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Taming Your Email (part 1)

Taming Your Email (part 1)

From the Missouri Law Bulletin, July 2003

You DonĀ“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 homeemail addresses in addition to your workemail address and use the homeaddresses when purchasing items or when you need to give an email address.
  • Protect your workemail 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 homeemail address.
  • Investigate what blockingor 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 digestsubscription 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 programs 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 bookfeature 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. Theres 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 mailfolder 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 filtersor rulesthat will automatically handle email based on directions you can establish.
  • 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).
  • Rulesor filterscan make this task even easier. Some email programs allow you set up rules for dealing with email. Generally, these are simple if-thenrules like if subject line contains the words get rich quick, then delete message on arrivalor if sender is X, move message to X folder on arrival. Outlook has a great feature called organizethat 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, its well worth your time to learn how to use it.
Storing, Archiving and Deleting Old Email.

On several occasions Ive talked with an attorney who commented on how slowhis or her email program was performing. When we checked, the slowness was the result of a new mailfolder or in boxthat 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 shredderprograms.


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 mailboxand 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.

Dennis Kennedy ( is a computer lawyer and legal technology consultant based in St. Louis, Missouri. His web site at 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.

The Missouri Bar Bulletin, July 2003

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