Achieving Inbox Zero for Attorneys

Inbox zero: Ending your workday with an empty email inbox.

And–meaningfully empty: the kind of empty that means you’ve responded to everything that you need to respond to or have a plan or schedule in place for everything that you haven’t.

It’s not just a dream: It’s an imperative to keep yourself and your law firm organized, responsive and focused.

We’ll show you how to get there.

Achieving inbox zero is accomplished similarly to how we showed you how to achieve a paperless law office. That is: Through a combinations of tools and process.

A process to make sure every email is meaningfully dealt with and tools to support your process. We’ll cover the best of both for attorneys.

Legal Tools for Inbox Zero

Outlook ≠ Practice Management
(or Document / Email Management)

To begin, we have to solve the likely problem that you’re using your email software (such as Outlook or Gmail) for more than just sending and receiving email. Do you inadvertently use Outlook–and email messages within them–as a de facto to-do list? Are you basically using Outlook email folders as poor-man’s Practice Management system? Do you keep matter-related emails stored in Gmail or Outlook alone?

Email applications like Microsoft Outlook are powerful tools, but the first step in achieving Inbox Zero is to stop using it for management functions beyond its intended purpose. Take a step back and review your firm’s software needs with fresh eyes. Consider which, from the list below, your firm needs to stay organized, efficient and effective.

Related: Gmail vs. Outlook for Lawyers

Practice Management

Legal Practice Management software, if your firm isn’t using it already, helps you manage your cases, clients and firm. Practice Management software typically includes functions like client and contact management, a case/matter database, calendaring, time tracking and billing, to-do’s and calendaring. It’s good to have your entire practice—including appointments, clients, cases and so forth—centralized in a single application. What’s more, Legal Practice Management software is specifically designed to help you manage your firm’s to-do’s, appointments and deadlines. If you’re using Outlook alone to manage these things, you’re not only using the wrong tool for the job—you’ll likely never achieve Inbox Zero.

Legal Practice Management applications come in both cloud-based (web-based) such as CosmoLex, Rocket Matter and Clio, and on-premise or private-cloud (hostable) flavors, such as PCLaw, Time Matters, ProLaw, and Tabs3.

Document & Email Management

Legal Document/Email Management software does just that—helps your firm manage matter-related documents and email. There’s more to managing email than just sticking them in an Outlook folder. Good management of email includes the ability to associate emails with a particular matter, store and organize emails alongside other content for that matter (such as documents and notes), the ability to search across all email and documents for a matter and more.

Document & Email Management applications also come in both cloud-based and on-premise or private cloud platforms. Popular cloud-based Document Management Systems include NetDocuments and LegalWorks. Popular on-premise Document Management software include Worldox and iManage. Like most on-premise, server-based software, premise-based Document Management software can be hosted in a private cloud such as Uptime Practice, eliminating the need for onsite servers and IT.

Task Management & Calendaring

Your Legal Practice Management software should be where and how everyone in your firm manages appointments, deadlines and to-do’s. This makes sure everything related to a client or matter is visible in one place.

If, however, your firm prefers to use a stand-alone software package to manage these things, make sure you’re using something designed to manage appointments and tasks beyond just Outlook or Gmail. Wrike and Trello are great stand-alone task/project management applications. LawToolBox.com is a good stand-alone calendaring/docketing application.

Other Inbox Zero Tools

Implementing a Practice Management and Document and Email Management solution for your firm will go a long way to keep your firm organized and on top of things—and will bring you closer to Inbox Zero. Other tools that will help include:

Messaging

Use a messaging tool like Slack or Skype for communication between people in your firm. These instant messaging and chat tools are a great way to collaborate with teams and communicate one-on-one between coworkers. Messaging tools like these will significantly cut down on email—think of all the short, back-and-forth communication you have between employees by email that would be better done via instant message (which doesn’t leave a trail of emails that you’ll have to delete or sort.)

Note-Keeping

Are you inadvertently using your email software as a note-taking tool? If you’re using Outlook to take and organize notes: There’s definitely a better way. Notebook applications such as OneNote and Evernote are a great way to take and organize notes. They’re not only far better suited for the nuances of note-taking (with features like tagging), keeping notes out of Outlook (or your chosen email client) will also significantly advance your Inbox Zero endeavors.

Related: 5 Reasons Every Lawyer Needs OnteNote

Legal Practice Management and Document Management applications, like those mentioned above, also often have built-in notetaking capabilities (to one degree or another), which is a great way to keep matter-related notes alongside each matter’s documents, email and case information.

The Inbox Zero Process

Now that we’ve taken things out of your email and inbox that didn’t belong there by implementing the appropriate tools: we can begin putting good processes into place. With notes, to-do’s, case information and so forth out of your inbox, you’re left with only actual, legitimate email messages.

They key to achieving Inbox Zero is remembering that every email that hits your inbox falls generally into one of the categories we’ll identify below—and none of these categories actually require you to keep the email in your inbox for an extended period of time.

The goal is to end every day–or at least most days–with an empty inbox. This not only helps you end your workday with a lower blood pressure, it ensures everything is where it should be (emails archived, to-do’s scheduled and notes filed away) and that you’re setup for success for your next day. Before we jump into process and best-practices, let’s cover some basic email management groundwork.

Archive Function

A simple but key component to your Inbox Zero strategy is to make use of most email software’s Archive feature. Archive is painfully simple: A button that moves an email to a folder you designate as Archive. Archive takes away that few-second deliberation you do while deciding if you should delete an email, or find the right email folder to store it in. Not sure? Just archive the email—it will be there if you need it (and you probably won’t). Both Outlook and Gmail have Archive functions.

Email Folders

I’m personally guilty of having dozens and dozens of email folders to organize email I receive—many of which have dozens more subfolders. It was unnecessarily fussy and time-consuming to manage. At least I used to be. Having that many folders and sub-folders is a pretty strong tell that you spend too much time sorting email. It means you save emails that you probably will never reference again.

If you’re using proper Practice Management and/or Document and Email Management software as discussed earlier, you don’t need all those folders. In addition to the Archive folder, which serves as your general purpose “I might need this later, but no need to fuss over what to do with it” folder, you should have less than 10 – 12 email folders. Basic folders to generally organize things; maybe a folder for finance, marketing, email templates and so forth.

Below is a snippet of my personal inbox. From literally dozens of folders with intricate systems of subfolders down to 10 simple folders (11 with the Archive folder).

Now when I’m ready to delete or file an email, my subfolders are simple enough to know exactly where I should file an email—if I should at all.

The Process

Most emails you’ll ever receive will fall into one of the following categories. Next we’ll walk through best practices for how to deal with each type in a way that addresses the email appropriately but doesn’t leave the email lingering in your inbox.

1. Need to Respond. The staple email: The one you need to respond to. Dealing with these is easy.

  • If you can respond today: do so, and file, archive or delete the email. (Copy/move to your Practice or Document / Email Management software as appropriate.)
  • If you can’t: make a to-do or appointment to follow up in your Practice Management or To-Do management system.

2. Need to File. Next there’s the email that doesn’t require a response (maybe you were CC’d, or maybe it’s an “FYI” email). This one’s easy: File it: Move it to the appropriate email folder. Remember: Now you only have 10 to 12 email folders, the categories for which should be broad enough that finding the right folder to file any email should take a split second.

Advanced Tip: Setup Outlook Quick Steps. This allows you to create one button that will move the email(s) you’ve selected to a specific folder. Create a Quick Step for your most commonly-used email folders, and perhaps other frequently-done actions (like: “Forward to my Gmail account”).

3. Need to Save… Probably. Many of the emails that you receive (that you may or may not need to respond to) fall into this category. The emails that make you think: “I might need to refer to this someday.” Better safe than sorry—right? But… do you really need to keep it?

Take the thought out of it. If you’re not certain if you’ll need it again: Archive it to the Archive folder. Done: Now you can move on with your day.

4. Don’t Need It. When you’re pretty sure you won’t need an email again: Delete it. Ask yourself: What are the chances—really-that you’ll need this email? Remember: if its client or matter related it should be stored within your Practice Management or Document Management System, so we’ve already dealt with those. Is it unlikely you’ll need it again? Delete it, and be done with it. Doesn’t it feel good to get rid of clutter?

Closing the Loop

There you have it. We’ve covered the tools your firm should implement to reduce email clutter and implemented a process for properly managing the email that remain. Give it a try: You’ll be ending each day with a beautifully empty inbox and a newfound sense of calm and completeness.

Welcome to Inbox Zero.

About the Author: Dennis Dimka
Dennis Dimka is the CEO and founder of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Dennis is the author of Law Practice as a Service: How and Why to Move Your Law Firm to the Cloud, and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2016. Follow Dennis on LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply