Tech Audit

Say It Now

What may seem like simple questions have fed major debates over law office technology: Should every lawyer have a desktop computer? Should everyone in a law office use e-mail? Should lawyers in law offices use in­stant messaging?

Of those questions, the one concerning instant messaging is the most likely to incite controversy. Most of us think of IM as that little box on the computer screen that our children use in the even­ing to converse with their friends. What possible application could such a tool have in a law office that already has telephone intercoms and e-mail?

Daniel Coolidge, a New Hamp­shire lawyer with tech­nolo­gy credentials, recently panned IM. His witty takedown can be found at articles/v30is1an27.html. His argument boils down to this: There are times he does not want to communicate.

But modern IM provides mechanisms to accommodate Dan’s concern while at the same time providing a unique electronic tool for lawyers, enhancing communication and enriching information.

IM on the professional level has come a long way from teenagers carrying on five simultaneous conversations. Our IM is seamlessly integrated within e-mail. Initially, we had difficulty visualizing how this would be better than the separate IM box. In actual use, the advantage of integration is immediately obvious.

For every e-mail message listed, when the sender is available a green box appears to the left of the sender’s name. You can click on a button to chat with that person via keyboard. If an e-mail message is open and the green icon is pres­ent, you can right-click on an e-mail address to chat with that person.


You can also click on “IM Control” at the bottom right of one’s e-mail to change the active icon to “Do not disturb.” The green box changes to the familiar circle/­ slash symbol. The icon for “I am away” is a yellow diamond. Both “Do not disturb” and “I am away” icons per­mit a short message, easily editable, to appear with fur­ther explanation. Typical might be: “At coffee shop for quick lunch, will be back at 1 p.m.” or “Working on brief.” The message appears when the cursor rests on the yellow diamond or the circle/slash icons.

The effect is an electronic In/Out board. Its efficacy re­lies on people using it properly, but that is true with a manual In/Out board as well. Of course, the ultimate com­munication shutdown is turning off IM, something that also is individually permissible.

We do not use IM for communicating with clients, but if the appropriate situation presented itself, we would not hesitate. Common uses for us include: • Quick questions or notes to or from one of our secretaries, who works remotely at home about 75 miles from the office.

• Messages to secretaries located near the waiting room, eliminating the risk of waiting clients overhear­ing private information.

• Messages to secretaries or lawyers on the telephone (such as “John Doe just walked in”).

On some occasions, admittedly rare, it can be use­ful to have a transcript of the discussion that can be saved. This is an automatic IM feature.

There are commercial IM solutions that provide security. We use Lotus Instant Messaging.

It is possible to seamlessly integrate IM into more than just e-mail: for instance, integrating with databases and word processing. We have not seen the need for this. But if one is group-drafting a brief, IM within word processing might be effective. The bottom line is, the easier it is to access IM, the more usable it is and the more used it is.

Instant messaging is vulnerable to complaints that it is an electronic intrusion, making us universally available anytime a person is within reach of a keyboard. But prop­erly used, it is a feature, not a problem.

Lawyers are in the communication business. No tool this powerful should be lightly discarded.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa.

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