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SECRETS OF THE E-MAIL VIRTUOSOS
by Kenneth E. Johnson

#1: Use it

Quite obvious, but important. The use of e-mail is growing along with the Internet. It is a way of communicating within the firm, with colleagues, and with those out on the >Net. Also,

  • Ever more clients are demanding that their lawyers be accessible through e-mail. Offering e-mail connectivity is an important marketing strength that can help get you clients.
  • It’s a fast way to deliver information. E-mail is much quicker than overnight delivery or Asnail mail@ (mail delivered by the post office). Messages can be delivered across the globe in a few seconds to a few hours.
  • It=s virtually free. There is rarely any incremental cost for e-mail if you already use the Internet. Typically the cost is included in your normal Internet or online service monthly fees. Even if you pay by the minute for Internet access, the only charge associated with e-mail is the small amount of connection time to send and receive messages.
  • E-mail saves money by reducing other costs. E-mail can cut down on phone charges, since many long distance calls can be replaced with mail messages. By attaching documents to e-mail, you also reduce on the number of faxes sent, and use of air courier services. Distributing firm publications like newsletters via e-mail saves on postage.
  • You can send messages to many people at once. E-mail allows for multiple recipients, as well as multiple carbon copies (CC) and blind carbons (BCC). This makes it easy not only to send individual messages, but also to deliver via e-mail firm newsletters, announcements, and other administrative items.
  • Messages can be saved in folders and searched electronically. Your e-mail can be categorized and searched later, becoming an information repository. Text from messages can be pasted into documents, or saved into a firm database.
  • E-mail extends your deadlines. Say you need to have something at the client=s office first thing Monday morning. By using e-mail, you could send it late Sunday evening (or even early Monday morning), and it will be waiting for the client when they check their mail in the morning.

#2: But, Remember the Weaknesses

E-mail is great, but there are some shortcomings:

  • Not everyone has e-mail. Although this is changing, don=t assume that everyone you need to communicate with has an e-mail address.
  • Messages can be delayed by computer problems on the Internet. A message can get delayed if a computer on the Internet transporting it has problems. If the recipient=s mail server (the computer that stores their e-mail) is down, there is no way they can receive their messages. However, the Internet network keeps trying to deliver messages. Eventually most mail goes through.
  • Messages aren=t really Areceived@ until the recipient checks their e-mail. A message can sit on someone=s mail server for any length of time; until they check their mail and transfer that message to their e-mail program for reading, they won=t know it is there.
  • E-mail isn=t private. Don=t assume only the recipient of the message can read it. If security is a concern, messages can be encrypted so that only the recipient can Adecode@ and read them. More on this later.

The advantages of e-mail clearly outweigh the disadvantages, though you need to keep the latter points in mind as you send and receive messages.

#3: Use a Signature (wisely)

A signature is a way of automatically appending additional text to the end of each mail message you send. It saves you from having constantly to retype information, such as your address. Signature text is kept either within the mail program, or in a separate file you specify in the mail program=s options.

Signature lines are used for giving additional contact information, such as your firm name, street address, phone, fax, and Web site. It can also contain disclaimers, for example saying that the message doesn=t constitute legal advice, or noting that the comments reflect your opinion and not necessarily those of your firm.

  • The signature should restate your name and e-mail address. Sometimes your name and e-mail address might not display to the recipient, particularly if the message has been forwarded or the message is from a mailing list. If someone wants to contact you directly, they can get your address from the signature text.
  • Keep it short. In general, keep the number of signature lines less than four or five lines. Longer signatures increase the size of the message, meaning a longer transfer time.
  • Don=t use a signature for advertising. Overt advertising is frowned upon e-mail messages, particularly when attached (like a signature is) to every piece of mail you send, regardless if the Aadvertising@ is relevant.

#4: Use BCC

BCC means Blind Carbon Copy. Addresses that are BCC=ed get the message, but their address is not shown to the TO and CC recipients. BCC recipients see the TO and CC addresses, but not other BCC addresses.

The BCC option can enforce privacy. If you are sending a message to a group of clients, it is inappropriate (and may be a breach of confidentiality) to show all the client names in the TO field C since every client who receives the mail message will see all the other clients. Instead, address the message to yourself, and put each of the client addresses in the BCC field. Each recipient will see only your name and their name when they receive the message.

Apart from the privacy issues, using BCC can be a considerate gesture to your recipients if you are sending the message to many people. Remember the TO and CC=ed recipients see all the other TO and CC addresses. It=s frustrating to receive a short e-mail message preceded by pages of e-mail addresses! For a large distribution, put everyone in the BCC field so the message will be smaller and easier to read.

#5: Quote Diligently

Mail programs allow you to include the text of the original message in your reply. This is called quoting, and provides a context for your response C recipients know what you are responding to. Quoted text generally appears with greater than A>@ sign in front of each line, though you can sometimes change this character or include additional formatting such as italics (such as in Netscape Messenger).

One nice feature of quoting is that you can intermix your reply with the quoted text, enabling you to respond to each item in the original message at the proper point.

  • It=s not necessary to quote the entire message. Cut down the quoted text to just enough to provide a context for your answers. Messages threads can become a nightmare if everyone always quotes the entire message.
  • But, quote enough. Don=t cut out quoting completely just to make small and concise replies. No one likes getting a reply that says something like, AYes.@ Yes to what? Include enough to make sense of what you are saying.
  • <snip> quoted text. If you delete in the middle of a quoted block, include <snip> or [....] to indicate that some original text was removed.
  • Don=t edit quoted text C don=t change someone else=s words.

#6: Filter

Filters are rules on how to handle incoming messages. Typically filtering is used to direct messages to certain folders or mailboxes automatically. It helps you organize by putting messages in their proper place, and keeps you from missing important messages amid the unimportant ones in your Inbox. Good candidates for filtering are:

  • Mailing list messages. Use filters to put all the messages from each of the mailing lists you subscribe to in a separate folder. This not only makes it easier to follow threads, but also keeps your Inbox more manageable C particularly if you subscribe to several mailing lists that generate lots of messages each day.
  • Spam. Spam is unsolicited, Ajunk@ e-mail, named after the Monty Python episode where everyone kept singing ASpam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam.@ Spam is the curse of e-mail users, because it floods your mailbox and costs you time (and perhaps money) to download. With filters you can send the messages directly to the Trash, or better yet to a Spam folder where you can examine them later C just in case a legitimate message meets the filtering criteria. Some ways to filter:
  • If you get spam from a particular domain, such as cyberpromo.com, filter on that domain name.
  • Filter on $$$ or !!! in the subject line.
  • Since many spam messages contain bogus instructions for getting off mailings, you could filter on Aif you wish to be removed.@
  • Filter out any messages not specifically addressed to you. Most spammers don=t send directly to your address, but rather use a list address to distribute the mail.

#7: Avoid Flames and Flame Wars

A Aflame@ is a verbal attack in e-mail form, a critical and disparaging message intended to provoke anger in the recipient. Flames are common in newsgroups and some mailing lists. If you get Aflamed@ and respond in kind, this starts a flame war. Angry and insulting messages fly back and forth, the participants forget what started the whole thing but continue with the attacks, and eventually one person wears out and doesn=t continue to respond. The best way to win a flame war is never to play in the first place.

There are several ways to get yourself flamed:

  • SEND MESSAGES IN ALL CAPS. You=re shouting.
  • Criticize someone=s spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Focus on the content of the message, not it=s form.
  • Send messages that are blatant advertising. Or include advertising Acopy@ in your signature line.
  • Request help on something but don=t give enough information for someone actually to help you. A message like AMy WordPerfect doesn=t work@ doesn=t say not only what the specific problem is, but also what version of WordPerfect are you talking about (5.1, 5.2, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0, 8.0?; DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Macintosh, Unix?).
  • Ask for information that is easily available elsewhere. A great example of this is a message to a mailing list asking how to unsubscribe. This information is sent to you when you first subscribe, and is also available with a help request from the mailing list software.

#8: Take Advantage of Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are e-mail discussion groups. When someone on the list sends a message (called a posting), everyone on the list gets it. When you reply to a message, everyone on the list gets that. Everyone sees what everyone writes. You get a lot of topics, and a lot of different opinions on those topics. The technical side of mailing lists C forwarding each individual message to many addresses C is automated by a mailing list program.

There are many legal-related mailing lists, and they=re easy to find. The mother load of mailing list information is the ALaw List@ maintained by Lyonette Louis-Jacques at the University of Chicago Law School, and available on the Web. For general information on the Law List, point your browser at:

http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/info.html

To search for a mailing list by keyword, see:

http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists

# 9: Follow Mailing List Netiquette

Mailing lists have developed their own specialized Netiquette, basic guidelines of what to do and not do:

  • Use the right address. Mailing lists have two addresses: an administrative address which handles the subscription matters (e.g., subscribe, unsubscribe, help), and a distribution address where all mail is sent. Make sure you send messages to the right place. Nothing upsets mailing list subscribers more than repeated unsubscribe messages sent to the distribution address, which of course cannot process them.
  • Get a feel of the list first. After you subscribe, start reading messages but wait a few days before you send a message. This allows you to get a feeling for the tone and flow of the list, get familiar with the people who do the postings, and see what topics people are interested in (or tired of).
  • Make sure the message is appropriate. Your message should be relevant to the topic of the list. Don=t ask a detailed Intellectual Property question to a list on Immigration law.
  • Watch your reply. Most list messages will go back to the list when you hit the Areply@ button, but in some systems it goes directly to the author (and not the list). Make sure the reply is going where you intend.
  • Personal messages should go to the individual, not the list. If you are sending a personal message to the author of the message, and one that isn=t appropriate for everyone on the list to see, make sure to put the author=s address in the TO field and take out the list address. Even if your message is not Apersonal@ personal, some things simply don=t have to be sent to everyone.
  • Get author=s permission before posting. If you are posting a personal message you=ve received to a mailing list, get permission from the original author. Give proper attribution, even if you shorten the message or otherwise quote only the relevant parts.
  • No ads. The vast majority of mailing lists prohibit (explicitly or implicitly) the posting of advertisement messages. Nothing will get you flamed faster.
  • Don=t take the bait. Some messages are sent for no other reason than to generate controversy and possibly (hopefully?) start a flame war. In the legal technology area, the two top subjects for getting into arguments are Macintosh versus Windows and Word versus WordPerfect. Don=t get suckered in to responding.
  • Don=t send long messages if the information in available in another place. If a significant court opinion is released on the Web, it makes little sense to copy the text into a mail message and send it to everyone on the list. Instead, simply send the URL of the Web site in the message. Most of the current e-mail software will recognize a URL in the message and convert it into a true hypertext link. Click with the mouse, and the mail program launches your Web browser and takes you to that site.
  • Don=t send attachments. Rarely, if ever, does everyone on the list need to receive a file from you. It only makes them angry they have to wait to download a file that they have absolutely no interest in. It also clogs up their hard drive, and possibly increased their virus risk.

#10: Be Concerned about Security

Internet e-mail is not secure. Your messages are readily available to the network systems administrator at your firm and/or your Internet Service Provider. The channels over which the messages travel are not physically secure; snoopers can listen in. The only way to secure your e-mail is to encrypt it, so only the recipient can decode and read it.

Two standards for e-mail security are PGP, Pretty Good Privacy, and Digital Certificates. PGP, from Network Associates, is available for most popular Internet e-mail programs. Some mail programs, like Netscape Messenger and Microsoft Outlook Express, come with support for digital certificates and digital signatures.

However, we often obsess about e-mail security out on the Internet, and overlook other, equally important aspects of security:

  • E-mail is most likely to be compromised from your desk, including e-mail printouts being taken (or read) from a printer. Don't print confidential messages on a printer that you can't be standing in front of when the paper comes out. Don't leave your computer on and e-mail active when away from your desk for any length of time, and certainly not overnight. Not only could someone read your mail, but they could also send appropriate messages from your mail account.
  • Watch your password. Don't save your password in your e-mail program or Internet access software, such as Windows 95 Dial-up Networking. Keep your password safe and change it regularly. A password should not be a common word, and certainly not one in the dictionary. The best passwords are a combination of letters and numbers or symbols.
  • Protect your laptop. A stolen laptop can be disastrous. Someone could review all your documents, read your e-mail, print out your client list, etc. Put a bootup password on your laptop. This requires the password to be entered whenever you turn on the laptop, or all access is prevented even booting from the floppy.
  • Consider incorrectly delivered mail. Watch your addressing. Make a mistake, and your message could go to a different person at the right domain, or the wrong person at the wrong domain (for example, if you picked the wrong name from your address book). The problem is that these messages get delivered successfully, so you don't know you've sent the message to the wrong person unless they reply back with something to the effect of: Why did you send this to me?
  • You have no control over what the recipient does with your messages. Your message could be forwarded to someone who you never intended to see it. It could be forwarded to a mailing list, where a whole lot of people you never intended will see it. Your words could be edited, then sent on as original quoted text from you. Even if you encrypt your message, the recipient could decode it, and pass it along in its unencrypted form.

Kenneth E. Johnson is Information Services Project Leader at Mayer, Brown and Platt in Chicago. He is author of AThe Lawyer's Guide to Creating Web Pages,@ published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and the forthcoming ALawyer=s Quick Guide to Internet E-Mail@ (available July 1998). He is Assistant Editor of the ABA's Network 2d newsletter, Webmaster of the TECHSHOW 98 Web site (www.techshow.com), and co-editor of the ABA/LPMS online newsletter page (www.abanet.org/lpm/newsletters/home.html).

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