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Taking Control of Your Inbox

E-mail can be one of the single most distracting and frustrating parts of being a lawyer; but it doesn’t have to control you. There are many approaches to e-mail and inbox usage. Some prefer to leave everything in the inbox and not sort into folders; some prefer to sort every message; some utilize e-mail “rules” to try and keep only the most important items in the inbox; and some use the inbox as their “to-do” list. No matter what your approach is, I’d like to share my approach in hopes it may help you to take back control of your inbox.

I have 3 key folders in my e-mail:

  1. Inbox
  2. Action
  3. Unread

Each one has a particular purpose and is an essential component of my e-mail management system.

The Inbox Folder

My inbox functions like any other inbox, but I take advantage of e-mail rules and filters to keep as much clutter or e-mails that I don’t intend to read right away, like subscriptions for instance, out of my inbox. I use this for Law Society e-mails, CBA e-mails, some volunteer board e-mails, and anything that I get on a regular basis that could be easily categorized. I am a categorizer and I have an e-mail folder for each of my on-going files and my practice areas.

Here is what my folder and subfolder list looks like:

  • Cold Calls
  • Consults
  • Corporate Clients General
    • [Listing of each corporate client that I’ve received an e-mail from which doesn’t have an on-going matter currently besides annual maintenance]
  • Real Estate Clients
    • [List of all current files. I use the naming convention of “Last Name – Closing Date”]
    • Post Closing Date
      • Year
  • Wills & Estates Clients
    • [List of all current files whether estate planning or estate administration]
    • Closed
  • DW Matters
    • Sponsorships/Events
    • All Users/Admin/FYI 
    • Social Media/Marketing/Design
    • Professional Development
      • LESA
  • Client Files
    • [List of client files that do not fit under Corporate General, Real Estate Clients, or Wills & Estates Clients with naming convention of “Client Name re: Matter Description”]
  • Agency
  • Notary/Guarantee
  • Law Society of Alberta
  • [Folders for each of my volunteer boards and committees within those boards]
  • Precedents / Reference / Procedures
  • Personal

I have a rule for myself that every e-mail that comes into my inbox must find a home in one of my folders and I strive to hit inbox zero on a daily basis. Sometimes I get a few days behind and regret it later. In efforts to save myself this grief I keep a sticky note on my computer monitor which reads “EVERY E-MAIL MUST FIND A FOLDER. ♥ FUTURE YOU”. I encourage you to do the same, future you will thank you.

The Action Folder

This folder is for any e-mail that I need to take an action on. This ranges from e-mails where I need to simply reply to the person; e-mails where it serves as a reminder to me that I need to perform a task on that particular file; or even e-mails where I need to follow up with opposing counsel or am waiting for someone else to take an action. My rule with respect to moving e-mails into one of my category folders is that it cannot go into one of those folders unless all actions have been taken with respect to that e-mail. This avoids me forgetting about a task that needed to be completed on that e-mail.

By instituting these rules for myself, the Action folder can serve as a very helpful to-do list and prevents me from forgetting to reply to an e-mail or from doing an task that arose from an e-mail. It also helps me keep tabs on which tasks are the oldest so that I can try to prioritize first based on urgency but then on what has been outstanding the longest.

The Unread Folder

I am a big fan of e-mail filters but sometimes e-mail filters can work too well. This used to happen to me where my subfolders would get collapsed, an e-mail would arrive and be put into a subfolder, and since the folder was collapsed I couldn’t see the little number next to the folder which showed I had an unread message. This sometimes caused me to miss important e-mails, which was extremely frustrating.

I use filters whenever possible to try and keep my inbox tidy and stop informational or non-essential e-mails from hitting the inbox and clogging it up. This is a folder that I created which can crawl all of my e-mail folders for unread e-mail messages and pull them into one common folder that I can view and it doesn’t affect the actual location of the e-mail within my folder system.

Once created, this is a folder that I have added to the pinned or favourite folders at the top of my folder list and have it situated right above my Inbox folder. This allows me to always have eyes on the number of unread e-mails, easily navigate to this folder, see if there is anything from my subscriptions, the Law Society, CBA, or any of my boards that requires my attention and then if I need to, I can read those e-mails or leave them alone to deal with at a later point. If this folder consists of several e-mail I’m not going to read I can right click on the folder and click “Mark Everything as Read” and it will clear the folder.

You can choose which folders that Outlook crawls so that if there are folders that you don’t particularly care to look at on a regular basis, they can be excluded from the search and include only the folders which you are concerned about having a filtered e-mail go into that you might miss. If you would like to learn how to create this folder, check out my Tips Tuesday post from today at Slaw.ca for detailed instructions.

Using this three folder method has been a game changer and it’s made it easier for me to keep tabs on my e-mails while not feeling overwhelmed by them. I hope that it can help you too!

About the Author

Charlene Scheffelmair is a partner with Davidson & Williams LLP in Lethbridge, Alberta. She practices primarily in the areas of corporate and commercial law; residential and commercial real estate; estate administration and planning; and foreclosures.

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1 thought on “Taking Control of Your Inbox”

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