Start Page: Tame your email inbox using flags, rules and search folders

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WilsonI have a confession: I struggle to keep up with all the inputs in my life. Something is constantly seeking my attention – people, phone, texts, email and social media. Of those, email is often a big time-sink, reducing our ability to get important tasks done. As the holidays approach, we may have the chance to spend some extra time with friends and family. Here are some suggestions for taming your email inbox before the holidays.

Lawyers receive lots of email. To see how much, click in the Search Inbox area of Outlook and type “received:this month” and then search “All Mail Items.” In the lower left hand corner of Outlook, you will see an item count. How do you organize it all?

One approach is to create folders for projects or matters and sort email into those folders. Another approach is to move everything into one folder called “processed” and search for needed material later.

With either approach, you must first process the email before you move it, tracking the task(s) associated with the email in a separate system. This is where most people have room for improvement.

Step 1: Use follow-up flags

Let’s say you cannot respond to an email now but want it out of sight until you can. One solution is using Outlook’s built in “follow-up” flags. Open the email in its own window. Read it and decide what to do. If there are tasks associated with the email, track those in a task management system.

If the action for that email is to follow up or reply to that email later, click the follow-up flag on the email. Choose the appropriate time frame, set a reminder and move the message to an appropriate folder. On the day you chose to be reminded, Outlook dings, just like a calendar reminder.

You can see your flagged messages at any time in the To-Do Bar in Outlook 2007 (click “View” | “To-Do Bar”). Opening the flagged email from the To-Do Bar gives you the options to clear the flag or mark it complete. The email subject will also turn red if it is overdue.

Use flags sparingly. It is easy to quickly build up an inventory of flagged items (especially if you are using Outlook tasks).

Step 2: Use rules to manage mobile email

One of the biggest challenges with email is handling it consistently from your mobile devices. Personally, I blind copy (bcc) myself on client-related emails sent from my mobile devices. My email signature contains a line with a bracketed folder name (e.g., [folder name]). This is a line of text below my normal office signature. Before I send the email, I update the [folder name] in my signature line to [Smith v. Jones], the name of the folder I want to save the sent email to for later reference.

I created an Outlook rule (click “Tools” | “Rule and Alerts”) to search for the phrase “[Smith v. Jones]” where my name does not appear in the “to:” field (because it is a bcc). Outlook sorts that email into the appropriate folder for me. Using the brackets helps narrow the search and helps avoid accidentally filtering the wrong message.

You can use rules to sort email in many different ways. If you receive lots of emails, a helpful tool to triage those emails is to use search folders to help organize that mail or monitor active projects.

Step 3: Use search folders

Outlook has built-in search folders, which are saved searches for items you specify. There are a few default searches (e.g., unread mail) and you can create new searches to meet your needs.

I use a search folder when I find myself searching for the same item more than once. Instead of retyping the search, I create a new search folder. When I need to use it, I simply click on the saved search folder and Outlook performs the search for me. From that search folder, I can move all the items into the appropriate subfolder or into my practice management system.

I see search folders becoming more helpful as we move to electronic filing. For example, you could set up search folders for the keyword “deposition” and the search folder will show you whenever someone files a notice of deposition. It is like having someone pre-screen your email for you and decide what is most important.


Remember that computers and software are tools. Used properly, these tools can, and should, assist you with managing the flow of email and help you have more time this holiday season to spend with friends and family.•


Seth Wilson is a partner at Hume Smith Geddes Green & Simmons LLP in Indianapolis. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm and frequently speaks and advises on legal technology issues. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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