Practice Tips, by Dave Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor
Using Microsoft Outlook to manage limitation (and other important) dates
Of all the tasks that must be done in a law office, few of them have such far-reaching professional implications as managing limitation dates. Missing a limitation date involves significant personal and professional embarrassment, loss of trust with the client, possible negligence liability, having to report to the Lawyers Insurance Fund and, not the least of all, loss of face.
Despite all the consequences of missing a limitation date, it is still a regular occurrence in law firms.
Managing limitation dates, along with reminders of other important dates, is a task that can be systematized. While organizing paper calendars and/ or index cards by month, date and year was traditionally the way of keeping up with limitation dates, these days computer calendars offer a distinct advantage over paper-based systems. One of the biggest advantages is that electronic calendars can “push” reminders out to lawyers and staff, while paper calendars must be examined. Since many electronic calendars are synchronized with smart phones, lawyers can obtain reminders of limitation and other important dates whether or not they are in the office.
There are two main ways you can use Outlook for limitation and other reminder dates. One is to make appointments in your Outlook calendar that act as reminders; the other is to use the To-Do Bar and Tasks (combined with Flags and Categories). In this column, we will explore the appointments method. On our website, you will find a complementary paper that details both methods of using Outlook to manage limitation dates (go to Lawyers > Practice Support and Resources > Technology).
Working with Outlook categories
Outlook allows you to create categories, which is a way to group similar tasks (such as limitation reminders, for example).
Among many other functions, categories can draw extra attention to limitation date reminders that are tasks or to-dos within the To-Do Bar.
You can rename an existing category to “Limitation Date” as I have done in image 1 (coloured red). Now you can “tag” a to-do as a limitation date – and it would appear with this red box next to it – bringing it prominently to your attention.
You can also use categories for appointments in the calendar and mark them as limitation dates (see image 2).
As you can see, once you have created “Limitation Date” as a category, you can click on “Categorize” and specify an appointment in your calendar as a limitation date. The extra visual “kick” that this adds to the appointment makes it stand out.
Image 3 shows how the appointment looks in your calendar.
While there are many advantages to moving to an electronic calendar, firms should also have a paper-based central calendar back at the office that serves as a backup system, just in case. After all, every firm is well-advised to have an electronic data backup and disaster recovery system in place, and a paper calendar is yet another form of data-backup!
You may also consider synching Outlook with other online calendars, but be aware that other calendars may not have the feature richness of Outlook. Microsoft Office 365, the online version of the venerable Microsoft Office suite, is also an excellent (and inexpensive) way to back up all your calendar data. (office.microsoft.com/en-ca).
The real benefit of moving to an electronic calendar system is the ability to share calendars and see another person's deadlines, appointments and tasks, whether they are in the office or not. Another best practice is to delegate one person in the firm to be responsible for all upcoming deadlines. That person will draw deadlines to the appropriate person's attention, and ensure that they are dealt with. For deadlines that are "drop dead" substantive limitations, adapt Outlook as your firm's centralized diary system. Be sure to adopt formal, written procedures in your office policy and procedures manual to ensure limitation dates and reminders are entered in a clear and consistent manner, are properly delegated and are followed up.
Outlook has at least two ways to share calendars in an office setting.
One way is to use Microsoft Exchange. Exchange is an application that allows everyone in an office to connect their Outlook calendars, among other services. The other way is to publish your calendars on the Microsoft Office website and determine who can see what information (using Microsoft Office 365).
I consider the ability to share calendars a best practice; just make sure shared viewing of tasks and appointments on calendars is enabled. You can mark personal or client appointments as private, to ensure the protection of confidentiality and privacy.
This requires installation of Exchange on your network servers or use of a hosted Exchange service. In Canada there are a number of vendors who will provide hosted services, including:
- Telus (about.telus.com/serviceprovider/products/collaboration/hosted_unified_communications/hosted_exchange),
- Bell (www.bell.ca/shop/Sme.Sol.Applications.Bhme.page)
- BMC Networks (bmcnetworks.ca)
- i-worx Enterprises (i-worx.ca)
Costs for hosted Exchange services range from approximately $2.50 to $30 per user per month, depending on the level of services you choose.
For more information on Office 365, I suggest that you contact BMC or i-worx and inquire about their Office business solutions for lawyers. The added advantage of an Office 365 installation with a trusted provider is your data is also backed up by the provider – giving you one more level of protection.
When it comes to limitation dates, no firm can be too careful. Fortunately technology can assist in many ways and help draw important dates, events and to-dos to your attention, minimizing the risk of missing a limitation date. The important fact is to adopt a system that incorporates best practices, is documented in the office policy and procedures manual and is followed by everyone in the firm.
Note also that the new Limitation Act came into effect on June 1, 2013; for more information on legislative changes, see “Ten tips to beat the reset clock” in the Summer 2013 Insurance Issues, Risk Management.
If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604.605. 5331.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the information posted by Microsoft.com to its various websites on using Outlook, portions of which have been incorporated here, as well as the invaluable input of Ben Schorr, author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Outlook 2010.