has access to your e-mails (and you probably don’t want them to have access to all of your e-mails, anyway), or whether the printed version got filed. And, even if it did get filed, whether your associate went to the trouble to find and peruse the file before answering the client’s question.

Saving the e-mail in Time Matters, and relating it to the case and contact, means that everyone in the firm (who has sufficient security rights) can see the e-mail by reviewing the electronic case file. Because the case and contact are already set up, there are no inbox folders to create.

Many law practice management programs can save e-mail, and relate it to a case or contact. However, once the proper user settings are chosen, Time Matters throws you an e-mail life RAFT to handle your e-mail much more efficiently than just filing it to the electronic file by reading it once and only once, and then taking one of the RAFT actions.

To create the proper settings for each user, from the Time Matters menu bar, select File | Program Setup | User Level | E-Mail | Set Forms Options | Send | Set E-Mail Form Options.

  • Select Clear ‘Show on Inbox’ When Reading E-Mail and Regarding Field is Completed so that once you relate the e-mail to a Contact or Case record it no longer appears in your inbox.
  • Select Check ‘Show on List’ When Regarding Field is Completed so that the e-mail is saved on the Time Matters e-mail list.
  • For Default for ‘Show on Inbox’ When Sending E-Mail, select the Not Checked radio button.
  • For Default for "Show on List" When Sending E-Mail, select the Checked radio button.
  • For Match E-Mail Address to Contact/Matter, select the Always radio button.

Most of the e-mails you receive are probably from people in your Contact list whose e-mail addresses are already listed on their Time Matters Contact record, along with their addresses and phone numbers. When you open an e-mail in Time Matters, it automatically relates it to the Case and Contact records if the sender’s e-mail address is entered on her Contact record, and the Contact record is related to a Case record as it should be.

If you don’t need to act on an e-mail, but just need to FILE it in the Time Matters Case and Contact records, all you have to do is click the Save & Close button on the toolbar; much simpler than printing and filing it. Anyone with security rights can see all the e-mail related to the case or contact record, just as if it were filed in a folder in the case file.

If the sender does not have a Contact record in Time Matters and you want to add the sender as a Time Matters Contact so that it can appear on everyone’s Contact ("Rolodex®" list) and relate the e-mail to the new Contact record, simply create a new Contact record by using the Control + Shift +C hot key combination (or add a button to the toolbar to do the same thing). A new Contact record is created, with the sender’s e-mail address (and the sender’s name, if it is part of the e-mail address) already populated in the record. The e-mail will then automatically be related to the new Contact record, and you can Save & Close the e-mail.

To ACT on an e-mail, use another keyboard combination, Control + Shift + T to add a new To Do record, or Control + Shift + V (or add buttons to the toolbar) to add a new Event record. If the sender’s e-mail address is in a Contact or Case record, that information will be "inherited" by the new To Do or Event record, the subject line of the e-mail will be inherited by the Description field of the Time Matters record, and the e-mail message will be inherited by the Memo field in the Time Matters record. This not only creates a new To Do or Event, but also includes the impetus (the text of the e-mail message) of the new To Do or Event in the record so you can see why the To Do or Event was scheduled. In addition,, you can optionally give a To Do record a Priority and a Classification Code so that you can "slice and dice" (sort and filter) your To Do list to, e.g., show only Document Review To Do’s that are due next week. Event records can also be given a Classification Code so that they can be sorted and appear in different colors on the calendar.

To REFER an e-mail to someone else to handle, create a To Do as described above, but assign it to someone else. Time Matters has several ways to notify the person to whom you have delegated the task, and for you to keep track on what you have delegated to whom and whether it has been done, but that is the subject of another article. (Or you can take a look at the information that will soon be posted on Time Matters’ knowledge base at www.timematters.com)

To TOSS an e-mail, just click the Delete key on the toolbar. Deleting can also be done using just the Delete key on the keyboard or a right-click function. It goes without saying that e-mails with attachments you do not expect should be tossed, as well as junk mail. In fact, instead of RAFT, the system should be called TFRA, because the order of preference should be Toss it, File it, Refer it, and Act on it only as a last resort.

By using your e-mail inbox as a gateway to your law practice management system, and not as a repository, you become much more efficient in managing yours and others’ tasks. The inbox is terribly inefficient as a To Do list, which is effectively how many lawyers use their inboxes, even those with computerized practice management systems.

You should be able to organize a To Do list by due date. The dates of your e-mails are not the due dates for the underlying tasks.

You should be able to organize a To Do list by priority. E-mails cannot easily be assigned a priority or listed in priority order.

You should be able to organize a To Do list by the person who is supposed to do the work. There is no way to determine which e-mails in your inbox actually represent To Do’s that should be assigned to someone else.

You should be able to organize your To Do list by type of task, e.g., limitations deadline, prepare for trial, etc. There is way to easily catagorize an e-mail by the type of work it may represent.

This last piece of advice has nothing to do with computers and technology, just common sense.

Except in rare instances, you should not be checking your e-mail every five minutes, or worse, having your e-mail simply pop up, while you are working, e.g., writing a brief, brainstorming case strategy, having a staff meeting, etc. Your time is too valuable.

Does your staff interrupt you to tell you that you have received an office supplies catalog? Not hardly? How about a phone call from another attorney or client? It probably depends on what you are doing at the time. Do you schedule "quiet time" so that you can work on a project and not be interrupted?

You should check your e-mail at certain times throughout the day: in the morning when you get to work, before you leave work, before and/or after lunch, and perhaps other times, depending on your work schedule.

Robert S. McNeill is a former practicing attorney and recovering e-mail junkie turned law practice management systems consultant, and can be reached at Bob@McNeillGroup.org.

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