Legal Q&A: Avoiding “Death by Email”

The unstructured format of an email inbox is an inefficient, unreliable strategy for today’s legal records management. While lawyers often rely on their inboxes as a virtual filing cabinet, storage limits, and the inability to share or categorise information make it the wrong approach. In this Q&A, Roy Russell, managing director with Huron Legal in London, explains why document management systems that include email modules are essential to keeping virtual records straight.      

Q:What is the problem with email, especially for lawyers?

Russell: Lawyers have embraced their email inboxes as filing systems. And whilst that’s great for an individual, for a team and for collaboration on matters it causes some big issues, the biggest being the inability to share information with colleagues. Secondly, many IT departments enforce restrictions on the size of inboxes, so a lawyer ends up deleting emails or archiving them outside of the inbox. When emails are archived to separate outside files, there are even more areas to search for information and emails still cannot be shared.

Q:What are the implications of these email problems on records management?

Russell:The biggest issue with email stored in an inbox is its unstructured nature. There’s no additional information to identify which emails are important, what cases they are related to. Often, an email that starts out on one subject may end up talking about many other subjects. So it’s the inefficiency of being unable to assign and categorize those emails for records management while in the unstructured format of an inbox.

Q:How can these problems be avoided?

Russell:We’ve seen success with the adoption of document management systems and enterprise search systems that incorporate an email management module. The email management module will integrate with the user’s mailbox and allow the user to move emails from the inbox into a central, collaborative workspace or electronic matter file. This allows users to have a single, central reference point for all information, for example, their Word documents or other Microsoft documents, as well as all the email correspondence and scanned paper documents. So there is one point of reference that can be shared across the team. An email can be fully indexed so it can be easily searched and retrieved, and metadata (or profile data) can automatically be applied to it. That metadata can help automatically assign records retention information, thereby assisting with records management, compliance, and regulatory issues.

Q:What are some features to look for in these email management systems?

Russell:The first thing is that the system provides a central matter file concept and doesn’t create any “overheads” for the lawyer – the ease and simplicity of how you’re able to file emails to the electronic matter file is key to the adoption of the system in the first place. Then, you need to make sure the system is storing the emails in the native message format so a message can easily be replied to or sent on, just as if it was in the inbox. There are a variety of other features, including, for example, being notified that another user has filed an email. If an email is received by multiple people in the department, other recipients can be notified once one person files it, thereby saving them the effort of filing it themselves. Features that improve the efficiency and ease for the users make it easy to build a business case for the system, based just on the amount of time it can save members of the team.

Listen to the full podcast with Huron Legal’s Roy Russell at: