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Practice Management: Law Practice Management
Are You Having a Problem With Your Microsoft Outlook Rules?
Many people like myself have had a lot of problems with their Rules and Alerts in Outlook. At first I thought that I was doing something wrong. Sometimes my Rules worked properly, and sometimes the same Rules did not. Sometimes things went to the proper folders automatically, and sometimes they just plain disappeared. No one I talked to could explain what was happening. I thought — hoped — that when I implemented MS Exchange this problem would go away. It did, but only for a short while. Now I know why.
As many of you know, I have been instructing lawyers and staff on how to use Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint for many years. I teach privately inside firms. And I teach publicly at the PA Bar Association / PA Bar Institute’s annual Law Practice Management Institute, as well as at various county bars in PA from time to time. I don’t claim to be facile in absolutely everything. And there is never a class where something doesn’t embarrassingly fail to work, even though I’ve done it successfully many times before. But I am always more knowledgeable than those I instruct, except occasionally for a feature here or there. And because I was a big WordPerfect fan and power user in the past, I have the ability to ease the transition for users from WordPerfect to Word, by explaining how to do what they used to do, often in an easier manner using tools they didn’t know existed in Microsoft.
Another thing which makes me a valuable instructor is that I understand the challenges and needs of law firm users. One of the most important combination of features I teach attorneys in Outlook is the use of folders and Rules. Oh, and the use of Follow-up Flags, too. Let me explain why.
I’ve found that most attorneys are increasingly swamped with in-bound information. Their inbox becomes so crowded so quickly, it becomes almost impossible to stay on top of everything that’s important. Typically, the inbound content is not just about client matters anymore. There are electronically delivered pieces of subscribed information from news sites, blogs, e-newsletters etc. There are all of the social media requests to connect on LinkedIn and friend on Facebook. There are all the updates on activities of others we’ve connected with on social media. There are tons of sales-oriented emails from vendors, educational groups, marketing people. There is no doubt a certain amount of personal correspondence. And then, on top, there are the back and forth “conversations” with clients, co-counsel, and other parties involved with various client/matters. This is what I consider the most important content in the inbox.
By setting up a folder for each active client, and then creating email Rules based on who has sent the email, one can automatically route emails related to particular clients directly to the client’s folder. Customize “Outlook Today” to display all the active client folders. (It’s easy to add and subtract which folders display in this view — it takes literally seconds to make a change.) Make sure you have checked the box “When starting, go directly to Outlook Today” which you can get to from a variety of locations. Now, when you open Outlook, you will immediately see whether emails came in related to on-going matters, and each folder listed is a live link to the actual folder itself, so it’s easy to get there to read the new emails. You don’t miss seeing it just because it’s automatically routed to a folder.
By avoiding your Inbox and going directly to the active client folders to review new correspondence, you’re allowing the cream to rise to the top. You don’t wade through all the less important stuff in your Inbox — likely getting distracted by the latest joke or puppy pictures — and maybe run out of time before you get to the red hot messages lower down. You first go to the really important stuff. Later, when and if you have time, you can check out the other “stuff” in your inbox. I encourage attorneys to create folders for newsletters, social media news and requests, and more. That way you can prioritize your email review time better, especially when it’s limited.
Creating Rules is easy in Outlook. There’s a wizard which walks you through what you want to do fairly quickly and easily. Once you’re created one or two, you’ll be an expert. And you’ll wonder why you didn’t avail yourself of this tool combination earlier. But now, let’s get back to the problem. A problem I only recently discovered had a relatively simple solution.
Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has for some unknown reason decided that 32K of memory is sufficient for storage of Rules for those who have cloud-based Exchange. It isn’t. For those with in-house Exchange, their limit is 64K for Rules, which is built into Outlook. Again, Microsoft feels this is sufficient room. It isn’t. And if you don’t have Exchange server at all, you are still limited to the 64K storage for Rules. Problem is, there’s nowhere you can go to find out how much of that memory you’ve used, so when you hit the limit, some of your Rules just stop working, or don’t work properly. You don’t even get to decide which. If you go to create more Rules when you are over the limit, and only if you have Exchange server, only then will you get an error message that tells you that you have no more room for Rules. With just Outlook, you get no error message . . . some of your Rules just stop working, and not always the same ones.
You will think you’re crazy, like I did. You’re not. Because when something that was working perfectly stops for no apparent reason, or suddenly works unreliably, you just assume it’s you. Especially when support tells you nothing is wrong. If you’re not extremely persistent, you get nowhere, and no explanation. Eventually, you just give up. I admit I did.
It was not until my new partner, Jennifer Ellis, finally believed that there really was something strange going on, she was doggedly determined to get to the bottom of it. And eventually she did. I was apparently using their best feature too well, and had exceeded the size threshold.
We put in a request to increase the storage size for my Rules from 32K to the 64K built into Outlook. That request was granted in a reasonable length of time. But it wasn’t long before I hit that limit as well. We put in another request to up the limit. This was more difficult. Microsoft had to be “convinced” that I deserved to have more memory. We had to prove that my Rule names were optimized for saving space, that they were not duplicative, and that they were important to the way I do work using Outlook. Come on, really? Yes! Finally, after a month or so back and forth, my size limit was increased to 128K. With that size increase, all my Rules worked reliably, and I was finally able to regain control of my 350 – 450 daily inbound emails.
A short while ago, Microsoft made us migrate to their new “365″ product. Immediately thereafter, my Rules experienced the same problem as before. It was apparent I had lost memory. Most of my Rules started acting erratically, or stopped functioning, immediately after the conversion. However, what we thought would be a simple request to up the storage size — after all we had been through the drill before — hit a rock wall. It seems that Microsoft had hard-coded the 64K limit into Outlook itself, and because this is not considered a “bug” they will only fix it if they get complaints. Now, they’ve already gotten quite a number of complaints, we’re advised, but not enough to move this up to actually get it resolved. They tell me that they must have more complaints to up the priority.
So, this post is both informative, and self-serving. Perhaps you didn’t know about the power that Rules and creation of client-specific folders could give you to tame your inbox. Now you do. Perhaps you’ve been using Rules already, but weren’t getting reliable results and didn’t know why. Now you do. Now to the self-serving part: I urge you to take a moment to contact Microsoft and let them know that it makes no sense whatsoever to purposely limit use of one of their most beneficial features in Outlook. If enough of you out there join me in complaining, it will be fixed. And it will be fixed quickly, because some important eyes are watching the “buzz” about this right now. So please, help me help us all get this resolved. The phone number for Microsoft support is (866) 764 5574. The email page for support is at http://support.microsoft.com/.
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