Tech Audit

Eek Is for E-Mail

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The legal profession has long been wedded to paper. So wedded, many older lawyers still print out their e-mail messages to read them. But even young lawyers who don’t remember the world before e-mail and before attorneys engaged in ongoing affairs with devices like the BlackBerry can have a problem with e-mail management.

According to the latest ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, a whopping 61 percent of lawyers print paper copies of their e-mail to save it. Not only does that create more paper, it also creates an irreconcilable mess of paper and electronic records.

“Every time I see someone printing an e-mail I get a twitch,” says Debbie Foster, president of InTouch Legal, a technology consulting firm in Largo, Fla. “People say, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ but there’s no good reason why you should ever print an e-mail to save it.”

When the Carlyle Appellate Law Firm in The Villages, Fla., moved into a new office building, it decided to update its e-mail systems. Shannon McLin Carlyle says that until recently, she used her AOL e-mail as a work e-mail, which was a limited application that didn’t convey a professional image. Carlyle has invested several thousand dollars in a Microsoft Exchange server and now has e-mail folders for every matter the firm works on. All messages are electronically backed up over the Web to offsite storage and to disks kept in a fireproof safe.

With e-mail server software, firms can manage and share e-mails instead of having thousands spread out on different computers. Attorneys can have public folders others can access, and they can update everyone’s calendar from their e-mail. But “to let go of paper,” Carlyle says, “you have to be confident that if your computer dies, you can recover all your communications and work.”

Volume Control

A more pressing problem for lawyers is the sheer volume of e-mail. In the Sarbanes Oxley world, lawyers need documentation and preservation for each matter. Many firms tie e-mail and document management systems together, so e-mails are automatically categorized anytime a user responds, forwards or otherwise works with a message. But it’s not always easy to get lawyers to recognize e-mail as a record, so firms need to train staff on how and why to use such a system. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t take e-mail as seriously as they do business letters,” says Nancy Grekin, a real estate and tax attorney in Honolulu.

Also, more lawyers need to know how to use e-mail rules that are part of most e-mail programs. These simple rules can file messages to different folders based on who sent them, subject matter and other factors. And when she is done with an issue, Grekin immediately saves all her e-mails on a disk.

But failing to use e-mail folders or document management systems to store messages is not the only issue. Many people also write unnecessary e-mails, compounding the problems. Grekin says it’s not simply a matter of putting technology in place, but getting lawyers to be more thoughtful about how they use it.

“You can’t just send every e-mail to everyone involved in a deal or people get swamped,” says Grekin. “People across the hall will send me an e-mail and I’ll go over and ask them, ‘Why didn’t you just talk to me?’ ” She tries to keep to a three-paragraph rule, making a point to call instead if an e-mail gets too long.

According to the legal technology survey, lawyers increasingly are doing most of their work in e-mail. Nearly 80 percent use e-mail as their collaboration tool for documents and communication with clients. But until they give up on paper and trust electronic backup, e-mail will be an unmanageable way to work.

“E-mail is the way we get work done,” says Carlyle, “but what [my firm] used to have before was such a mess, I don’t know how we kept it together.”

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