Get the (Instant) Message, Dude!

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Illustration by Jim Frazier

Three different times last summer, I was standing in a line behind teenagers and saw one turn to another and say, “I wish my mom texted.” In fairness, I didn’t hear anyone wish his or her lawyer texted, but I have heard several lawyers tell me their clients want them to use instant messaging.

Studies indicate that 2 trillion (yes, trillion) instant messages were sent in 2007. There is a generational aspect to instant messaging, as anyone whose cell plan includes a teenager well knows.

However, instant messaging has become increasingly common in the business setting and among cell phone users. And the growing frustration with e-mail has led to use of messaging as an alternative.

But some law firms actually prohibit the use of instant messages. It’s time to rethink that approach because lawyers can no longer ignore the medium of messaging.

What do you need to know and how should you get started? First and foremost, treat messaging as a serious communication medium—not a fad or toy. Messaging has powerful benefits in many settings, and it addresses problems shared by both e-mail and telephone.

It’s also important to understand that messaging refers to two different categories, and that those categories can overlap:

• Text messaging or texting happens in the world of cell phones. You use your cell phone to send a short message to another cell phone.

• Instant messaging or IM uses the Internet and software programs or websites to send messages to others using the same tools (or a tool, such as Trillian or Pidgin, that acts as an interface for several tools or services). AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo and Microsoft are popular platforms for instant messaging.

Methods are also available to send text messages to instant message services and IMs to cell phones.

A key feature of messaging is that it involves very short messages. In texting, you might have a 140-character limit. In IM and internal messaging systems, you don’t see such strict character limits, but the messages are generally very short.

The key notion about messaging is availability. By taking part in the messaging world, you can often find out wheth­er someone is online and available immediately. You can get to people who can provide answers rather than wonder whether they’ve read your e-mail or listened to your voice mail.

Messaging works well when you understand this context. Here are a few examples: You can find someone’s availability and skip phone tag. Nudge about a conference call. Get fast yes/no answers. Find help for a quick project. Send notice of running late.

You get the idea. Once you try it, you’ll quickly see some of the utility.


Here’s how:

  1. Text on your cell phone, especially to family members who text. Phone texting can be a little difficult to learn; you have to use number keys to create letters. But it’s easy to find people to help you learn, and family members will be tolerant of your learning curve.

  2. Find effective uses of mes­saging for your firm. (If telephones were being introduced as a new technology today, some law firms would probably ban them.) Under­standing how people use messaging, especially in collaboration, will help make the case for it.

  3. Understand the risks and deal with them reasonably. Don’t expect to find clear ethical guidance as yet. Be aware that there are secure messaging options.

  4. Standardize to one (or a few) platforms in your firm. This approach will help you set appropriate policies.

  5. Avoid acronyms and emoticons. OMG, a lawyer can look pretty foolish trying to use acronyms like LOL and emoticons like ;-) in business messages.

  6. Finally, if you plan to do any significant amount of business texting, you should go for an unlimited text plan on your cell phone.

Messaging offers lawyers another channel for communication and col­laboration. Pretending the channel does not exist will not be a wise move. It’s time to start messaging now.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based computer lawyer and legal technology consultant. His blog can be found at his website, Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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