Twenty ways to use Outlook in legal project management
About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled “How Should Law Firms ‘Gear Up’ to Manage Projects Better? – A 50,000-foot View” which argued that law firms could derive significant benefits simply by better using the software they already owned. Since then, in teaching a number of workshops and coaching many individual lawyers, I’ve often heard of the difficulty in creating a master schedule for use with internal teams and clients. My answer has always been, “You already have the software you need,” in the form of Outlook.
Most law firms use Microsoft Office as their "wheelhouse" technology for creating and editing documents and use Outlook for e-mail, calendars, and meeting scheduling. Most lawyers are familiar with basic Outlook features like group e-mails for addressing committees, practice groups, and others. Likewise, many firms use Outlook calendar features for conference room scheduling, arranging group meetings, or sharing firm management calendars. Some lawyers also keep dual calendars, one for their business lives and another for their personal lives. While these features are useful, they only scratch the surface of Outlook’s ability to support the collaborative functions so important to legal project management (LPM).
For example, you can create and share calendars, both with in-house teams (e.g. the “XYZ Corp. Litigation Team” calendar) and with outside organizations (e.g. clients, consultants, and experts).
One way I have demonstrated this feature to clients who may be sports fans starts by asking them to name their favorite professional team. For example, when I worked recently with a Miami Heat fan, I asked him to go to the team's web page, open the current schedule, and click on the provided icon to download that schedule to his PC. (All NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL teams have this calendar download feature.)
He opened the team’s schedule in Outlook on his PC, viewed it as a separate calendar screen, and tiled it next to his Outlook work calendar. Then we used Outlook’s calendar overlay feature, which merged the sports schedule with his main calendar and displayed them as a single calendar. The team’s game dates automatically showed up in a different color.
Once that was done – “presto!” – the lawyer had just learned what it would take to create and share a matter/project calendar with his own internal and external teams. Sharing can either be done by e-mail attachment or use of shared settings in Outlook for internal teams, just as many already share their calendars with their assistants.
That got us over to assigning tasks and scheduling meetings using Outlook, both processes that closely resemble inviting people to conference calls or conference room meetings, which he already knew how to do. The whole discussion took about five minutes.
Below is a list of 20 Outlook features our clients have found useful for managing legal matters and streamlining collaboration with internal and external team members, a critical function within LPM.
- Can create multiple calendars, both shared and unshared
- Can be shared both within the organization (via Exchange server) or outside the organization (via e-mail or Outlook sharing to public or secured websites like icalshare.com or MicrosoftOffice.com)
- Can import any calendars from others in either html or the common .ics file format (e.g. either a private project calendar, or a public calendar, such as a junior soccer league schedule or NFL team schedule)
- Multiple calendars can be easily viewed as tiled frames (vertical or horizontal), separate screens, or in overlay mode, in which two or more calendars are combined and appointments and events appear in different colors on one compiled calendar screen
- Room Finder can be used to schedule conference rooms and, depending on your firm’s configuration, ancillary services such as catering, A/V, etc.
- Planning calendars can be set up and shared for long-term projects, such as annual events, budget planning, or software roll-outs, as well as more transitory projects, such as a major litigation case, regulatory investigation, securities offering, etc.
- Can be used to schedule one-time or recurring meetings for individuals or teams, to send invitations, enclosures (such as agendas), reserve and manage conference rooms, and track group RSVPs
- When distributing and sharing calendars, senders can control permission levels for recipients to view-only, revise, re-circulate, etc.
- Items can be moved or copied between multiple calendars in tiled views simply by dragging and dropping
Assigning tasks and managing team members is another function in which Outlook can play a critical role, with little or no advanced coursework necessary.
Tasks and to-do features:
- Can enter and update personal tasks, set deadlines, reminders, and flags, enter time allocation/actual info, and certain mileage and expense categories
- Can delegate/assign tasks to others, along with setting deadlines and priority levels, reminders, and flags, and can enter time allocation/actual info for billable tasks, plus certain mileage and expense categories, and completion check boxes
- When assigning tasks to others, users can retain copies of the tasks on their own calendars in order to set reminders for assignees’ status check-ins
- Notes and documents can be attached to any task
- Daily, weekly and other task lists can readily be set up
- Task lists can be shown in the bottom pane of a calendar view
- Can establish custom distribution lists for internal distribution (using firm’s global address list), or external (using outside e-mail addresses) or combined usage
- Can establish e-mail group addresses (e.g. the “Jones Company Acquisition” group), to simplify group addressing for communications, meeting scheduling, and task assignments
- Can use “group/case” folders to collect e-mail messages in one location (e.g. “Jones Co. Acq.” e-mail folder)
- Users can post their status for others to see (e.g. busy, available, away, not logged in), to ensure that messages or tasks are sent only to those in a position to respond or undertake the task
- Can set up rules such that any e-mails sent to or received from a particular individual or group can be copied or directed to a specific e-mail folder
Permission and proxy features:
- Users can grant permission for others to view your calendar and schedule and commit you to appointments. This is typically assigned to one’s assistant or a case paralegal, to ease administration and access.
- “Level of calendar detail” can vary as well, from full details to busy/free only, with no detailed information
- Users can mark personal appointments “private,” so that only their non-availability is visible
- In order for full exploitation of the calendar features within a firm, all users must allow their calendars to be seen over the Exchange server. Some firms have found it frustrating to commit to using Outlook calendaring for scheduling meetings when even a few key people do not let their calendars be viewed by their colleagues.
Note: For additional features and more details, see Microsoft Outlook 2010’s help function, guides on the Microsoft web site, or in one of the many books on the topic, such as “Microsoft Outlook 2010 Step by Step” by Joan Lambert and Joyce Cox, which includes an online edition, templates and practice files, and exercises. The same authors have also published similar guides for Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007.