When my kids were young they all got excited when someone spotted the mailman coming. They used to run up and get the mail then run off and riffle through it hoping to find something for them. Maybe grandma sent a note and grandpa slipped in a little fun money. It could happen! And to this day if my wife picks up the mail before I do, she immediately tosses anything that even remotely resembles junk mail. Would it surprise you to learn that over the years important mail went missing from time to time? I suspect not. Now, while such practices may create a bit of a headache on the home front, they generally are not catastrophic in terms of consequences. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said if mail happens to be handled improperly in the law office setting.
Truth be told, effective calendaring and docket control begins with the way incoming mail is handled. If done poorly, the result could be a disciplinary complaint or malpractice claim alleging a lack of diligence or competency due to a missed deadline or a failure to timely respond to a client’s pressing question or need. In contrast to this, effective mail handling techniques can result in your firm having a reputation for professionalism by demonstrating to clients, colleagues, and judges that your office is well run and the lawyers involved are competent and diligent.
Effective mail handling practices begin with processing the mail as soon as it is received. This should be done in a centralized fashion with one or more people responsible for opening, sorting, and date stamping the mail and then either taking care of the calendaring responsibilities or promptly delivering the mail to the individual(s) responsible for calendar maintenance. Again, every piece of mail should be date-stamped and reviewed for deadlines. The mail handler(s) should enter deadlines and reminders on the firm’s calendar, and then verify each calendared entry for accuracy by comparing it to the original document. After the mail handler(s) has completed these steps, he or she can deliver the mail to the appropriate attorneys for their own review and related substantive work.
This attorney review should be more than a look-see at what came in today’s mail. When each attorney receives their mail, they should review it to ensure that the firm’s mail handlers caught all of the important dates and correctly entered them on the firm’s calendar. This double-check function, where the attorney reviews the mail handler’s data entries for accuracy, is an essential quality control process. Not only does it assure that each attorney is made aware of every new calendar entry; but the process serves as a way to catch the occasional missed date on a document or incorrectly entered date on the calendar by the mail handler. If the firm keeps duplicate calendars (which are essential for litigation attorneys), each attorney should also ensure that their duplicate calendars contain the same entries. Once all of this has been completed, the attorneys are free to attend to the substantive work necessitated by the incoming mail. After a few days of practice, these suggested mail handling procedures should not take more than fifteen to twenty minutes even in firms with fifteen or more attorneys.
While some attorneys try to argue otherwise, don’t be reluctant to let support staff take care of the mail. The main reason for using support staff to process the mail and take care of the calendar is to allow for the creation of a quality control process (the double-check process) so that the firm has the opportunity to catch any data entry errors as they happen as opposed to discovering them after a critical deadline has been missed. The second reason is to avoid losing mail. When a firm centralizes mail processing and immediately makes relevant calendar entries, it avoids placing that burden on attorneys who commonly have ongoing distractions like active files on their desks, telephone calls coming in, or need to respond to e-mail. If attorneys are solely responsible for handling their own mail, these kinds of distractions can result in an incoming document being misplaced or a critical date never getting entered into the calendar for all kinds of reasons. It could be as simple as an attorney feeling rushed and under the gun deciding to immediately jump straight to taking care of the substantive work necessitated by that days mail and then forgetting to take care of the related calendaring.
Occasionally an attorney will insist upon opening and handling his own mail. He may have a number of reasons for doing so. A typical reason is a desire to work on a weekend day when support staff members are typically not available. Regardless of the reason for wanting to handle the mail before support staff has processed it, this attorney should consider copying any mail he wishes to take and leave the original for staff to process when they return. Alternatively, reverse the roles. The attorney could date stamp the mail himself and make calendar entries just as his staff would have done and then he would leave the original marked as “calendared” for his staff to review the calendar entries made when they return on Monday. The point is this. No exception to the standard process should allow for a bypass of the all-important double-check function.
Finally, please remember that attorneys are not immune from personal stress, substance abuse, depression and other all too prevalent maladies. If an attorney is troubled and her client service is starting to slip, you do not want her opening her own mail because no one else in the office would be able to ensure that she is meeting deadlines, complying with discovery sanctions ordered, etc. When a firm’s support staff is responsible for mail opening, taking care of the calendar, and mail routing they are able to inform the managing partner or office administrator when the mail indicates persistent signs of trouble. Remember, we are our partner’s keepers. Taking away one of the ways we can responsibly monitor each other is just asking for trouble.