The Many Features of
Tools to Enhance Your Practice
By Dee Crocker
Are you looking to get better organized in 2013? You may already have a software tool that you can use to better organize your practice – Microsoft Outlook. Although many lawyers use Outlook for email and calendaring, they may be overlooking the many other valuable features available in the program.
Outlook Today provides a snapshot of your whole day — your calendar, your tasks and any mail folders you’d like to see (as well as how many messages are waiting). It’s front and center, and all your mail folders appear to the left of it. You get an overview of your upcoming meetings, appointments and tasks, and then you can move on from there. The advantage of starting your day with this view is that you can begin with the big picture in mind, rather than jumping straight to answering emails or putting out client fires. You can also customize that Outlook Today screen. For example, you can choose how many days of your calendar you’d like to see, how many tasks and how to arrange them, and even the style and color of the Outlook window.
Maximize Your Contacts
Outlook makes it easy to link all activities to any contact so you can just click on the activities button and see what’s happening with the contact. Much like a full practice management software program (albeit less comprehensive), Outlook can provide instant access to everything related to a specific contact. Not only will you be able to see all scheduled events, you can easily view all tasks, notes and journal entries.
The Contacts feature in Outlook can also be used for many other purposes besides the obvious address-book kind of information. In addition to linking other activities to the contact, you can use the notes area in the contact to record information about the client matter, such as date file opened, date file closed, file destruction date, and so on. Since the note field is included in all contact searches, it can also be used to record conflict information. From the contact dialog screen, you can create an email, a meeting request, a task or a journal entry for the contact. You can add user-defined fields to the contact form to track the contact’s birth date, Social Security number, date of accident, or other data. You can also insert files or attach items (such as pictures) to the contact. Options available for contacts include filing by last name or first name, contact linking on all forms, and checking for duplicate contacts.
Streamline Your Tasks
Outlook’s Tasks feature can be used to set deadlines for upcoming projects and responses. You can sort your tasks in a variety of ways, including a detailed list, active tasks, next seven days, overdue tasks and so forth. Using the task (or to-do) list on a daily basis provides a method to ensure deadlines are not missed. When setting a task, you can assign a start date, designate a due date and assign a priority. The status of the task can be indicated and tracked as a percentage of completion. Looking at the details page enables you to add information such as date completed, total work hours, actual work hours, mileage and billing information. The task can be assigned to someone else, and you can keep an updated copy of the task on your task list. You can also request a status report when the task is complete. You also can attach files, emails, business cards from contacts, and notes to the task. As with other Outlook items, tasks can be categorized to better organize and sort lists.
Organize Your Notes
Notes is a feature that can eliminate all those sticky notes on your desk and monitor. The note can be attached to a contact, saved as a file, forwarded in an email or printed. By pulling the lower right corner, you can make the note as large or small as you need. Using the options in the Tools menu, you can change the size of the default note, the color of the note and the font to be used on the note. As with other features, notes can be categorized and sorted a number of ways.
Utilize Your Journal
The Journal feature is often an unused item. Because it contains a timer, I usually recommend that the Journal be used to memorialize telephone conversations. If Outlook is running, it is easy to press CTRL +J to create a new journal entry, start the timer, and then make notes of your conversation in the notes field. When finished, stop the timer, give the entry a subject, and link to the client’s contact record. Then you will have a permanent record of the conversation. Again, this record can be searched, categorized and printed, and files or items can be attached.
One of the most powerful features of the Journal, however, is the ability to automatically record in the Journal email messages, meeting requests, responses and cancellations, and task requests and responses for a particular contact. In other words, you can obtain a full audit trail in your Journal entries in date order of what has occurred for a particular contact by setting up this option. If you use the contact linking feature, you would then be able to view everything in the activities screen on the contact form. The options menu for the Journal also allows you to automatically record files from Access, Excel, PowerPoint and Word for this particular contact. I noticed, however, that when I turned this feature on, Outlook started creating a Journal entry for every document I created in Word. This could create an administrative backlog in your daily practice, as you could end up with hundreds of Journal entries, so I do not recommend that you activate this option.
Learning to use some of the under-appreciated features of Outlook is an excellent way to get started better organizing your client information and a good first step in learning to use a practice management program for your law practice. You may find that using Outlook is all that is required to make your practice run more efficiently and smoothly, or you may find that you need more advanced features and may choose to upgrade to a full practice management software program. In either case, using Outlook will enhance your practice.
For more information on using Outlook in your office, contact a practice management adviser at the Professional Liability Fund. For detailed instructions on using Outlook for case management, visit the PLF website, select Practice Aids and Forms under Loss Prevention on the home page, then select the Technology category, then click on “Using Outlook for Case Management.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dee Crocker is a practice management adviser at the OSB Professional Liability Fund. She can be reached at email@example.com or (503) 639-6911 or toll-free from elsewhere in Oregon at (800) 452-1639; www.osbplf.org.
© 2013 Dee Crocker