Denver Bar Association
February 2003
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How to make sense out of e-mail organization

For most of us, e-mail has become a common form of communication with clients, opposing counsel and colleagues. E-mail has and will continue to replace paper letters, memos, faxes and telephone calls. There are many reasons for this phenomenon: convenience (you can do it easily and at any time); cost effectiveness (preparing a letter is a costly, multi-step process: dictate, transcribe, print draft, review and correct, print final, review and make additional corrections, make the changes and reprint, review again and sign, make copies for file, print envelope, send to file room, affix postage and mail); timeliness (e-mails are delivered instantaneously anywhere in the world); flexibility (text, graphics, voice and word processing attachments); and elimination of telephone tag.

However, the ubiquity of e-mail has led to a new problem: how do you organize and save the little devils so you can find them later? There are several approaches to consider.

Don’t bother. Unfortunately, this is the most common approach and will ultimately prove to be costly. Consider this example: You advise your client by e-mail of a settlement offer in a case. You neither organize nor archive your e-mails. Two years later, the client asserts that you never told them about the offer and they would have accepted it if you had. You check the sent items in your e-mail program and realize that since you sent the e-mail you’ve (pick one): (1) changed e-mail programs; (2) deleted the items in the sent item folder; (3) had a computer crash and can’t find the backup; (4) changed firms and the old firm didn’t retain your old e-mails. Oops! Time to notify the carrier.

Print e-mails to paper. This is better than nothing. Printing e-mails to paper and filing them in your regular paper filing system achieves both the organization and archiving functions. The biggest problem is that no matter how hard you try, you will not remember to print each e-mail. Therefore, your records will be incomplete. Printing e-mails also eliminates the searchability of the electronic files, making it nearly impossible to locate misfiled printed e-mails. Printing e-mails also eliminates the usefulness of e-mail attachments, even if you remembered to print the attachment. Finally, printing e-mails adds unneeded paper to your office and unnecessary costs by requiring someone to physically file the paper in the client file. Despite these failings, printing e-mails to paper is the most common way to archive and organize them.

Store in electronic form. This can be done in one of two ways. Most e-mail programs allow the user to create new folders. (In Microsoft Outlook, click on "Outlook Today," then right click and chose "new folder," and give the new folder a name). For example, create a folder called "client e-mails" and then a subfolder for each client. Save e-mails that relate to each client in the appropriate client subfolder. This method archives e-mails (provided that you back up these folders), provides a method of organization and preserves their electronic searchability. It also preserves the electronic form of the attachments. There are several drawbacks to this approach. First, you’ve created two filing systems. One for e-mails and one for other client documents. You need to review both systems to have a complete record of the case. It’s really worse than that. If there’s more than one person working on the case, the electronic correspondence relating to that matter will not be in a central location. Each will have e-mails stored in their individual folders. Second, even though the filing system is electronic, the e-mails are filed there manually. Each time you send or receive an e-mail, you need to remember to file it in the client subfolder. Finally, you need to consider whether the e-mail format you’re using will be retrievable five or 10 years from now.

The second approach to electronic organization of e-mails is to store them in an integrated electronic file system. These range from the basic and cheap to complex and expensive. At the basic end, use Adobe Acrobat to convert all correspondence, paper and e-mails to .pdf files, and store those hierarchically in windows folders by client and matter. To convert e-mails, open the e-mail item and then select File>print. If you have Acrobat installed, your print options will include distiller (and Writer with Acrobat 4.0). This will convert the e-mail into a text-searchable .pdf file. Save it into the appropriate client folder. For paper correspondence, scan and save into the appropriate client folder. More complex electronic file systems automate the processing, integrate correspondence with other electronic client files, add database and search capabilities, and other bells and whistles.

E-mail is here to stay. Enjoy the convenience and cost savings of electronic communications. At the same time, establish a system for archiving and organizing e-mails so you can find them when you need them.

Garry R. Appel is a shareholder of Appel & Lucas, P.C. in Denver, Colorado, and one of the founders of Digital Office Systems, LLC, developer of paperless office software.

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