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Email - Process Once - Share with Many

Written by Jeff Stouse on 14 July 2012.

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Email has become a critical part of any practice management system. However many junk/useless emails you receive every day; you still have to wade through each email in order to not miss those "too-important" emails. And those too-important emails should be stored (shared) in your practice management program. This means that it is critical that you can store your emails (immediately after you review/create them) into your practice management program, wherever you happen to be when you review/create the email. Finally, having this integration also helps when it comes to billing for the time spent creating/reviewing the countless emails dealt with on a daily basis.

If you are considering an update to your (new) practice management program or your (first) practice management program, you shouldn't consider one that does not provide a means to save emails, as well as the attachments that often come with them, directly into your practice management program. Email has become, unfortunately, an essential part of the modern work day. Most firms receive the bulk of their client/matter information through the emails and/or documents attached to them.

Given the importance of email in a law firm, the process of saving emails (and their attached documents) to the client/matter in your practice management program is a very important step in using a practice management program. The process should be simple: when a staff/attorney/paralegal receives an email, that email should (the majority of the time) be shared with others. With practice management software the process should not cause further problems while making it easy to share both the email and any attachments it may have.

For those firms without practice management software, the answer has been obvious and easy: forward a copy to those involved. However, that answer has its own pitfalls: duplicate copies of the same email now exist in the firm, and if multiple users try to save them all in one shared location (the email table in a practice management program), then there will be so many duplicates that the list becomes almost unusable. That is a hassle, but not necessarily dangerous. The second pitfall that comes to mind is dangerous – when copies of emails with attachments (like that contract that needs to be revised) are forwarded to multiple users, then multiple copies of the same document exist within the list of documents related to a client/matter.

This is dangerous territory. When two or more copies of the same document exist, then there can be more than two users working on two different copies of the same document. This can lead to the wrong version being sent to opposing counsel (or the client), or being forced to try to consolidate two different versions of a very long contract in a short amount of time once the issue is discovered. Neither approach is something any law firm wants to experience.

So save yourself the hassle. Use a practice management program that provides the option of notifying every user who needs to see the new email. The workflow is: user A receives the email that should be shared with users B & C. When she saves it to the practice management system, she should be able to notify users B & C that the email has arrived as part of the save. This notification should also allow the email and its attachments to be viewable (as related to the appropriate matter/client) in an easy manner.

And besides making it easy to notify others when an email is received, your practice management program should make getting your email (wherever you get it) and then saving it into your practice management program easy as well. Accessing your email away from your desktop computer (whether from home, on your mobile device (tablet or smartphone) or from a business center computer) shouldn't mean that you end up reading/replying to the email once, and then having to "save it to the system" when you get back in the office – essentially handling the same email twice.

Even if the majority of users within a firm sit behind the same desk every day, and the get their email at the same computer all the time, there will always be that need (by a select few, perhaps) to get their email while not behind their desk in their office. For those mobile users, it is critical that they, however they get their email, be able to save it into the practice management program when they access it. For example, if a user has a practice management program installed on their desktop and then travels to a courthouse, dealing with email while at the courthouse should be as easy as when it they are in the office.

The other important part of emails in a law firm is the role they can play in billing. Often users can end up missing out on billing a very important part of the their day by failing to bill for the time spent, reading, writing, sharing or categorizing the vast number of emails received each day. While some users prefer to put themselves "on the clock" – turning on and turning off a timer to keep track of the time spent doing the above functions, other firms/users create a default amount of time for each function and then ask that users try to update that base amount of time as necessary.

Whichever approach you or your firm wants to use, your practice management program should be able to accommodate that choice. Be sure to get a demo of that part of the process before selecting a practice management program.

Because of the emphasis on both accessing your emails and storing them in your practice management system, it is obvious that you should be able to get to both your emails and your practice management program at the same time. Since you cannot access your emails without access to the Internet, this means that the Internet can be used by two different approaches when it comes to providing that access.

On premise-based practice management programs such as Practice Master do not (yet) offer a means to work with emails/attachments unless there is some type of remote access set up (to the program and to the email program being used.) In almost all firms, Outlook is the email of choice (often as part of Microsoft Office), so many firms have taking to using a Remote desktop approach – providing the use access to a desktop which includes MS Office (including Outlook) and Practice Master. This access requires a network infrastructure-skilled technician (and software/hardware) in order to make the access available.

Cloud-based programs obviously offer the advantage of having access to email and the practice management program without any extra setup. However, different cloud-based programs use different approaches to the integration of basic email functionality. Some follow the approach of trying to work with all email programs, while others focus on the dominant (some say monopolistic) email program – Outlook.

For example, Clio takes the approach of saying it will integrate with all emails programs. This, however, is accomplished by forcing the user to go through several steps, some which are required every time an email is sent; others are one-time setup choices. The first option is to always BCC the matter to which an email being sent should be related. While this does work for all email programs that offer a BCC option, it also means that the user sending the email has to: a) remember to BCC, and b) have the email address of the matter available (it can be stored in an address book – but then the user has to have the unique email address for the matter to which he/she wants to relate a new email in the appropriate (Outlook or Apple) address book.)

There are other setup concerns: you must first "whitelist" all email addresses from which you want to send an email to Clio, failure to do so will result in Clio treating the email as spam. Also, emails not related to a matter can be sent to a Global Inbox (which is accessed by going to a different URL – there is currently not a tab within the Clio program to access those globally listed emails.) Once you find the email (in the Global inbox) you can open the email and relate it to the desired matter. While this works, if, for any reason you don't have the email address to include in the BCC, then you must handle the email a second time in order to relate it to the matter.

Another cloud-based practice management program, HoudiniESQ, offers two different approaches to dealing with email. The first is to have the user setup their email address(es) they want to use within the program. This means that they can send/receive (and relate) any email from within Houdini. This means that the user doesn't have to have any email program installed on the machine from which they access HoudiniESQ. Once they are in HoudiniESQ they can simply access their Inbox and read/relate and send emails as needed.

The second approach is (mainly) for users who know that they will be accessing HoudiniESQ from the same computer (a desktop in the office or their Home computer.) The program offers free integration apps that allow the user to save emails into HoudiniESQ from within the Outlook program. A toolbar is inserted, allowing the user to search for a matter name (by name) and then relate a selected email to that matter. Highlight the email, click in the search box, type in a few characters of the matter name and click on link. Done.

One more note concerning HoudiniESQ: it has an automatic billing feature that each user can set up so that each email sent/received can be billed at a user-defined rate (.1?) This means that whenever a user opens/reads an email or sends an email, HoudiniESQ automatically creates a billing entry for the pre-defined amount of time – no more missed time dealing with emails.

For more information about HoudiniESQ, please visit http://www.houdiniesq.com- they offer a free, fully functional program as a trial; or if you are a solo attorney, you can use their product for free (no catch!) for as long as you want. HoudiniESQ is a product of LogicBit, and Frank Rivera is the CEO of that company.

For more information regarding Practice Master, please visit http://www.practicemaster.com. Software Technology, Inc. is the company that created Practice Master, and Brad Berlin is the CEO of that company.

For more information on Clio, please visit http://www.goclio.com – there is a 30-day free trial. Jack Newton is the CEO and co-founder.