The last days of e-mail

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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