Many lawyers spend a lot of time in Microsoft Outlook. Daily tasks include receiving and responding to email, sending and filing attachments, scheduling appointments, responding to meetings, and updating contacts. The good news is there are lots of ways to add shortcuts and automation to remove some manual steps and focus on reading and responding to email. Some automation is already built into MS Outlook, while more is available as third-party add-ins.
MS Outlook Out of the Box
Microsoft Outlook through Office 365 comes with lots of features and functions to let you automate basic tasks.
This “add-in” has to be enabled by the administrator. When you receive an email, you might notice a small bar above the email message that reads “Suggested Meetings.” Open this to see that Outlook has identified text in the message that may be an event. It will check your schedule for availability and let you add the event in one click.
This “add-in” also has to be enabled by the administrator. If Outlook identifies what appears to be an action item in an email, a small bar will appear at the top of the email message. Click on it, and it will identify what the action item is, e.g., “can you confirm the time of this meeting” and then offer to flag the message for followup.
Another admin-enabled add-in, this button in the Ribbon will let you create email templates to use and reuse with the click of a button.
QuickParts has long been an underused feature in Word and Outlook. You can copy text and/or images and save it as a QuickPart to drop into any outbound message with a click.
QuickSteps in MS Outlook lets you combine a series of actions that you can engage with a single click. Not as robust as a macro, but easier to write, QuickSteps has some built-in actions like “email to your team,” “reply and delete,” or “convert an email to a calendar event.” However, you can create more complex QuickSteps. For instance, with one click you can respond to someone with a short note (“I’m in court all day. If this can’t wait, please work with my paralegal who is cc’ed. Otherwise I will respond as soon as I can”) that cc’s your paralegal, flags the email for follow up and moves the email from your inbox to a folder you create like “Needs Attention.” Or you can build a QuickStep that categorizes an email and transfers it to a folder. While there are limitations, you can quickly create a QuickStep that accomplishes many actions in a single click.
Most everyone who uses Outlook is aware that you can write rules to automatically do things like move an email from a person or with a particular subject to a folder. Rules can be tricky and can misfire, but a few strategic rules can make short work of a task. For instance, if your firm receives an email from a “Contact Us” form on your website, you can write a rule that auto-responds with a saved email template that says something like: “Thank you for emailing our firm. We will review the information you have provided and reach out to schedule a consultation or discuss the matter further as soon as possible. Keep in mind any information sent to us via the contact form is not held in confidence, and we do not represent you until we have a signed agreement”. To accomplish this, you must first create your template email and then when you are writing the rule start from a blank rule and use the “reply using a specific template” as one of your steps.
Document Management/Practice Management
If your firm is using a document management system like Worldox or NetDocuments, make sure to leverage any integration with Microsoft Outlook that is available. You can have emails automatically save into your matters folder and other features, but you may need to install a plugin.
Similarly, many practice management applications have MS Outlook plugins that let you save an email to a matter, start and stop a timer to bill for reading or responding to email, and other features. Make sure to check with your provider to see what options you have.
While QuickParts and Templates are a great start to automating frequently used clause language, there are products on the market that can expand that functionality and add additional automation.
This product lets you add text snippets into any application from a library of content created by you and your team. It works with Windows and Mac operating systems. One significant benefit of this type of product is that your team can use a consistent library of content, which is shared and updated by the whole firm. It has powerful email features, including nested snippets and custom “fill in the blank” forms.
ActiveWords uses triggers to add text and take action. You assign words to actions, and then you can automate things like “start an email” “add the disclaimer” or “attach a fee agreement.” PC only, with a 60-day free trial.
Zapier lets you connect two applications to take an action. For instance, you could set up a “Zap” to add an Outlook event to Todoist as a task or send an Outlook email from updated rows in Google Sheets if you were using a Google Form for your contact us page on your website. The easiest way to get ideas for Zaps is to see what others have already built and then use your imagination.
Office 365/Microsoft 365 renamed their automation tool from Flow to PowerAutomate. It is very similar to Zapier and lets you connect applications – both from Microsoft and others – to take automated actions. Looking at some templates or “recipes” is the easiest way to get ideas about how to use it. It is free for Office 365 users, though there is an advanced set of features that requires an additional monthly fee.
There are a lot of add-ins created for Microsoft Outlook. Many are duplicative of what can be accomplished by using Outlook’s native features. However, some can make quick work of onerous tasks that are not easily achieved in Outlook alone.
Techhit makes nifty Outlook add-ins, including SimplyFile. Another add-in that is useful for lawyers, especially those who are not able to leverage integrations with practice management or document management systems, is EZ Detach. You can set this application up to “save, process, manage and remove” Outlook attachments. You can map Outlook folders to corresponding file folders and have automated attachment processing, so the attachment is added to the correct file folder when you move the email to the client folder in Outlook. A similar product from KuTools is available.
X.ai is an artificial intelligence assistant that can schedule meetings for you. When you get an email asking about your availability simply respond and cc your AI assistant Amy (or Andrew) and let the bot negotiate availability and get it on both of your calendars. The basic product is free, so you can play with it and see how it can help!
Evercontact migrates contact information from an email signature block to Outlook contacts. It also updates contacts if the signature changes. All changes are documented in the Outlook contacts notes field with a date stamp, so you know where the information came from and when the contact was created or updated. This is super useful when you have to search through your emails to find the one that had a person’s fax or phone number in their signature block.
There are lots of ways to reduce the number of steps you take to process email and manage communications. Most automation takes some time to get set up in the beginning but can save you many keystrokes at the end. Get started with automation that seems the best fit to help speed up a particular process you dread doing, or that takes too much time, and soon you’ll start reaping the benefits!
© 2020 North Carolina Bar Association. Reprinted with Permission. This article first appeared at From the Center, the blog from the North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management.