The last days of e-mail

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E-mail has peaked and is in decline. That’s the clear message coming through in a wave of recent articles (in both the mainstream and business press) about e-mail bombardment and overload. If spam (and spam filters) don’t finish off e-mail’s usefulness, legitimate users’ misuse of e-mail will.

We’re approaching the 15th anniversary of e-mail’s widespread acceptance among lawyers, but it’s starting to look like there might not be a 20th. E-mail’s breakthrough advantage — anyone can send one to any number of people on any subject at any time of the day, for free — has become its drawback. E-mail is extremely easy to create and free to distribute, and accordingly, it’s now used for virtually everything: it’s the communication vehicle sans frontieres. We’re at (if not past) the saturation point with e-mail. Just in the last few days, the blawgosphere has produced these posts:

– Dennis Kennedy listed his technology trends for 2008, including the possible death throes of e-mail. He notes that e-mail is floundering because it has grown from its original purpose of communicating electronically into a de facto work flow system.

– Lexis-Nexis published a survey indicating that lawyers are overwhelmed with information, including an average of 36 work e-mails a day (and sometimes more than 50). LN thinks integrated work systems are the solution (coincidentally, they happen to have a few on hand).

– Susan Cartier Liebel noted a growing controversy about out-of-office autoreply messages that state the lawyer will only respond to e-mails during certain hours of the day. (Check this article in National‘s Addendum e-newsletter for more on designing autoreplies.)

These articles suggest some ways to reduce the volume of e-mail, and here are some more. But the forward-looking lawyer might want to start thinking now about what will replace e-mail down the road.

Here’s one way of looking at it: imagine your office lost all its e-mail functionality for good, both server- and web-based. What would you do? How could you get your work done? (I’ve seen what happens in our workplace whenever the e-mail system crashes: operation shutdown.) This might be a good time to develop some answers. Consider how you might communicate, in a post-e-mail world, to these people and in these situations:

1. Clients. Frankly, very little correspondence of any substance should take place between you and your client over standard e-mail systems anyway. But since neither lawyers nor clients have so far rushed to acquire e-mail encryption systems, sensitive data still goes out via this unprotected medium.

In the absence of either kind of e-mail, set up an extranet for each client: a secure, private website where the client can access all her information and get status updates on her file 24/7. Add an RSS feed to the extranet, so that the client can be notified through a feedreader whenever anything new is added. If you need to ask your client a question, here’s a novel idea: call her.

2. Colleagues. I’ll admit I’m as gulty of this as anyone, but one of the worst abuses of workplace e-mail is to use it to ask a question of someone who’s down the hall, or even in the office right next door. As Homer Simpson asked The Who: “Something wrong with your legs?” So far as I know, law offices still have phones and voicemail to help you ask questions of colleagues a floor or two away.

3. Cooperation. Many people use multiple e-mails to set up meeting times or trade working drafts of a document back and forth. Take a closer look at what Google can offer: Google Calendar allows you to thrash out suitable meeting times and dates online without any e-traffic, while Google Docs is the best collaborative writing application out there.

And if you want to circulate an item to several people, set up an office intranet for a given file or matter — you’ll also be reducing server costs, since that 3-megabyte PDF file won’t be sitting in a dozen people’s Deleted Items directories for time immemorial. Centralize your planning processes on the web, rather than putting up with inefficient decentralized e-mail collaboration.

4. Information. There’s really no excuse to be receiving information updates — newsletters, bulletins, press releases, etc. — by e-mail anymore. RSS is all but ubiquitous among media outlets and information providers, and feedreaders like Bloglines, Feedburner and Google Reader are easy to use and free. Move your info e-mails to RSS and never be interrupted by someone’s case law update again.

Here’s an exercise you might want to consider at your workplace: at the end of a given day, go back through all your e-mails (sent and received) and mark the ones whose function couldn’t have been accomplished by a visit, phone call, intranet, extranet or free web-based software application. I’ll wager they’ll constitute a very small minority of the total. Use that data to start a discussion among all your professionals (lawyers and staff) about alternatives to e-mail and about rethinking the automatic use of e-mail for virtually all communication needs.

Basically, e-mail should only be used when it’s the most efficient and effective means of communicating — the same standard that applies to all other communications vehicles. It will be difficult to adjust an office culture so thoroughly steeped in the default e-mail approach. That’s why starting the process now will give you a leg up on everyone else.

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5 Responses to “The last days of e-mail”

  1. Stephanie Kimbro

    “In the absence of either kind of e-mail, set up an extranet for each client: a secure, private website where the client can access all her information and get status updates on her file 24/7.”

    I completely agree. Email is typically not encrypted and therefore not the safest method of communicating with clients. Each of my clients has their own secure homepage from my virtual law office where we may communicate, upload and download documents, handle billing, etc. all online but in a secure environment.

    You wouldn’t conduct online banking through email so why expect clients to transfer sensitive legal matters that way? Clients expect something more from their attorneys than email when it comes to security. The tech and security are available; it’s just up to attorneys to embrace the change.

  2. Andrew

    While I admit I’d like to see the end of spam as much as anyone, I think the rumours of email’s impending death are somewhat exaggerated. I think perhaps certain technologies which implement email – SMTP, POP3 and the like – are nearing the end of their functional lives, but email (or more correctly, email-like) communication is still around and is likely to be so for some time to come.

    As far as I’m concerned, however, the most important and interesting elements of this post and the comments that followed it are the references to privacy, security and encryption. It’s very true that standard email tools generally do not encrypt the message before sending it; but the capability to do so, cheaply, has been around for years, ever since Phil Zimmerman publicly released PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and gave the world free public key encryption and (incidentally) it’s first T-shirt classified as a munition under US export law.

    The reason the majority of email is still not encrypted is because it requires some effort on the part of both the sender and receiver to implement. (As an aside, routinely encrypting all your email communications would be a wonderful way of filtering out spam, because anyone who sent you something which was not encrypted is probably not someone you wanted to hear from in the first place…) It does not require a degree in computer science, but it does require you to know how to use the tools properly – and by far the vast majority of people would much prefer to hit send and move on.

    This is much less of a problem in a modern web browser, because the encryption systems are already built into the browser, so when you connect to a secure site (like your online banking system), the browser handles all the encryption for you. All you (the end user) need to know if your identity and password or passphrase. The same is true for any other secure type of application, including the secured extranets Jordan mentions in point 1 of his post.

    The differences here are not ones to do with technology; they’re to do with people, and more specifically with social inertia. The reason people don’t use encryption in email is mostly because it requires effort on their part to do so; they use it in most other aspects of their on-line lives because (to borrow a phrase from my educational pantheon) it’s “transparent to the user”. So moving the online legal microcosm away from email will require not just the members of the legal profession, but also their clients, to modify a social behaviour which has become entrenched over the last 20 to 30 years.

    How long it will take to do that is anyone’s guess, but it’s unlikely to be a short or simple process. Will your large corporate clients do it quickly? Of course, because it’s in their best interests to do so, and because they have IT staffs to handle it for them. Private individuals will follow only if you and the computing industry can make it simple, painless, cheap and above all else effective for them to do so.

    I’m curious – not that I expect an answer through this medium – but how many of the people reading this blog routinely encrypt their personal or professional communications over email?

  3. Ingrum

    There are new e-mail encryption services available these days that take away the frustration and complexity of previous technologies while still allowing users to have complete control over their messages and without interrupting their workflow.

    One example is the Voltage Security Network (http://vsn.voltage.com)

    This solution does offer a transparent solution in the form of a plug-in for encryption and decryption.

  4. bananasfk

    Thats a very ‘myspace’ your view of email. Not everybody is a member of a community or works in the same timezone. The fact that quite a few emailer’s are idiots and work in the same firm is not the problem that email was supposed to solve.

    No problems with email here, but then again we dont use Microsoft exchange.

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