Using Microsoft Outlook Rules To Tame Your Inbox

Remember in my earlier post entitled “4 Microsoft Outlook Hacks to De-Stress Your Law Practice” how I recommended you use subfolders and flags to organize your emails?  Well, here’s a tactic that will allow you to automate both (and other tasks too): Outlook Rules.

What Are Rules?  Rules in Outlook automate the processing of certain emails based on your criteria.  If you always (or even usually) do a particular something to emails from a given sender, with a certain subject line, etc., then you can set up a rule to automate that certain something.

What Kind of Rules Can I Set Up?  Outlook Rules have two basic flavors: Incoming and Outgoing.  Incoming Rules process mail coming into your Inbox.  Outgoing Rules kick in after you press the “Send” button.

Examples of Incoming Rules.  My favorite application of this is to flag incoming emails from the federal court CM/ECF system and move them into the appropriate case folder.

In that scenario, I instruct Rules to look for any email with “” in the sender’s address and flag it for follow-up within one day.  I have separate Rules to move emails with specific case numbers (ex: “cv-09-3829-DFR”) in the Subject line into their case subfolders.

You can also set up Incoming Rules to:

  • Pop up an alert or make a sound when you receive a message from a particular sender
  • Move emails from specific senders to a subfolder
  • Assign categories to messages from certain senders
  • Delete messages automatically based on their content

Examples of Outgoing Rules.  I set up a rule for a coworker recently to flag any outgoing mail addressed to a government agency’s email domain so she gets a reminder in a day or two to forward the paperwork to Accounting.  Slick, huh?

You can use this technique, too.  Flag everything going to a chronically forgetful client or colleague’s address for follow-up in a couple of days so you’ll get a reminder.  Or automatically forward emails addressed to a particular email address domain (like to your assistant for printing/filing.

Planning Your Rules.  The mechanics of setting up Rules in versions 2002 through 2010 has remained pretty much unchanged.  The key to success with Rules, though, is outlining them first:

  • Conditions – Determine what criteria the incoming/outgoing email has to meet to get processed (email address, subject line, etc.).
  • Actions –  What do you want Outlook to do with that message?  Flag it?  Forward it?  Categorize it?
  • Exceptions – If there are any exceptions to the Rule, note those.

If you’re interested in a detailed tutorial on how to set Rules up, or if you have your own special Rules trick you’d like to share, let us know in the comments below.

Image credit:  adria.richards (Flickr)

Deborah Savadra specializes in helping law firms use Microsoft Office applications.  Her blog features video tutorials on solving common Microsoft Office problems. You can follow her on Twitter at @legalofficeguru.