You Don't Need a Whip or a Chair: Learn How to Tame Your Beastly Email Box and Manage Listservers Effectively
by Dennis Kennedy
I. Taming the Email Tiger
Many attorneys are finding that they increasingly rely on communication by email. They are also finding that at times their email mailboxes look as if a blizzard had hit them. It is not uncommon to find attorneys who receive several hundred new email messages a day.
Internet guru Jakob Nielsen has noted that surveys say that whether people get 10, 100 or 1,000 emails a day, they all say that the number they get is "overwhelming." The volume of email will only be increasing. In the same newsletter, Nielsen stresses the importance of "protecting your mailbox."
In other words, you want to manage your email before it manages you. I sometimes call this "taming the email tiger." Fortunately, most email packages these days provide you with valuable management options. You can also use techniques not specific to individual programs to take control of your email. A great idea is to implement these techniques while your volume is low so that you can have them in place as your email volume grows.
There are four points in the email process at which you can have a significant impact on email management: before a message sent to you, when you send a message, when or as you receive a message, and when you store or delete a message. An approach that attacks each of these four points will bring you the greatest benefit, but taking steps at any one or more of them will also help you.
Before Email is Sent to You.
The strategy here is to reduce the volume of unwanted email and make sure that the messages you want come to your main mailbox. In general, you will want to take care with potential sources of heavy email volume, such as spam, email discussion lists, friends who must forward everything on to you.
- Have several "home" email addresses in addition to your "work" email address and use the "home" addresses when purchasing items or when you need to give an email address.
- Protect your "work" email and use it only in situations where there is a business purpose.
- Yahoo, Hotmail or Excite are good places to obtain a free web-based "home" email address.
- Investigate what "blocking" or spam reduction services your ISP might have to help filter mail before it even gets to you.
- Consider the potential volume of any email discussion list before you subscribe to it and resist the urge to subscribe to every interesting discussion list you find. A good option that many discussion lists have is a "digest" subscription - you receive one large email a day containing all the messages posted to the list that day topped with a table of contents.
In short, being thoughtful in how and to whom you give out your email address can go a long toward protecting your mailbox and making your mailbox manageable.
Managing Your Outgoing Mail.
There are a number of simple things you can do to help make it easier for you to send email.
- Enable your email program's feature to keep copies of your email. You might also create a rule to keep copies of sent messages in appropriate folders, such as client folders.
- The first decision you must make is whether you want to keep copies of all the messages you send. I cannot imagine why you would not, but I have been surprised by several lawyers who did not want to keep copies of the messages they sent.
- Use the "address book" feature of your email program to routinely capture and store email addresses. When you send another email, look the person up and send them an email. There's no need to try to remember the email address.
- Make good use of the subject line so that you can later identify a message and so your recipient can tell what you are sending.
Managing Email When or As You Receive It.
Your email program will put all your new email into a "new mail" folder or an "in box." The contents of that folder are what you see when you open your email program. Most programs give you many options to create additional folders and move mail among them. More powerful programs allow you to set up routines known as "filters" or "rules" that will automatically handle email based on directions you can establish.
Storing, Archiving and Deleting Old Email.
- Delete all junk mail and messages you do not need to keep immediately. Fight to keep your inbox as empty as possible. Too aggressive? There are undelete options in case you make a mistake.
- Deal aggressively and immediately with your email by replying quickly or forwarding messages that can be handled quickly and get them out of your inbox.
- Choose a good view for your email. For example, Outlook allows you to see previews of messages so you can see the contents quickly without opening the message. It can be a great help, but you must have current fixes for Outlook installed because there have been security issues with the preview mode.
- Consider other views that might help you (by sender, by topic, last seven days, unread, etc.) or sort in different ways to find an approach that best works for you.
- If you do only one thing, create additional folders and organize your received mail in folders. Move messages into the appropriate folders (such as by category ("clients") or action ("reply necessary").
- "Rules" or "filters" can make this task even easier. Some email programs allow you set up rules for dealing with email. Generally, these are simple "if-then" rules like "if subject line contains the words `get rich quick', then delete message on arrival" or "if sender is X, move message to X folder on arrival". Outlook has a great feature called "organize" that simplifies the creation of the most commonly used rules.
- Rules are great for email discussion lists because they automatically move all the discussion list mail to a folder. The folder contents can then be read at leisure and the list messages do not overwhelm your inbox. If your email program has this feature, it's well worth your time to learn how to use it.
On several occasions I've talked with an attorney who commented on how "slow" his or her email program was performing. When we checked, the slowness was the result of a "new mail" folder or "in box" that had thousands of messages going back several years. While from a management standpoint, the easiest thing to suggest is to delete and archive old messages, deletion and archival raise some thorny issues and there are many nuances.
- Old email can come back to haunt you. Retention policies are worth considering, but consider the implications of creating a policy and not following it.
- Keeping all old email can also, over time, take up storage space and make it harder to find messages.
Two other points to consider:
First, as significant matters and details are handled increasingly by email, it is vital that these messages become part of the client or case file or be locatable when they are needed. Think carefully about ways to integrate email into your case management or document management systems.
Second, remember, as I suggested earlier, that deletion does not mean that a message is "deleted." Even if you go to a policy that mandates, for example, annual deletion of email, you will want to make sure that it is fully deleted. Consider the use of electronic "shredder" programs.
Email is a marvelous tool, but it raises a number of its own problems. With a few relatively simple steps, both email issues and email itself are manageable. Keeping in mind the idea of "protecting your mailbox" and taking advantage of some common sense techniques and a few features of your email programs, like rules, of which you might not have been aware can help make your life a little easier.
II. Ten Habits of Highly Effective Emailers
For several years, email has been considered the "killer app" of computing, the application that is so essential that it brings people to computers who might not ordinarily be interested. In other words, email is the reason you "gotta have" a computer and Internet access.
In some ways, it doesn't get much easier than email. You type a message, address it and send it. You receive a message and read it. You might reply to a message or forward it. Pretty simple.
But it doesn't take too long before you realize that there's much more to using email than meets the eye. Both internal office email and external emails can fill your inbox. In short order, you might find that the volume of email you receive has become overwhelming.
Gradually, you will come to realize that you will want to develop some email strategies so you can take greater advantage of benefits email offers to you. You want to become a power email user.
With a nod to Steven Covey and his famous "seven habits of highly effective people," here are ten ways that you (and your firm) can become more effective email users and use email more effectively.
1. Cut Your Costs. Do not underestimate for one minute the cost-cutting benefits email can bring to your firm. In certain settings, the cost savings brought by email can be enormous.
Using email instead of long-distance calls can save money. Attaching draft documents to emails rather than sending them by Federal Express can save money. Sending an email rather than playing phone tag can save time and money. Sending an email rather than sending a standard transmittal letter can save money, paper and postage. Using email can put a dent in the amount of paper required to run a typical law office.
Look around your office for ways that email can result in cost savings. Do you print, copy and distribute a daily announcement sheet? Send it by email instead. Do you mail out a client newsletter? Making an email version available will save you printing and postage costs. Signing up for email newsletters can get you information commonly copied and passed around in law firms. Sending the URL of an article by email saves the cost of copying and distributing the article.
A law firm makes more money by increasing revenues or by reducing costs. Email can definitely make a contribution on the cost-cutting side. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to use email in this fashion.
2. Respond Responsively. Many users have a full-time Internet email connection and expect an instant response. You need to keep that in mind. Let me emphasize: anyone who sends an email expects a response.
I have always tried to acknowledge and respond to all well-intentioned, unsolicited personal email. If you put your or your firm's email address on a web site, advertisement or brochure, you must make sure that any email sent to you is answered in a timely fashion. You'll have to decide what timely means and how email rates in priority with voice mail and other communication methods.
Often, a one or two sentence response or a simple direction to a web address is all that is required to respond to an email. The important thing is to be sure to respond in some fashion to emails that you get. Ignored email sends a very poor message about you, your firm and, most commonly, your web site.
3. Mind Your Netiquette. There are a surprising number of "rules of the road" that have grown up around email. Some are common sense and all are directed at imposing a set of good manners or etiquette on email usage. These rules are commonly known as "netiquette" and the "Miss Manners" resource on Netiquette is Virginia Shea's Netiquette, the core elements of which can be found at http://www.albion.com/netiquette/corerules.html.
It is surprisingly easy to make mistakes of form and manners when entering email discussions. Email lies somewhere between the informal communication of a phone call and the more formal communication of a business letter. Emails tend to be unedited first drafts that are removed from the context of vocal inflections and mannerisms. As a result, it's easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood. Some people are far more aggressive in their emails than they would be in person. There's a term in email called "flaming" that refers to conversations where anger and feelings get out of hand.
Some netiquette rules are simple like not typing in capital letters (because it is the email equivalent of shouting). Others are more nuanced. You really want to be up on your basic netiquette when you join a discussion list because, all too often, someone who apparently was not treated well as a child will jump on well-intentioned new users to a list for making netiquette errors.
Netiquette will make your email experience and that of your readers far more pleasant.
4. Select Subject Matters Sagaciously. A friend of mine tends to send emails that have the subject matter line say "Message from Jackie." It's short and to the point, but it makes it hard to find the message you want in a folder full of "message from Jackies."
Make good use of the subject matter (or "re") line of your email messages. Give a good concise summary of what's in the message that can help people assess the priority of your message and to locate your message when they need it later. Compare an email with the subject line of "Financials" with one that says "August 1999 Income and Expense Report (NEED COMMENTS BY FRIDAY)".
That's not to say that writing wry and humorous subject matter lines can't be fun. It is and it can be a bit of an art form for some. There is, however, an appropriate time and place for it.
Picture your recipient's inbox and think of ways that you can help him or her manage the email in that box.
5. Sell with Signature Blocks. A wisely chosen signature block can help you market your firm. You've probably noticed signature blocks. Often you'll see a block of text immediately below the sender's name at the bottom of his or her message that includes title, company, address, phone and fax numbers, email address, web site address and even quotes, slogans, graphics or other matter. These are signature blocks.
A signature block can be created within most email programs that can be automatically inserted at the end of each message you send. You definitely want to create a signature block that contains the appropriate information about you and your firm. If you have a web site, include the URL in your signature block. Here's a helpful tip: be sure to type the "http://" in front of your web address (http://www.denniskennedy.com rather than simply www.denniskennedy.com). If you do so, many email programs will let the reader click on the address and go directly to your web site.
Your signature should also contain description of your firm or a slogan ("Representing personal injury plaintiffs since 1883") or other subtle and reasonably subdued marketing information. Some people also like to include a favorite quote - I'd be careful here and remember your business image and decorum.
Here's the interesting dimension of signature blocks. Take the example slogan above. If you sent an email describing your firm to a discussion list or in an unsolicited fashion that described your firm, you would likely be accused of "spamming" (sending unsolicited indiscriminate commercial email). If you send a regular message, your signature block makes the same point in a perfectly acceptable way.
6. Enlist in Discussion Lists. Perhaps the most useful aspect of email is participation on discussion lists or "listservs" (from the name of the software used to run them). The concept of a discussion list is pretty simple. You "subscribe" to a listserv. The listserv has a central distribution point. Copies of all emails sent to the central distribution point are in turn sent to every subscriber of the list (in some cases, thousands of subscribers). Every other subscriber receives each email you send to the list. You (and every other subscriber) receive each email sent by any other subscriber. The result is a mechanism that facilitates discussions.
There are thousands of discussion lists (see, for example, http://www.tile.net). On some you might receive a message or two a day. Others can generate hundreds of messages a day. Each discussion list focuses on a topic. For example, there might be a discussion list of legal administrators of plaintiff personal injury law firms. The list might include subscribers from hundreds of law firms. A discussion list creates a forum where subscribers can share ideas, ask questions and learn from others in the same field with common interests. As a general rule, some of the most interesting and well-known members of the "community of interest" tend to participate in these discussion lists. As a result, you often learn from the best sources, become aware of trends and developments, hear the latest news and rumors and gain a variety of other benefits.
Discussion lists can be a great way to continue conversations, make friends and stay in touch. It is impossible to overestimate the value of a great discussion list.
7. Reach for High-end Software. You can use a variety of email programs. Some are free. Some are simple. All will get the basic job done. But the highly effective emailer wants more than that.
I recommend moving to the high-end email packages and the newest versions. These include Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, Novell's Groupwise, Eudora Pro, Netscape (or Mozilla) Mail, and, in certain special cases, Lotus Notes.
Why? Control, management, flexibility, power. You want the tools that can take your use of email to the highest level. The big-time packages allow you to create rules and filters that will sort and move your mail to folders on arrival, automatically delete "spam" messages, view mail in ways that work for you, create mailing groups and do countless other things for you. It will be easier to use encryption and take advantage of security features. Some packages even allow you to scan for inappropriate content.
Email is a completely different experience with the high-end tools. As your volume of email increases, you'll appreciate having the extra power.
8. Make it Easy to Email You. As you become a highly effective emailer, you'll want to funnel more and more of your communication into your email system. In other words, you want to make it easy for people to email you.
There is, however, a tricky balancing point to consider. You want to minimize junk email. Don't be indiscriminate about handing out your email address. Many power emailers have a separate free email account (see http://www.yahoo.com, for example) that they use when forced to give an email address in a situation that might get them put onto a direct mail list.
Get your email address into the hands of those you want to email you. Include email addresses on business cards, stationery, brochures and other marketing materials. Every page of your web site should make it easy to contact you, your firm or any attorney in your firm by email. Directory listings, committee and organization listings and, especially, publications or speaker bios should definitely include your email address.
9. Follow the Ethical Rules. Lawyer and law firm behavior is governed by a set of ethical rules. Some of them will be different than what you might expect. Bar disciplinary entities have had a lot of difficulty deciding what to do with lawyer communication by email, but there is a growing body of rules, some of which, frankly, do not make much sense.
You will need to become very familiar with these rules and to make sure they are followed. Of particular concern are rules relating to confidentiality. In addition, Unsolicited email from potential clients can inadvertently create conflict of interest issues. You will need to look into ways to avoid these and other related issues.
There is a raging debate on whether email communications with clients must be encrypted. There is a movement toward encryption for sensitive client communications. In a few years, it will be easier to encrypt all client communications than to decide which ones should be encrypted.
Email to potential clients brings into play ethics rules on solicitation and advertising. Even your signature block should be scrutinized to be sure that you are complying with the Byzantine rules on advertising and marketing (can you say "full-service," "specialize in" or "national"?). Know the rules and see that they are enforced in your firm.
10. Sharpen Your Saw. This habit is really one of Stephen Covey's seven habits. The notion here is to keep learning and to hone the tools that you have so that they are ready to use when you need them. Because email is so easy to ease, many firms give little or no training on email. Many users are simply unaware of helpful features readily available in their programs. Becoming a highly effective email user requires that you update your skills regularly, experiment with software features and devote yourself to continuous learning and improvement.
Email raises issues on a regular basis. You will want to keep apprised of virus and security issues. Encryption is a growing and important issue. Monitor developments. A helpful book on the email program you use or the occasional foray into Help screens can be especially rewarding and give you new ideas, techniques and tools.
Conclusion. Great emailers are made not born. It will take some time and effort, but the rewards are immeasurable. Adopt these ten habits and you will become a highly effective emailer.
Dennis Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer lawyer and legal technology consultant based in St. Louis, Missouri. His web site at http://www.denniskennedy.com is loaded with articles and resources on legal, technology and Internet topics. He recently presented this program at the Solo and Small Firm Conference. An audiotape of the program is available.