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The e-mail conundrum (Pt. 3 of 3)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Aug 19, 2012 | 0 Comments

This is Part 3 of a three-part post. In Part 1, Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, pondered the risk and waste created by the lack of a comprehensive e‑mail filing practice at his firm. In Part 2, Keith pursued solutions to that problem. In today's part, Keith addresses a different e‑mail problem – how to reduce the flood of e‑mail sent to all lawyers and other broad groups within the firm.

The further problem of all-lawyers e‑mails

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While Keith believes that getting lawyers to file e‑mail is his biggest e‑mail problem, he's also concerned about the daily deluge of all-lawyers e‑mails.

They ask if anyone knows local counsel in State X? Or if anyone has ever worked on a thus-and-such transaction with the following unusual features? Or knows about a certain type of transaction in a certain industry? Or knows of an expert witness in a specified subject matter?

Those e‑mails are annoying to 90% of the recipients, and replies-to-all are even more annoying to those recipients. Those all-lawyers e‑mails are of great interest, however, to the other 10%. Moreover, that 10% is also interested in the replies, which they often don't see when a respondent replies only to the sender.

Drill down

Keith's advisors point out that this problem, when analyzed, is also likely to be several problems, each requiring its own solution. At the suggestion of a consultant, Keith initiates a systematic study of e‑mail sent to lawyer groups within the firm. First, the IT Dept. adds a “Survey” e‑mail account to all Outlook distribution groups for lawyers, such as All Partners, All Associates, All Lawyers-Capital Markets and All Lawyers-Los Angeles. The All Users group is covered as well. Keith advises all lawyers about this change.

Next, over a period of three months, e‑mails received in the Survey account are categorized by a trusted administrator into categories, such as Legal Question, Seeking Local/Foreign Counsel, Seeking Expert Witness, Administrative Announcement and Non-Work Question. A trusted administrator is used because of the potentially sensitive nature of some of the e‑mail, especially those sent to partner-only groups. The information about each e‑mail (sender, distribution group and category) is saved in a database, together with the e‑mail message itself. The message, though, is password-protected so only authorized personnel may view it.

Third, reports are prepared from the database showing overall totals of e‑mails in the various categories, as well as break-downs by various distribution groups (such as by practice group, by office and by partners/associates) and seniority of sender (such as junior associate, senior associate, partner). The data is presented both in absolute terms and as a percentage of e‑mail sent to a particular group.

Fourth, a partner and senior associate selected by Keith interview a cross-section of lawyers, varying by seniority, practice group and office. Data from the reports suggests some of the areas to be focused on.

What the data shows

Finally, Keith and a handful of practice group leaders meet to discuss the reports and the interview results. Those discussions reveal:

  • Need for central databases. Keith's firm should establish a centralized database for some types of the information being sought. For example, a database of local and foreign counsel, or of internal firm experts, or of outside expert witnesses. In this case, the all-lawyers e‑mails are a symptom of a need that's not being addressed. Establishing these types of databases will require work to collect the data systematically for each matter. The benefit will be more than a reduction in annoying e‑mail. Lawyers will have more comprehensive information, since not everyone who knows an answer will remember it or will take the time to reply to en e‑mail.
  • Need to better train juniors. Junior lawyers in Keith's firm need more and better training. Junior lawyers seeking answers to basic practice questions through e‑mails to all lawyers (or all associates) in their group are telling the firm they need better training, and perhaps better practice resources. For example, perhaps the practice group should consider creating checklists of steps for completing various types of matters.
  • Need to improve practice group meetings. Practice groups in Keith's firm need to improve their periodic meetings – either the frequency or the format. When lawyers in a particular practice group routinely e‑mail their entire group with questions during their matters, the group needs to create more opportunities for collaboration. For example, is the group's meeting held on a monthly or other regular basis, or is it frequently cancelled? Does the meeting format include opportunities for open discussion among attending lawyers, so they can get to know each other better? Do partners attend, so associates can get to know them? Is there a teaching component? Is there a current developments component? The answers will vary across practice groups, so the situation in each major group should be considered.
  • Need for an electronic bulletin board. Many of the e‑mails seek to sell tickets, relate to lost and found items, are birth or death announcements or address other non-practice matters. These kinds of things could be handled by a bulletin board on the home page of the firm's intranet. It may take some cultural change to persuade users to rely on the bulletin board rather than e‑mail. A few calls from a senior partner to offenders who continue to send e-mails for bulletin board subjects will have a strong effect, though. If positioned properly, the bulletin board will likely be embraced by lawyers and staff alike.

Social media software

Even if the above issues are addressed by Keith, there will be occasions when all-lawyers e‑mails must be sent. There are emerging technologies, frequently referred to as social media software, that seek to move these communications away from e‑mail and into a more targeted yet inclusive environment, similar to a listserve. In such a system, all participants can view all replies, and the inquiries and replies are retained for future searching. Optional e‑mail links can notify users when topics of interest to them have been raised, and can allow mobile device users to participate.

These new software solutions are still evolving. Some law firms have experimented with them, though. Ultimately, the success of these experiments will depend more on changing the culture of the users than on particular software features. These are the kinds of solutions that take hold over time, typically starting with the younger lawyers. Keith decides to defer efforts on use of social media within his firm until the basic issues described above have been addressed.

Conclusion

Keith realizes that e‑mail as a business tool has grown within law firms on a relatively unmanaged basis for years. Improving the firm's managing of e-mail this late in the game will require time and effort. From his experience with other initiatives, Keith knows it will be essential to involve in both the analysis and solutions someone with a senior lawyer's perspective – either from within the firm or on an outside consulting basis. Ultimately, the problems relate to the practice and the people, not the technology. Visible and active senior lawyer involvement is an essential element in changing lawyer behavior.

In the next post

In the next post, Keith Mayfield, our AmLaw 100 chairman, ponders how to improve lawyer efficiency. He realizes that even with the billable hour model, doing the same work for a lower fee will likely increase revenues and profits, if it can be done more efficiently.

[Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / 4774344sean]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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