Microsoft Outlook and Managing Legal Projects: A Tip

As I’ve detailed in my book The Off Switch, Microsoft Outlook provides modern ways not just to communicate but to interrupt our work flow and make life harder.

For example, the new-mail sounds and desktop alerts (the blue “toasts” or translucent ghosties that pop up on a new message) may do more harm than good because they interrupt your thought processes.

So turn them off. (Go to Mail Options, which is under Options near the bottom of the File menu.)


Figure 1

People say to me, “But I need to be responsive to clients.”

Yes, you do, but interrupting yourself all the time so that you’re inefficient on their behalf is false responsiveness. It’s up to you to manage your clients in this regard, understanding their true needs in terms of responsiveness. (I discuss methods to do this in my courses and seminars that are too complex and interactive to cover easily in this forum.)

If you look at your stream of mail, you’ll discover that only certain items from a limited number of people need your immediate attention – i.e., right now, rather than 30-60 minutes from now. Sometimes these mails may come from a key client, sometimes from your boss, perhaps from your spouse. If you have turned off desktop alerts, how, then, do you recognize these truly urgent missives without eyeballing your email every two minutes?

Here’s what I do: I set up an Outlook rule to pop up one of those blue thingies when I get mail from specific people. That sounds difficult, but in fact it’s quite easy. I’ll walk through the steps below.

By the way, you’re not limited to specific people. If you’re managing a project or file that’s in trouble, for example, you could pop up mail with the project name in the subject line.

For the purpose of my example, let’s say I want to create an alert on mail from the CEO of Lexician. (That’s me. You think I’m going to expose anyone else’s email address on the Internet?)

The easiest way to start is to find a mail from that person and right-click on it. Move down the right-click menu to “Rules,” then over to “Create Rule…” and click on that. (The ellipsis, or three dots, after a menu item means that you’ll go to one or more additional screens when you click it.)


Figure 2

Note in the screen-shot that I’ve shortened the right-click menu. “Rules” is the tenth item on the menu on Outlook 2010. The menu position may vary in Outlook 2007, Outlook 2013, and Outlook/Office 365, but the steps are the same.

Now I get these options:


Figure 3

If you want to keep it simple, you can check three boxes and be done:

  1. This rule applies only to mail from this person.
  2. It applies when the mail is sent to me alone, so that mails sent to a bunch of people (or where I’m on the CC line) don’t take on the same sheen of urgency.
  3. It will pop up a New Mail Alert (see below).

Click OK, and you’ll get a confirmation message along with the option to run it on mail already in your inbox.

What’s a New Mail Alert? It’s a dialog box that interrupts you and demands action.


Figure 4

Now I can open the item and deal with it, or close the dialog box without responding.

Or I can decide that I want to be a bit less interruptive about it – and be more discerning in my criteria as well.

So let’s go back to creating the rule, but this time, instead of clicking on the checkboxes, click Advanced Options at the lower right:


Figure 5

Now I get a whole bunch of options, starting with multiple ways to identify the mails I want to receive alerts on:


Figure 6

The two options I usually select are the sender’s name and “where my name is in the To box.” That second condition is the secret sauce. It eliminates mails on which I’m only copied (or, worse, blind-copied – and I hope everyone working in a law office understands never to blind-copy anyone on an email!). Thus, if a key client sends mail to me and the managing partner, I’ll still get the alert. The simple setting, “sent to me only,” precludes this option.

Now click Next to pop up a list of possible options. Scroll down, and tucked away at the bottom is the checkbox, “display a Desktop Alert.” That’s the one we want.


Figure 7

Click Next to get a list or exceptions. For example, well down the exceptions list is “except if it is a meeting invitation or update.” Meeting requests don’t have quite the same can’t-wait-an-hour urgency as most client questions.

Click Next again and you’ll get a box that allows you to name the rule. The default name for the rule is “where my name is in the To box, which probably isn’t very useful. So name it “mail from Steve” or some such, and then click Finish.

Now, whenever this person sends mail directly to me, I’ll get a blue desktop alert. That’s all there is to it.

Do this, and you’ll get more done. Interruptions take a huge toll on productivity, so find opportunities to limit them. It doesn’t matter if they’re from people in the office, from incoming mail, or from a desire to check the weather. You can’t eliminate them without turning into a recluse, but you can cut down on the workplace noise they create.

If you want to modify the rule, or get rid of it when the project is over, you’ll find a Rules item on the Outlook Home ribbon menu. One of the items in that menu is “Manage Rules & Alerts…” which allows you to modify, delete, or even temporarily turn off any of your rules.

Here’s one more option. Go back to Step 1 of the Rules Wizard, “Which condition(s) do you want to check?” (It’s Figure 6, above). Note the second checkboxin the list: “with Some Text in the subject.” If, let’s say, I want to alert on mail related to a particular project, I could check that box. When I do, it will be added to the lower window. Now in that lower window I can click on the underlined-and-blue Some Text. I’ll get a dialog box with the option to remove this particular text and replace it, say with the name of a file or case or project. In this case, I might not want to check the “from” option in the box above.

Outlook rules aren’t at all scary; they just seem complicated the first time because of all the options. (Okay, the Some Text option is a bit more complicated, but if you walk through it you’ll see it’s easier to do than to describe.) Follow the steps I’ve outlined, and you’ll take full control of them. And when other people interrupt your day simply to ask, How do you manage mail so well, point ‘em to this article!

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