Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

In my experience, most law office personnel use only the most basic functions in Microsoft Outlook. (For many, the zenith of their Outlook skills is using Outlook’s Meeting Organizer to put items on multiple calendars.) And their lack of more advanced skills–such as using Microsoft Outlook Tasks or Categories–is killing their productivity.

It’s a shame, too, because knowing a bit more about how Outlook organizes information can open up a wealth of options for organizing your client matters.

In this series of posts, we’ll go over some “beyond the basics” skills in Outlook to equip you and your staff to make the most of this undervalued tool.

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.

If you’re not using Tasks, you should be

Once you’ve mastered sending/receiving email and calendaring appointments, the next area is Tasks. To access Tasks, simply click on the Tasks button on the bar in the lower left-hand corner of your Outlook window:

outlook tasks bar1 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

Although you can start a new task by simply following Outlook’s suggestion to “click here to add a new Task,” it’s usually better to use the New Task button in the upper left-hand corner so you will get the full dialog box:

outlook tasks dialog 250x1671 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

  1. Type the description of the task here. For optimal effectiveness and clarity (particularly if you’re assigning tasks to others), make this description a “next action” (“Call Rick to get possible deposition dates”) rather than a goal or project name (“Schedule expert depositions”).
  2. You can either type a Start Date in or use the drop-down calendar to pick one.
  3. Once you’ve chosen a Start Date, you’ll see Outlook fill in the Due Date automatically. You can change it by either typing or using the drop-down.
  4. If you want a reminder pop-up, check the box next to Reminder and set the date and time.
  5. Use this space to keep any notes you will need or will accumulate as you perform the Task. You can even …
  6. … embed an Outlook Item (an email, a contact, etc.) into a Task or attach a file (a Word document, etc.).
  7. This field can come in handy for tracking the status of your Tasks (more on that when we discus Views). In addition to Not Started, you can pick In Progress, Waiting for Someone Else, Deferred, and Completed.

Using Tasks + Categories for Case Organization

The key to organizing Microsoft Outlook Tasks is in combining them with Categories, found on the right side of the Task tab:

outlook tasks categories e13151662097571 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

Yes, the delivered Categories leave a lot to be desired, but here’s the good news: they’re customizable. Click All Categories at the bottom:

outlook tasks categories all1 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

outlook tasks categories add new1 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

outlook tasks categories added1 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

Now that you’ve added your new case/matter category, it’s selected by default. (You can, by the way, assign more than on Category to a Task, or to any Outlook item.) So your finished Task looks like this:

outlook tasks finished 500x3341 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

And once you click Save & Close on the Task tab, it appears in your Task list like this:

outlook tasks shown in task list 500x1261 Organize Matters Using Microsoft Outlook Tasks

Creating Tasks with Categories is just the beginning

Creating the Tasks for your open matters is a great start, but using Tasks plus Categories for organization becomes much more powerful when you learn how to customize the View (such as the one shown above). Next time, we’ll talk about how you can insert (or delete) columns in this view, filter according to criteria such as due date, save multiple Views for different uses, and print reports that can give you an at-a-glance view of what’s due when.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adesigna/4090782772/)

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  • Jeanette Otis

    A better way to embed contact information in the task (or any Outlook function) is to turn on ‘linked contacts’. Don’t remember how to do it in any other version, but for 2010, go to File, then Options>Contacts and click the box next to ‘Show contacts linked to the current item.”

    Also be aware one can change which fields display by right-clicking on the header rows. And it’s fantastic to be able to press a button and send a status update.

    Before installing Credenza, I hooked clients to every task and calendar item via contact linking. Now it’s better to just assign the item to a case and link all contacts necessary for said appointment or task. I do like your idea on using categories for case identification when using Outlook by itself.

    Cheers.