General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Putting E-mail to Use in Your Practice

By Stuart Levine

For my bar mitzvah, I was given a two-volume anthology of various science fiction short stories and novellas. One of the novellas, Waldo, was authored by the redoubtable science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Waldo revolves around a character who has a medical infirmity that has rendered his muscles virtually useless for normal physical tasks. He overcomes his handicap by designing tools, and even a weightless environment, where muscular strength is irrelevant. Waldo, the character, was clearly intended by Heinlein to be symbolic of an advanced stage of biological evolution, where brains more fully displaced brawn in importance.

The march of technology regularly recalls for me the central image constructed by Heinlein. This "Waldonian" trend is particularly marked in the practice of law. The personal and physical component of various types of communications, either lawyer-to-client or lawyer-to-lawyer, has greatly diminished. Thus, the fax machine has virtually replaced the physical delivery of stationery, the telephone has reduced the number of face-to-face interactions, and telephone voice mail has reduced the number of "face-to-face" telephone interactions. E-mail represents a part of the next step in the evolution from the "touchable" physical to "cyber" physical. After all, e-mail is nothing more than the electronic transmission of virtually pure intellectual product with only a minimal involvement of physical matter.

The business of the practice of law has always combined the sale of intellectual product—the lawyer as counselor—with more tangible products—the lawyer as advocate, document drafter, etc. The focus of this article is prosaic: How can practitioners more efficiently use e-mail in their practices to increase the economic return from the sale of intellectual product, by obtaining new product more inexpensively, by using e-mail to make more sales, and by distributing their intellectual product to their clients more quickly and inexpensively. There are two obvious, and I believe, irrefutable assumptions underlying this article. First, today, one can no longer practice law effectively, efficiently or economically without the use of the Internet and e-mail. Second, the importance of these communication tools to the practice of law will grow dramatically in the next 5-10 years.

The Integration of E-Mail into Practice

In a broad sense, there are three aspects to the practice of law: (i) obtaining the legal product that one sells to clients, (ii) getting the clients to sell it to (or getting existing clients to buy more of it), and (iii) producing that product to the clients’ specifications and distributing it. Obviously, these categories overlap. Continuing legal education, for instance, can be viewed as fulfilling the function of obtaining a product and, at the same time, being a part of the production process, aimed at producing the best product for the client in a specific case. Similarly, we all know that effective production and distribution of legal product to clients is the best way of getting clients to purchase more product, either themselves or through referrals.

E-mail, used properly, ties into all three of these goals. It can be used to obtain the cheapest and yet most current continuing legal education available today. Either used directly or used in conjunction with a Website, e-mail can be a powerful, but inexpensive, marketing tool, with a lot of bang for very little buck. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, e-mail can be used to rapidly deliver the attorney’s product to the client, but in a way that tends to cement the relationship between client and counsel.

Before proceeding further, however, stop and look at the last subtitle—"The Integration of E-Mail Into Practice." The best and most successful lawyers have always known that CLE, marketing, and the production and delivery of legal work are all a part of a virtual seamless whole. The relationship of the use of e-mail to these aspects of practice is no different. It is a tool that has to be integrated and used on a regular basis, day-in and day-out.

For instance, the first thing that I do as part of my morning ritual after arriving at the office is to download my e-mails. Since I receive, on average, about 100 e-mails a day, I clearly do not read all of them. But I do have a fairly good idea of those e-mails that require immediate attention. When such e-mails arrive, I take appropriate action with respect to them, whether it is replying directly to the correspondents who sent those e-mails or giving my secretary a memo to take appropriate action. When I’m in the office the entire day, I try to check my incoming e-mails at least once more in the afternoon and then again before I leave for the evening. Each time, I try to respond immediately whenever possible.

The integration of the use of e-mail into one’s practice begins with the mundane. No one would think about getting basic information about a new contact, be it a new client, an attorney on the opposite side of a case, or a related professional such as an accountant, without getting his or her telephone and fax number. In the same way, one should now ask for the individual’s e-mail address. The flip side of this practice is to always list your own e-mail address on your stationery and business cards.

Next, follow a rule that I have up to now violated: Be the master of your own domain. Let me explain for the uninitiated.

My e-mail address is sltax@flash.net. The information to the right of the "@" symbol is the portion of the address that routs an e-mail to my Internet service provider (ISP). The portion to the left identifies me as the recipient within the domain. By registering with Internic, the organization that regulates and doles out domain names, I could have my own unique domain name. I could then, usually for a small additional fee, use my domain name with virtually any ISP. Why would you want to have your own domain name?

First, all individuals in your firm could have the same domain name that is unique to the firm—sort of the Internet equivalent of a monogram or brand name. Incidentally, the current trend in picking and choosing the left-side identification is definitely skewed toward the bland. The "sltax" in my address, which refers not only to my name, but my area of concentration, is not in vogue, with most individual identifiers now running to such bland monikers as "jsmith" or "slevine."

Second, having a domain name is somehow more businesslike and gives your firm an aura of stability and permanence. Let your teenager at home use free e-mail with a generic domain name.

The third reason to have a domain is the most important of all, however. The Internet, as an industry, is still in its infancy. ISPs are constantly struggling to gain market share. Consequently, there is a good deal of price slashing and ISPs offer numerous low-price deals. In this competitive environment, however, there will almost certainly be ISPs that fail to deliver adequate service. For instance, although the infamous bottleneck at America On Line (AOL) is well known, similar bottlenecks have affected almost all ISPs from time to time. It is furthermore inherent in the nature of this fierce competition that some ISPs will, sooner or later, fail. Anyone who has moved his or her office or changed a business telephone number knows how annoying and disruptive change can be, with other attorneys, clients, and other contacts not properly noting the change. If, however, you own your own domain name, you can change ISPs virtually seamlessly, receiving all of your e-mail with only minimal disruption.

One caveat here: You cannot have a separate domain name with either AOL or with most of the free e-mail providers. Thus, these methods of obtaining e-mail work only so long as you are content to live with their inherent limitations and don’t anticipate any future need to change your ISP.

Finally, do not rely on Netscape Navigator or Communicator or Microsoft’s Explorer to be the principal software that you use to manage your e-mail—they’re just not up to the task. All of them, of course, have e-mail capabilities that are significantly improved over early versions of these software packages. However, they lack even the moderately complex bells and whistles (e.g., distribution lists, sophisticated filtering capability, and easy to use address books) that enable one to effectively use e-mail in a business context. For this purpose, you should acquire software that is specifically designed to manage e-mail, such as Outlook, Eudora Pro, Pegasus, or similar programs. These programs are not terribly expensive, usually under $50. In fact, one of the best, Pegasus, is free. It’s available for download at various sites over the Internet. Just go to http://www.pegasus. usa.com.

In this regard, you should note that AOL does not deliver its e-mail using the so-called "POP3" protocol. This protocol allows the use of these various e-mail programs. Although AOL has promised to have a POP3 compliant program, the fact that it does not currently have this capability further diminishes its acceptability as a choice for business use.

CLE Every Day

E-mail would be a bargain if all that it offered was the ability to get the steady stream of CLE every day through the use of list servers. The concept behind a list server is simple. A subscriber to the list server submits a question or comment and that question or comment is distributed to all of the other subscribers. This begins a process of dialogue, with other subscribers making comments or offering suggestions, etc.

There are well over 1,000 list servers specifically dedicated to legal topics, the vast majority of which are free. Even a cursory review of the broad variety of topic areas leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is a list server for every lawyer. There are a number of Websites that catalogue the list servers available, offering "lists of lists" with respect to legal topic areas. The more inclusive of these Websites are:

Law List (Searchable)—http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists

Law List (Alphabetical)—http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/lawlists.txt

Washburn University School of Law—http://lawlib.wuacc.edu/washlaw/List Serve.html

ListTool— http://www.lawguru.com/subscribe/listtool.html

Tile.net—http://tile.net/

Anyone who follows an active list server in his or her practice area will soon become conversant with the current issues in the field. Every day, one can observe and participate in professional discussions, most of which are conducted at a fairly high level of sophistication. One should be aware, however, that the biggest problem posed by some list servers is that the volume of participation is overwhelming. Consequently, thoroughly monitoring the discussions becomes a practical impossibility. By way of example, in the four-month period between June 13, 1998, and September 14, 1998, the ABA Estate Planner’s and Administrator’s list server had in excess of 2,500 submissions. That’s just slightly less than 27 submissions each and every day, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays included. Just to review that many submissions is time-consuming. If you want to go further and participate in the discussions by also submitting comments and questions, you virtually have to put your practice on hold.

Obviously, the key to dealing with heavy traffic list servers is to focus on reviewing only those "threads" (discussion topics) that are of special interest. Moreover, make certain that you are using an e-mail program that allows you to filter the submissions from each list server to which you subscribe into a separate folder. If you don’t, the clutter will gradually reduce your practical ability to use e-mail to zero.

Finally, there are list servers that do not invite active participation from subscribers. For instance, I am a subscriber to two list servers that distribute summaries of every case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, usually on the same day that the opinion is handed down, and a similar service that provides summaries of the opinions of the Maryland appellate courts. Clearly, I do not read all of the summaries, much less all of the full opinions, which, in most cases, can be obtained through Websites. However, merely by reviewing selected summaries in those topic areas that most interest me, I gain a fuller perspective on those fields that I practice in. The value of these list servers was underscored for me just this past spring.

In June, on a Friday, I argued a case before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court in the state. On the following Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that touched upon one of the issues in my case. I probably received the e-mail containing the case summary by Tuesday morning. I did not read it, however, until Wednesday morning.

I immediately went to the Cornell Law School Website (http:// supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/) and downloaded a copy of the opinion. By Wednesday evening, I was able to contact my client in Delaware, my cocounsel in New York, and I had submitted to them a draft of a supplemental memorandum discussing the new Supreme Court case and its applicability to our case. That memorandum was revised and was then filed on Thursday. Needless to say, the process was a hit with my client (and I won the case).

E-Mail as a Marketing Tool

Perhaps the hottest buzzword in the practice of law today is marketing. E-mail is the perfect marketing tool—it’s cheap, it can be used regularly, and it can be focused on the relevant market. Of course, the effectiveness of e-mail as a marketing tool is dependent on two factors, namely, the extent to which the client or referral base that you are attempting to attract has access to e-mail and actually uses it, and the extent to which you have built up a book of e-mail addresses.

Obviously, one must first identify the primary sources of one’s client or referral base. The types of referral sources will differ with every type of practice. However, don’t put aside the possibility of using e-mail for marketing even if your traditional sources of business do not use or have access to e-mail. After all, the conventional wisdom concerning legal marketing is that everyone you meet is a potential source of business. Since e-mail marketing is cheap, for the price of a local call you can send a message to hundreds of individuals. Thus, you can afford to direct your marketing to people who are only remotely likely to refer you business, since getting your message to them involves little cost.

Of course, you have to have a book of e-mail addresses to send your message to. Remember, just like a garden, you have to attend to your address list to make it grow. Just as importantly, you should have not one, but many address lists so that you can tailor your message to specific groups of recipients.

But what is the message and how is it conveyed?

The message could be something that has nothing to do with the practice of law. For instance, I have a distribution list of people that I periodically send jokes to. Obviously, this list is carefully selected, with no one on the list who might take offense at my (slightly bizarre) sense of humor. It functions as a business tool, however, because I am in regular touch with people who know me and may have occasion to refer work to me. (More importantly, there is an added benefit—I tend to be the recipient of jokes from many of those on the list.)

The message could be a quick note on some recent development in the law that might be of general interest. In fact, the development need not be of "general" interest. E-mail can be sent quickly to a moderately large group (say, 25-50) merely by using the copy and paste function on the computer. By way of example, if your practice involves interaction with insurance agents, send them an e-mail message concerning a recent opinion from one of your state’s appellate courts (see the use of e-mail for CLE, above) dealing with the applicability of restrictive covenants to insurance agents. If you check the e-mail every morning, it’s likely that you can get the e-mail to your intended recipients before they find out about the case in the newspaper, underlining the fact that you’re on top of new developments in the law.

There are two ways to use e-mail to deliver information that has greater depth and is physically more attractive.

First, if you maintain a Website, use e-mail as an announcement whenever you have made an addition to the Website. Using the Website as a repository for a newsletter allows you to call attention to it (and yourself) on a regular basis. Since the e-mails cost, collectively, about 10¢, the cost of sending out, for instance, communications to 150 individuals six times a year is about 60¢. Sending out the same newsletters by mail will cost almost $500 in postage alone.

You may not have a Website. Nevertheless, you can still send attractive newsletters via e-mail by using a specific software program, Adobe Acrobat.

One can produce a very professional-looking newsletter or short essay on any type of publishing software, or even WordPerfect or Word. Adobe Acrobat allows you to take a document created using any of these other software programs and then to save it in what is known as "pdf" format. Even when saved in pdf format, however, the document has the same physical appearance as it had when it was in its original software format. Once in pdf format, the document can be transmitted via e-mail as a file attachment and read by the recipient using a program called Adobe Acrobat Reader. Adobe Acrobat Reader can be obtained for free by downloading it off of the Web. It is so widely used that many, if not most, of the members of your potential audience probably already have it installed. Thus, your recipients can print your newsletter on their own computer, with the same attractive format and appearance that you designed.

As before, the process is highly cost-effective because you have incurred no costs for printing or mailing. Moreover, once recipients get to be as habitual about reading their e-mail as they are about reading snail mail and faxes, the likelihood that they will actually read your piece is fairly great.

E-Mail as a Production Tool

I can remember that around 1995 the first fax machine appeared in the law office that I was working in at the time. I was absolutely fascinated with the pages that would seem to pour out of this miraculous device. There is no question but that people often paid close attention to the matters that the faxes dealt with, frequently giving those matters priority over other work that was being performed when the faxes came in. Within about 18 months after its initial introduction, every business had a fax machine.

The embrace of e-mail has been slower and less widespread. The reason probably has to do with the fact that, generally, nothing physical confronts you when an e-mail comes in. (Obviously, this is not true if you have a system that notifies you whenever an e-mail arrives. But, once you start using e-mail regularly and your daily e-mail receipt volume begins to exceed 25, you will likely turn off the automatic notification system so that you can do some productive work without interruption.) However, there are certain situations in which the use of e-mail is invaluable.

The first is the peripatetic client. In my case, it is a client who splits most of his time between Israel and Vermont. I know that I am always in reach if I send him an e-mail. Additionally, because we each read our e-mail at our convenience, which is to say during normal waking hours, the fact that we may be in radically different time zones is significantly mitigated.

The second situation is where written communication must be shared among a fairly large number of individuals. For instance, I am currently team teaching a seminar on business planning with five other individuals. None of us goes to every class, but we are able to communicate what is happening in the course and to present a coherent approach to the material by using e-mail to exchange information. I would note, however, that whenever privileged or confidential material is distributed via e-mail, you may want to consider the use of an encryption program. There are several, most notably PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), that are widely available at modest prices.

Third, using Adobe Acrobat, documents containing a large number of pages can be distributed far more inexpensively and quickly than is possible either using the fax machine or distributing hard copy via some sort of physical delivery. The documents will retain the same appearance and layout regardless of the original format in which they were created. Thus, in a case involving documents that have to be executed by multiple parties, the distribution of the documents can accomplished in minutes via e-mail. So long as the documents can be executed in counterparts, the transaction can be fully "papered" quickly, with no necessity of any of the participants having to leave their offices.

Incidentally, the final, executed documents can also be scanned into Adobe’s pdf format using an optical scanner. Thus, additional savings can be achieved by recording the "transaction binder" in pdf format on a CD-Rom and distributing the CD-Rom to all of the participants in the transaction instead of the traditional binder containing paper copies of the documents. In large transactions, literally thousands of dollars can be saved in photocopy and delivery expenses. For instance, each CD-Rom costs only about $15 with a mailing cost of about 55¢. The optical scanner, writeable CD-Rom and Adobe Acrobat software cost less than a $1,000 and can be used over again after the transaction is complete. Thus, not only is the cost less, but the most expensive items used in the process can be used again and again at no additional cost.

Finally, however, the most important aspect of e-mail is that it allows clients to be continually updated about how the matter they you are handling for them. One of the most frequent complaints that clients have about their lawyers is that they don’t hear from us often enough about their cases. I suspect that we tend to fail to communicate with the clients because doing the actual work is often more pressing than continually reporting back to the client about the work. Regular reporting can be somewhat time- consuming, especially if done over the telephone. E-mail reduces the effort in communicating to clients, by allowing the intellectual essence of the communication to be separated from virtually any physical activity. Waldo would certainly appreciate the process. n

 

Stuart Levine is in private practice in Baltimore.

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