The Case for an Empty Inbox

Excerpted and adapted from The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Outlook 2010 by Ben M. Schorr, now available from LPM Publishing. The book is also available as an e-book for Apple devices on the iBookstore.

Outlook, for most people, is all about e-mail, so I thought it best that we start our explorations right there. The chances are excellent that you receive a considerable volume of e-mail each day and you’re faced with having to decide what’s valuable and what’s not. Right along with that meeting invitation from your largest client or settlement offer from opposing counsel is a more dubious (or perhaps less dubious) offer for cheap male enhancement drugs or penny stocks.

Aside from separating the wheat from the chaff, or the spam from the ham, if you will, effectively processing e-mail is about prioritizing, responding to, delegating, categorizing, and filing that e-mail in an efficient manner. This chapter will be all about the tools that Outlook gives you, and some techniques that I’m going to teach you, to do just that.

I’m also going to make an assertion that may put some of you ill at ease: you will be the most effective and efficient when your Inbox has zero (or just a couple of) items in it! If you come along with me and accept my theory, by the end of this chapter you will have an empty Inbox and you’ll be enjoying the productivity benefits that result.

Why an Empty Inbox?

Let’s start by looking at your Inbox. If you’re a typical attorney, there are probably several hundred or even a few thousand e-mail messages in it. Check the status bar at the bottom left and let’s see where we’re starting. You don’t have to tell me what the number is—I’m only a book anyhow—but now you know the road ahead. Now, looking at your Inbox, you can probably see as many as twenty or so e-mail messages at a time. Without scrolling, tell me what the eighty-third e-mail message in your Inbox is about. If you can do it, I’ll be truly impressed. Chances are excellent that you can’t. Here’s how that impacts you: let’s say you get a message relating to a case. It’s from the client, and he or she is asking you to forward copies of some documents. You decide that you will be pleased to do so but that other items have a higher priority right now. You resolve to get to that request tomorrow. Between now and then you receive forty other e-mail messages, some of them important, some not. The message from your client asking for the documents has now scrolled off the first page of your Inbox. Did you write that request down anywhere? The typical lawyer doesn’t.

Normally, attorneys don’t bother to add minor requests like that to any kind of tickler or project management file. They feel that the task being asked for is minor and that they’ll simply do it when they have the time. The message itself will serve as the reminder for this minor task. The problem is that out of sight is out of mind. The item has scrolled off your screen, and most people don’t spend enough time scrolling up and down, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of messages in your Inbox. The item is at real risk of being forgotten, the client neglected. Have you ever scrolled down through your Inbox into the older messages and found a message from a few days or weeks ago that you never got around to dealing with because you simply forgot? It happens all the time. By keeping your Inbox trim and tight, even empty, you prevent this from happening. Outlook gives you the tools to file and deal with e-mail messages and not have to lose or overlook anything. You can be more effective and provide better service to your clients.

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