Technology - Property

Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Instant Messaging for Lawyers

Most business professionals are familiar with the World Wide Web and e-mail and so are accustomed to the speed with which communication can take place today. Far fewer have considered using instant messaging technologies (also known as “chat”) in their practices. Instant messaging can have its pitfalls, but it also has benefits for lawyers.

Instant Messaging Short Course

There are four principal text-based instant messaging software applications and one video application in general use today. Other video conferencing programs are available, but the current versions are neither freely available nor in use for professional purposes. As a rule, the software is available free of charge, although many times advertisements are displayed as the software is being used. The applications are ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger and, for video, Microsoft NetMeeting. Determining whether any of these applications might be appropriate for the modern lawyer’s communication arsenal requires knowing how they work.

In general, instant messaging programs work by connecting two users through a server, allowing them to type messages to one another in close to real time. Some applications allow users to see what the other user is typing as it is typed. Others do not, allowing instead for transmission once the message is complete. This is the basic idea of instant messaging: one person sending another a message which the other receives immediately, instead of waiting for it to work its way through the Internet’s e-mail system and into the recipient’s e-mail in-box.

The programs generally allow users to see whether other users are on-line through the use of user lists assembled by the users. Users on-line either move to the top of the list or are highlighted in some way. When two users are on-line, they can exchange instant messages. Depending on which application is in use, a user has options to indicate that he or she is busy or not available—or to “hide” so that other users cannot see the person is on-line and conversing with selected users.

Many of the applications allow users to exchange documents or files as well, again in real time while they are chatting. This provides an alternative means of transmitting data and documents, useful when e-mail is proving unreliable or inefficient for technical reasons.

Finally, depending on the application, these programs may either incorporate audio abilities or integrate third-party audio software capabilities available from within the program. Of course, the participating computers must be equipped with the necessary sound card, speakers and microphone.

Before discussing whether these technologies have anything to add to law office practice, we will look at the various technologies and compare their operation and functions.


One of the oldest instant messaging applications available, ICQ allows users to directly connect to other users who are on their user lists, sending messages and files while in a conversation. ICQ is one of the most popular instant messaging technologies and is in wide use throughout the world. A measure of its popularity is the growing trend in the business world to include an ICQ number on a business card.

In addition to allowing for creating and easily managing a list of users, ICQ is highly configurable, allowing users to pick whether, and if so which, sounds to play when receiving messages, when users go on- and off-line, and when other events occur during the program’s use. Other options are a simple message mode, where a message appears and then disappears when the recipient clicks “reply” to type an answer, or a window where the conversation appears and remains.

ICQ allows the exchange of files and documents and also provides powerful integration of other Internet communication technologies (such as video and audio). It also allows users to send messages to other users who are not on-line or who do not appear to be on-line. The messages are delivered to the users when they are again on-line. ICQ is available free of charge but has recently added some relatively annoying (and nonremovable) advertising to the message windows. The software is available through the ICQ web site at

AOL Instant Messenger

AOL Instant Messenger is one of the strongest competitors in the instant messaging market. As with ICQ, AOL IM allows users to compile lists of users they would want to chat with, although, rather than a list of “users,” IM uses the term “buddy list.” Terminology such as this, and a design that is more informal than that of ICQ, has made the application popular with teens and casual chatters but less attractive to professionals.

Although ICQ uses numbers as the primary identifier of users (with the user being able to choose any name he or she wishes to appear on the lists of others), IM requires that users choose a unique “chat name.” Having an e-mail address of “” might be okay, but chatting with the name “elaw” might be less desirable. In addition, the ability to choose which (if any) users see you are on-line is limited in IM and more difficult to configure in general. IM allows exchange of files and includes a built-in audio component. IM does not allow sending of off-line messages. AOL IM can be downloaded from com/aim/home.html.

Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger is similar to AOL IM, with an informal design
and the use of chat names. In contrast to IM, Yahoo allows for easy configuration of on-line status. There is an option in the Yahoo setup that allows a user to sign on as “invisible” each time. Thus the user can see who else from his or her list is on-line before going “public.” It also allows file ex-change and includes a built-in audio ability. Yahoo users can send messages to users who are not currently on-line. Yahoo Messenger can be downloaded through Yahoo’s home page, at

MSN Messenger

There are no substantial differences in the way Microsoft’s text messenger product operates compared to the others. Again it is primarily an informal program, uses a chat name to identify users and includes the ability to transfer files or have conversations over the Net using an included audio feature. The ability to block users from seeing that another user is on-line is easily configured. If a Microsoft user attempts to send a message to a user who is not on-line, the program asks the user if he would like to send an e-mail message instead. Microsoft Network Messenger is available on Microsoft’s Web site,

Note: In addition to being available on each of the developing company’s web sites as listed above, instant messaging pro-grams are also available on-line at Tucows, a freeware and shareware Web site found at After the user indicates an operating system and state, the Tucows web page will refer the user to a Tucows site near the user, from which the user can download all the current versions of the instant messaging software programs.

Practical—and Efficient—Use of Instant Messaging

You may ask, “Why would I want to use a text based messaging system when I have a telephone?” A related question is whether instant messaging technology is simply a fun toy to meet people from around the world or holds promise for efficiently increasing communication between lawyers and their clients.

Assume a lawyer is working with a client on securing financing for a new industrial development project. At one point in drawing up the paperwork, the lawyer has a question for the client. The lawyer typically has several choices at this point: pick up the phone and call the client or send an e-mail message, fax or letter, depending on the time frame. Suppose the lawyer and client have agreed to also use instant messaging software. Instead of looking up a number, dialing and finding out that the client is at lunch or otherwise away, the lawyer checks ICQ, notes that the client is on-line and sends an instant message. The client responds that he is on the phone but can talk anyway, and the needed information is provided.

So long as there is an understanding and expectation between lawyer and client as to the expected use of ICQ, and a further understanding that ICQ communication is as billable as any other time the lawyer spends working on the client’s matters, the instant messaging technology should provide the lawyer and client with one more way to keep the lines of communication open.

Video Messages: Microsoft NetMeeting

The principal software currently available for sending and receiving audio and video over the Internet is Microsoft’s NetMeeting. This software allows users who have a sound card, speakers, a microphone and a computer-connected video camera to connect to each other and speak in nearly real time, with some delay caused by the Internet. NetMeeting users can conduct text conversations, exchange documents and open a “white board” on which any participant to the meeting can write. This allows for the sharing of information in ways that text-based messaging programs do not. Being able to see the person to whom you are speaking adds an additional layer of comfort to the process and may allow a lawyer to avoid the need to leave the office to talk to an important client about a matter that may be handled with a quick conversation over the Internet.

Messaging, Video, and Computer Security

Many lawyers and firms that have their own direct connections to the Internet also have “firewalls” in place to control and prevent unauthorized access to law firm files and resources. In such cases, it may be necessary to work with the computer resources department or consultant used by the firm to ensure that the messaging system you wish to use will function correctly on your system. Both NetMeeting and ICQ often require firewall configuration before they will work properly.

The Dangers and Promise of Instant Messaging

In the business setting it is important to disable application options that allow persons unknown to the lawyer to start a conversation or send a message. The disabling option is fairly straightforward for each of the applications mentioned above. Otherwise, a lawyer could quickly become bogged down in lengthy discussions of only minimal value to the practice or work being undertaken. Determining the appropriate use of such technologies and remaining steadfast in requiring professional use only can allow a lawyer to benefit from the advantages these technologies offer while gaining efficiency in overall client communication.

Wrapping Up

Some people in the business world consider instant messaging and Internet video to be mere toys, but they probably resisted the use of e-mail, too. Technology is providing ways to communicate that may make both the large firm and solo practitioner more efficient and their lives less frantic. Keeping in mind the need to ensure professionalism in their use (for this purpose ICQ best fits the text chat bill, with NetMeeting being most appropriate for video), these technologies can bring clients closer to their lawyers without the need for office visits and outside appointments on minor matters.

Technology—Property Editor: Robert A. Heverly, Albany Law School, 80 New Scotland Ave., Albany, NY 12208,

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