"Why is my email broken?" was the title of a blog post today by my friend, Ernie the Attorney. He begins, "Almost everyone I know who uses email extensively for work is overwhelmed by email….Some people declare 'email bankruptcy,' which means that they delete all the emails in their inbox and then start from scratch.  And these are the optimists!"

Today, I'm going to give you the step by step instructions on how to declare e-mail bankruptcy in a more positive and less drastic way. Let's call it an E-mail Chapter 13 Reorganization instead of a "straight bankruptcy."

Let's restate the problem first. It is important for all of us to recognize that we are essentially powerless over e-mail. Yes, for most lawyers, it is and will remain a problem. The reason is simple. We could probably deal with processing the e-mail we receive if all we had to do was read it and then delete it or file it. But much e-mail comes with a task– an assignment, even if the only task is replying to the e-mail. People e-mail us trying to get us to do all sorts of things from important work assignments to watch funny YouTube videos to meeting after work for a beer. You cannot do it all! You have to triage.

But today we will discuss how to do a reasonable e-mail bankruptcy. This isn't for those of you who are a little behind in your reading. This is for those of you who have over10,000 e-mails in your inbox, those who are receiving threats from the IT Department that they will delete them for you if you cannot handle it and those who are being blamed by everyone in the office when Outlook crashes or the system is just slow.

This is not a good system for filing e-mails. But it will clear out your inbox and it is something lawyers can live with because we all have the fear of deleting that critically important e-mail. The solution requires either Adobe Acrobat (not the free Reader) or Nuance's PDF Converter Pro. The details below are for Microsoft Outlook.

Depending on your backlog and personal level of paranoia, this could take a hour hour or two.

  1. Note the number of e-mails in your inbox, so you can feel good about your accomplishment when you stop. Look at the oldest e-mail to see the month and year.
  2. Right click on Mailbox at the top of your Mail Folders. Select New Folder and name if for the month and year of your oldest e-mails (e.g. 2007 February or February 2007)
  3. Go to the bottom of your inbox and select that oldest e-mail. Then scroll up until the last e-mail of that month. While holding down the Shift key, click on that e-mail. You should now have selected all of the e-mails in the oldest month of e-mail in your inbox.
  4. Move these e-mails to your new February 2007 folder. You can either drag and drop and right click on the selected list and move all of the e-mails there.
  5. Now that all of your February 2007 e-mails are in one folder, here is your chance to scroll through and see if there are any important client e-mails that need to be filed elsewhere. Note: Be careful with your time here or you will kill the whole project. You can find them later if you need to do so.
  6. Now create a New folder on your network somewhere on a drive that is backed up regularly. Call it Archived E-mail.
  7. Here's the good part. Now click on the Adobe icon at the top of your e-mail client and create one single PDF from all of the e-mails in that folder in one easy step. This may take a while to process, but this one step can combine hundreds (or thousands) of e-mails into one single PDF file. You can glance at this PDF to see how nicely organized they are within this file.
  8. Now delete your February 2007 folder.
  9. Create a March 2007 folder and repeat the process. You can decide how far to take this. But your inbox will certainly have a lot less in it as you do this and the IT department will be happy.
  10. If it happens that you actually do need to see or print an e-mail that you have archived through this process and you know the date you can open the correct folder and look for it. Otherwise you can use Adobe's search function or some other desktop search tool to do full text searches of your Archived E-mail folder to locate e-mails.

The next step is the hardest. You need to come up with an improved plan to review, delete and file e-mails so you don't have to file bankruptcy again. But if not, you now know how to mass-archive.