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I.T in practice: Email smarts if you’re not

Every Issue

Cite as: (2007) 81(3) LIJ, p. 87


Email represents a significant part of client service document management and recognising this assists in ensuring appropriate resource allocation.

A legal practice can no longer survive and prosper without a reliable email facility.

The issues of viruses, spam and other email nasties may dominate the allocation of resources in the email area, but thankfully most firms now have automated systems to deal with these.

Although a small number of practices still choose to run Microsoft’s Outlook Express, the product which comes free with Windows XP, the broader functionality and flexibility provided by Microsoft Outlook is generally preferred within the legal profession.

A number of other email packages exist,[1] such as Lotus Notes, but their use in smaller practices is isolated and tends to be based around the specific knowledge of a staff member or external IT consultant.

While the latter part of 2007 will see a gradual uptake of Microsoft’s new Office 2007 suite, and thus Outlook 2007,[2] it is safe to say that Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2002 (XP) will be the de facto standards for emails for most legal firms for the short to medium-term.

Email storage

While practices have adapted to using email, for many small firms the question: “Where are your emails stored?” cannot be answered confidently and knowledgably.

This is unfortunate, given the importance of this information both from a client service and legal point of view.

It is now a criminal offence in Victoria to destroy documents that are “reasonably likely” to be required as evidence in a legal proceeding.

Practices that have a main server are able to use this to store the emails for the whole of the practice.

This means that the central server’s backup routine will also save all emails – another reason for ensuring backups are performed frequently and regularly, and stored off-site.

A central server also has the benefit that if it is correctly configured, even after emails are deleted by the user they can still be retained on the server if retrieval is necessary.

In practices where there is no central server, emails will be retrieved from an external mail hosting service each time a “send and receive” function is completed.

What is not widely understood is that the act of retrieving these emails and viewing them on the screen deletes the emails from the external mail server and moves them to the computer where they are being viewed.

If the hard disk on this computer fails, or becomes unavailable for other reasons (for example, if a notebook computer is stolen), then if there is no current backup the emails are lost.

A safe strategy

A firm will benefit greatly by setting in place and following a cohesive set of guidelines relating to the use and retention of emails.

Merely putting some thought into this issue often leads to constructive action.

Some examples of “best practice” from legal firms include:

  • always requesting delivery receipts (and sometimes read receipts) on emails that are not of a personal nature, and retaining these receipts as part of matter management processes;
  • taking daily backups, either at the server level (where there is a server in place), or at the workstation level (where there is an external email service);
  • structuring email folders within the inbox to reflect a consistent categorisation of incoming communications. Automated rules may help with this, but are sometimes beyond the skill levels of some staff members;
  • moving emails of a certain age to a special email archive file on a monthly basis, then moving this archive to a CD or DVD for offsite storage;
  • retaining the emails of former staff members on CD or DVD for review as required in client matters;
  • copying all attached documents on incoming emails to the firm’s document management system;
  • setting a limit on total email database sizes to maximise speed and minimise backup overhead; and
  • restricting the use of corporate systems for personal emails, thus minimising the glut of emails to manage and archive.

Many of the best practice principles above are based around a single guiding concept – ensuring that the management of a firm’s important data resource is in line with the level of dependence placed on it, and its importance.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent IT consultant firm.

For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the LIV Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/members/sections/lpm/it

“To do” List

Review your own email storage to confirm that you are aware of any new strategies that may need to be put in place.

Evaluate and install any required email backup software.

Adapt and apply formal paper-based document retention policies to email.

Balance the need to archive and delete emails with the demands of having current information on hand for matter management.


[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-mail_clients.

[2] http://office.microsoft.com/en-au/suites/FX101635841033.aspx indicates that the “Home and Student” version of Office 2007 does not include Outlook 2007.

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