How many hundreds — or thousands — of emails are in your inbox right now? At what pace is that number growing? Are you confident that an urgent message isn’t lurking in your queue? Does your computer constantly ping and pop up notifications? If these questions speak to the current state of your email account, you may have a problem. These are all telltale signs that a destructive dragon is living in your inbox.

Beware the beast.

The email dragon is rightfully feared. It breeds serious problems for attorneys. Missed deadlines, for example, are one of the leading causes of malpractice claims. Given that many important notifications — including those from the Oregon Department of Justice — are delivered via email, the connection between an unruly account and malpractice risk is immediate. Likewise, failure to communicate is among the primary causes of bar complaints every year. Allowing messages to sit unaddressed only invites a growing risk of claims and disciplinary action. That said, if you are ready to heed the call, there is hope. You can slay the dastardly dragon in your inbox by listening to the great mage of email — Merlin.

Who is Merlin and what is Inbox Zero?

Merlin Mann is a productivity expert who created an email management system called “Inbox Zero.” Developed through a series of articles on his website 43 Folders, Inbox Zero is a system to, yes, reduce your tally to nil. More broadly, though, it’s a framework for establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship with your email.

How does it work?

Inbox Zero is surprisingly simple. Essentially, you process each email from a limited menu of straightforward actions that enable you to quickly move any message out of your inbox. Merlin suggests a menu of four actions: (1) Delete or archive; (2) Delegate; (3) Do; and (4) Defer. For each email, apply one of these four actions and then move on to the next. In this way, every message is responsibly processed in the least amount of time. And the more you practice this system, the faster you will become.
  1. Delete or Archive.
If an email is not directed to you — delete it. If it doesn’t require action from you — archive it. Delete communications that have no value, such as junk mail. Archive messages that may have some future utility to you, like listserv conversations you may want to reference in the future. If you find it psychologically difficult to press the delete button, archive and move on. You will be able to readily find any email in your archive using the search function. Remember, the goal is to process all the communications out of your inbox as quickly as possible on terms that work for you.

Thankfully, additional tools can help you supercharge the initial sifting. Unsubscribe to junk mail. Block or report unwanted spam. In addition, attorneys can use automated rules to manage incoming messages. Rules automatically perform specific actions, such as archiving or moving emails to specified folders. Returning to the listserv example, you would create a rule to automatically move those messages into a folder dedicated to a bar organization or section, for later review at a time of your choosing. Setting up electronic folders or Outlook Quickstep is easy.
  1. Delegate.
For emails that require the attention or action of others — forward it. Remember to put some form of follow-up tickler in place to ensure that you and your team do not drop the ball through delegation.
You can easily create ticklers in Outlook. One way is to attach reminders to outgoing emails with a specific date and time and the appropriate follow-up (e.g., call, review, etc.). You can also add an action item to your to-do list and/or schedule an appointment by dragging the email to your task list or calendar. Another tool to manage delegations in Outlook is Quicksteps, which applies designated actions to email messages. For example, you can set up a Quickstep in which the first action is “Mark As Read,” the second action is “Forward,” and the third is “Move to Folder.” Finally, if you have a staff member who manages court calendars, or if you just want a second set of eyes on court notifications, auto- forward Oregon eCourt messages using this step-by-step instruction from the PLF.
  1. Do it.
If an email requires five minutes or less to answer — do it. Typically, this involves a short reply, or it could be a follow-up question if you need more information. Consider developing templates for messages you send frequently to save time and reduce the risk of typos.
  1. Defer.

For emails that require more than five minutes of your time — defer it and create a placeholder for future action. The objective is to carve out dedicated time for work that rises above quick or administrative tasks. You will do the work, just not while processing your inbox. So, if a message contains a large ask or necessitates a long response, set up a meeting. Or if a response first requires you to research and analyze an issue, set aside time on your calendar.
There are easy ways to generate placeholders. In Outlook, you can drag and drop emails from your inbox directly into your calendar (for an event) or to the task list icon (for a task) as noted above. Gmail offers similar functionality to create events or tasks. Either platform takes seconds to transform static entries in your inbox into dynamic, actionable items.

What about the Client File?

Attorneys have an obligation to maintain a complete client file, including electronic correspondence. See, Formal Ethics Opinion No. 2017-192 (“Client Property: Duplication Charges for Client Files, Production or Withholding of Client Files”). So it’s important to incorporate email documentation into your regular file management. If you aren’t sure how to save emails to file, check out this practice aid on Documenting Email as Part of a Client File or this blog post for Gmail users. And of course, please do not hesitate to contact a PLF practice management attorney for assistance.

When should I Inbox Zero?

Process your inbox in batches at scheduled times. For most, twice a day is sufficient. Work through the menu of actions until all messages have been moved or your allotted time is over. Your inbox is merely a waystation, so treat it as such. Merlin and other experts recommend scheduling processing times for your least productive periods. Reflect on when you are at your cognitive best, guard those hours jealously, and plan Inbox Zero for times of day when your higher brain functions ebb.

Another important tip: Merlin highly suggests you turn off notifications. These seductive alerts are distracting, break your train of thought, and reinforce the bad habit of checking your email randomly, rather than deliberately processing at scheduled times.


What to do if the email dragon has grown into the thousands?

First, know you are not alone. Given the volume of electronic communications in modern life, it happens to everyone at some point. Second, there is a solution. Merlin calls it the “email DMZ.” Here are the steps for drawing the boundaries of your digital demilitarized zone:
  1. Create a folder called “DMZ.”
  2. Select all emails in your inbox.
  3. Move them to your DMZ folder.
  4. Stick to Inbox Zero moving forward. Your account now has a fresh start.
  5. Schedule additional batching sessions specifically to work through your DMZ until no emails remain.
  6. Delete the DMZ folder.


Beware the unruly beast that is email. To enter its lair unprepared invites a digital pox on your office. Hold firm! Through Merlin’s teachings, Inbox Zero can be yours. And if you need some help, the PLF PMAs stand ready to assist you in your quest!

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