Note: We’re working on updating this page. In the meantime, some of the information below is based on older versions of Outlook.
- Fight Inbox Overload
- Using Auto Reply
- Organizing Conversations
- Sorting Email Automatically with Search Folders
Fight Inbox Overload
The busier your law practice gets, the more cluttered your Microsoft Outlook inbox will be.
While there are all sorts of tools that can help you achieve Inbox Zero nirvana, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the inbox management features already available in Outlook itself. Here’s how some of those features can help you fight inbox overload.1
Move Routine Emails Out of the Way with Rules
With Rules you can automatically screen all your email and highlight the messages that need your immediate attention.
For instance, you could create a Rule that flags every email from a uscourts.gov subdomain and move them into case-specific subfolders based on the case number in the subject line. If one case is particularly hot, you can deal with those emails immediately and leave the rest for later in the day.
Of you could move all your email newsletter subscriptions to a Read Later folder.
The easiest way to set up a rule is to open an email you want typically want to automate. Just right-click on that email and, in the contextual menu that pops up, choose Rule > Create Rule.
While you can do a simple rule in the Create Rule dialog box, the more powerful option begins with clicking on the Advanced Options button. This will take you into the Rules Wizard.
The Rules Wizard asks you three questions:
- Which of your emails need to be automatically handled? For example, these could be emails you receive from certain email addresses or with specific text in the subject line.
- What do you want Outlook to do with those emails? Once Outlook spots an email that meets those criteria, do you want to move it to a new folder, pop up an alert, or forward it to another recipient?
- Are there any exceptions to the conditions in #1 above? For example, if you’re rerouting emails from the CM/ECF system to your assistant, you wouldn’t want to do that if your assistant is already getting cc’d (his/her email address would appear in the body of the email as a recipient). Those of you who practice in multiple federal districts (some of which do not allow secondary notification emails) will appreciate the convenience of such exceptions.
The Rules Wizard steps you through these three questions with checkboxes to select the available options. In this example, I’ll show you how to move an incoming ECF email automatically in a specific case to another folder and flag it for follow-up.
Step 1: Select Conditions
First, will check two conditions: the subject line and the sender.
With each of these conditions, you’ll need to click the blue underlined text and tell Outlook what specific words or phrases it needs to look for. Here’s where starting with an email like the ones you want to handle comes in handy, because Outlook will automatically take that subject text and bring it into the Rules Wizard. However, to use that text as criteria, you often need to tweak it.
The second criteria is the sender’s address. It’s the same drill: click the blue underlined text and specify what pattern Outlook needs to look for in the sender’s email address.
Step 2: What do You Want to do with the Message?
I’m telling Outlook to move that email out of my Inbox and flag it for follow-up so it appears on my to-do list. The steps are very much like the ones in the previous dialog box. We will click “specified” to pick the folder to move the email to, and then click “follow up at this time” to choose which flag will be applied to the email.
Step 3: Are There Any Exceptions?
In this particular example, we do not have exceptions. But if you wanted to exclude any ECF emails that were also sent to your assistant, you could check the box next to “except if the body contains specific words” and substitute your assistant’s email address.
One-Click Email Handling with QuickSteps
Some of you are shuddering at the thought of having your emails processed without alerting you first. If you prefer a more hands-on approach, you can use QuickSteps to achieve the same result without adding too much work.
QuickSteps is, basically, a macro (though Microsoft carefully avoids using that word). A QuickStep lets you click one button to start a series of commands, like marking an email as “read” and moving it into another folder (or forwarding to your assistant).
Look on your Home tab in Outlook, and you will see several QuickSteps Outlook provides to you by default:
Click on “Create New” to create your own QuickStep.
There are all sorts of options, and you can choose multiple Actions for the same QuickStep:
For example, you could make the first Action “Mark As Read,” then add another Action “Forward,” and a third Action “Move to Folder.”
Depending on which Actions you choose for your new QuickSteps, you can select a whole bunch of emails, click the QuickStep button, and they’ll all get magically handled.
Redirect Email Replies to Your Assistant (or Anyone Else)
Ever sent out an email to a group but dreaded the avalanche of responses you get? Not many people realize that it’s possible to change the reply-to address in Outlook e-mail.
In this example, let’s assume you are sending out an e-mail to everyone in the Young Lawyers section of your local bar association. However, you want your assistant to receive and tally the responses. On the Options tab of the New Message window, click the Direct Replies To button:
On the Options tab of the New Message window, click the Direct Replies To button.
In the middle of the Properties dialog box, under Delivery options, click the Select Names button.
At this point, you will be taken to your Address Book and can substitute your assistant’s name for your own in the “To…” field.
Click OK to save the change, then click OK again to exit the Properties dialog.
Using Auto Reply
One of the great things about email (versus snail mail) is that you can respond instantly. The downside is that people expect you to respond instantly. (This expectation is so common that there seems to be at least one person in every office who sends an email and immediately either calls you or visits your desk to see if you got it.) The Out of Office auto reply was invented to remind people that, hey, not everybody is connected all the time. It’s such a widely-used feature of most email clients, it’s considered rude to not use it. But, as with every good thing, the bad guys are threatening to spoil it. Cyber security experts are warning that the information contained in your Out of Office reply can be exploited by spammers and other scam artists. Don’t believe me? Think about all the information that is typically contained in a Out of Office auto response:
- You are out of the office
- You are out of town (translation: your office and/or home are unattended)
- How long you will be gone
- The name of your assistant or someone else authorized to handle your business in your absence
You may think this is fairly innocuous information. But in the hands of someone intent on exploiting the unsuspecting, this is just enough information to pull off a scam. Think about it. If your assistant received a call from someone masquerading as your hotel’s concierge and asking for a credit card number to charge your event tickets to, how confident are you that your assistant wouldn’t hand it over? For this reason, some security experts recommend forgoing Out of Office altogether. While that may be your safest bet, it might not be terribly practical. The trick will be finding a balance between security and keeping important people informed. With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to configure Microsoft Outlook’s Out of Office auto reply to keep your law practice running smoothly and safely.
Out of Office: The Basics
The Out of Office feature in Microsoft Outlook is not available to every Outlook user. Only those who are sending and receiving their email via an Exchange Server can use this feature. The reason for this is fairly simple: if you’re out of the office, chances are your computer is off and Outlook is not running. In your absence, Exchange Server will still be able to process mail into your inbox and send auto replies. (Even without Exchange Server, you can emulate some of the features of Out of Office, but it will require that you use the Rules feature and leave your computer and Microsoft Outlook running while you’re away.) To set up Out of Office, go to the File tab in Outlook 2010 or 2013 and click on Automatic Replies. (In earlier versions of Outlook, the Out of Office Assistant is found under Tools on the menu bar.) The Automatic Replies dialog box is organized into two sections. The top third of the dialog box is where you turn Out of Office on and off. When Out of Office is turned off, the radio button next to “do not send automatic replies” is selected. If you click “send automatic replies,” this turns Out of Office on. If you want to have automatic replies sent until you get back into the office and can turn Out of Office off manually, leave the check box next to “only send during this time range” unchecked. If you want automatic replies to turn off automatically at a certain date and time, however, use the start time and end time boxes. The bottom two thirds of the dialog box allows you to customize the outgoing message. Notice there are two tabs in this section. This means you can send a more descriptive message to people inside your firm (for example, including your hotel or other itinerary information) and send a shorter message (or none at all) to senders outside your firm.
One of the most basic dangers of the Out of Office reply is that it confirms to every sender they’ve hit a working email address. For spammers, this is valuable information. It lets them know that they (or anyone they sell your address to) that continuing to send email to that address won’t be entirely in vain. But part of the reason you want to turn your Out of Office reply on is to let important people (including clients and others outside your firm) know not to expect an immediate response. The Outside My Organization tab allows you to set an automatic reply to people who are outside your firm but only if their email address is found in your Outlook Contacts list. Simply select the radio button next to “My Contacts only” and random senders like spammers won’t get your Out of Office reply. Those with whom you correspond often enough to keep their information in your Contacts list, though, will. This has the added bonus of preventing your Out of Office reply from going to every single one of the hundreds or thousands of people on the same email listservs you are subscribed to.
Out-of-Office Alternative: Autoforward
If you’re sufficiently spooked by the prospect of spammers and other scam artists misusing your Out of Office reply, here’s one suggestion: instead of setting up a response to be returned to whoever is emailing you, use Rules to forward their message automatically to someone in your office for handling. This could be especially useful if you have an active client who may have an emergency while you’re at that out-of-town CLE. As long as you can specify the email addresses (or even the email domains) of those whose messages you want handling your absence, Automatic Reply Rules will help ensure they get the attention they need without compromising your security. To set this up, click the Rules button in the lower left-hand corner of the Automatic Replies dialog box. Click Add Rule in the Automatic Reply Rules dialog box: Here, you’ll be able to specify which messages should receive special handling according to a number of criteria. Probably the easiest to manage will be messages from particular senders. For example, you could click the From button and choose one or more entries from your contacts list, then check the Forward checkbox and specify your assistant’s or law partner’s email address by clicking the To button.
For Security’s Sake, Make a Decision
Regardless of how you choose to deal with the Out of Office situation, don’t just use the default “reply to all” settings and let it go at that. Take the time to find the balance between security and responsiveness that works for your law practice. You could choose one of the options above, or you may come up with a better solution after consulting with your IT person and your law partners. Featured image: “N is for Neil the Nonce having a cup of char” by Eric is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
By default, Microsoft Outlook organizes your email inbox chronologically, showing the most recent email at the top of the list. In some ways, that is useful. But if you have been involved in a long, drawn-out e-mail conversation including several correspondents, you have probably wished for a way to view your inbox as conversational threads.
The good news is Microsoft Outlook 2010 has introduced a Conversation view that will group e-mails together based on the Subject line. The Conversation view is available on the View tab.
Message threading can be tweaked to your preference with the Conversation settings drop-down, and conversations themselves can be expanded or collapsed by clicking the arrow to the left of the conversation header.
You can, of course, toggle this setting on and off as necessary.
Sorting Email Automatically with Search Folders
After studying 345 e-mail users, researchers for IBM and Microsoft concluded that time spent organizing e-mail via subfolders didn’t pay off in time saved locating e-mails later. Searching is actually far more efficient. Using Outlook’s Search Folders you can split the difference and “sort” email automatically into folders.
Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.
Setting Up a New Predefined Search Folder
Right-click on Search Folders in your Email folder, then click New Search Folder when it pops up:
You’ll get a New Search Folder dialog box with a list of predefined search folders, one of which may be perfect for you:
Let’s start with a popular choice: mail to and from specific people.
Here’s an important thing to remember: to use this predefined criteria, the sender/receiver must be in that e-mail account’s Contacts folder. If they’re not, now is a really good time to hit Cancel and and add that correspondent to your Contacts.
From here, click the Choose button:
You’ll get a dialog box similar to the one you see when you click the To button when addressing an e-mail. Just click the person’s name in the Address Book, click the From or Sent to button, then click OK. (You can choose more than one name for a single Search Folder, and you could also skip step two above by simply double-clicking on the name in the Address Book.)
Outlook will use the correspondent’s name as a default Search Folder name, but you can always override this with whatever text you choose.
Click OK, and your Search Folder is added to the list.
Setting Up a Customized Search Folder
If none of the predefined Search Folders meets your needs, you can always create a custom Search Folder. Scroll down to the bottom of the list in the New Search Folder dialog box, select “Create a custom Search Folder,” and click Choose:
Outlook will ask you to define the search criteria for your new Search Folder:
You’ll see a Search Folder Criteria dialog box with three tabs, each (from left to right) more advanced than the last. There are a lot of choices here, and if you’re familiar with the Advanced Search feature in Microsoft Outlook, these will look familiar.
For instance, if there are specific numbers (like a case number), words or phrases which will always appear in the Subject line, you can type those in the “Search for the word(s)” field. You could also set up a custom Search Folder for e-mails received today, unread e-mails, or e-mails with attachments, to cite a few examples.
All My Mail Folders Just Disappeared!
You’ve probably just accidentally clicked on the Navigation Pane arrow and hidden your folders. Just click on the arrow again (which will now be facing downward) to restore them to full view.
(The same thing is true, by the way, of the To-Do Bar which you may normally have sitting on the right. Just click the left-facing arrow to restore that to full view.)
My Inbox Columns Disappeared!
Chances are, you held down your left mouse button while trying to do something else and accidentally dragged off a column heading in your Inbox View. To restore the field you lost, right-click somewhere in the grey column headings and choose Field Chooser. The Frequently-Used Fields list will come up by default; if you don’t see the field you’re looking for, use the drop-down to get to All Mail Fields (or another list) and find it there.
Once you find it, click-and-drag it to the desired place in your column headings.
My Icons Are Missing!
Ordinarily, your Mail/Calendar/Contacts/Tasks folder sets are stacked up on the left side of your screen on the bottom of the Navigation Pane to give you one-click access to these features. But if one of those features suddenly disappears (or you want to add one later), just click on the down arrow in the lower right-hand corner of your Navigation Pane and choose Navigation Pane Options:
You can choose which icons are displayed there. If you drag the top border of that section of the Navigation Pane up or down, that will control how many of these icons are displayed large-format in the vertical stack versus how many become smaller icons in the last row.
Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows. ↩