Do We Still Need E-Mail?

The issue of e-mail management is now old hat for anyone involved in the practice of law. Rather than asking whether lawyers use it, it is a story when lawyers choose not to use it. The world has grown more complicated, though, as we try to figure out where to place our energy integrating new technologies, like Twitter or Google’s Wave, into our work. Even our choices about how to use e-mail have expanded.

E-mail often reminds me of books. It is a technology that, for all its faults, remains a tremendously useful way to share information. More importantly, there are strong tools to control how we interact with it. Whether or not you are one of the 85% of lawyers using Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, according to the 2009 American Bar Association Legal Technology Survey Report, you should be able to exert a lot of control over your e-mail. Filtering, spam control, and junk mail blocking are all within your e-mail toolkit.

Even Web-based e-mail is providing a home to large numbers of lawyer messages. The third most popular product mentioned in the ABA survey was “Web-based e-mail”, like Google Mail, Yahoo! Mail, and Microsoft Live, formerly known as Hotmail. According to a March 2009 Experian Hitwise report, Yahoo! Mail accounts for over half of all Web-based e-mail visits in the U.S, with Google Mail a distant third with about 10%.

So e-mail is our foundation. Do we need to even worry about microblogging tools like Twitter or collaboration technologies that quack like e-mail but aren’t, like Google Wave?

Some would say that we are moving into a phase where microblogging will take the place of e-mail for communication. In a podcast following the American Bar Association Techshow in 2009, Dennis Kennedy suggests that, in some cases, “e-mail is broken” and that Twitter is a good alternative to using e-mail (@ 18:00).

The role that Twitter is playing, regardless of where it might go in the future, seems to be coming clearer. There is no question that Twitter, probably the leader in microblogging, is gaining ground with the age demographic that reflects a large portion of the legal profession. But it tends to be a small minority (10%) that is generating most of the activity on Twitter (90%). Twitter’s role isn’t as an e-mail replacement for lawyers but as a broadcast tool, ideally suited to marketing to clients and potential clients. Like blogging as a marketing tool, using a microblogging service as a communication medium will require time and effort to create interesting 140 character posts and also to create a following. More importantly, if you are going to spend the time on a tool like Twitter, you will need to make sure your audience exists. Nearly 75% of Canadians were unaware of Twitter’s existence earlier this year and less than 2% use it. Unless you are building a national book of business, microblogging may not be a sensible investment of your time.

Where does that leave emerging communications platforms like Google Wave? It looks a lot like e-mail but with some new benefits and drawbacks. Lawyers using Web-based mail will get the general idea of communicating through the Web browser. Unlike Internet-wide e-mail, Google Wave users are in a closed network, so you know that anyone with whom you are communicating also has Google Wave. No spoofed addresses, for example. It may be a rare case where someone might actually know you’re a dog on the Internet. Google Wave users can collaborate asynchronously, like e-mail or Twitter. They can collaborate synchronously, like a chat session or online meeting.

But your clients may not ever get on to Google Wave or similar platforms. Like microblogging, these next generation communications tools may have limitations due to whatever learning curves, in awareness or use, they create. Unless you are working with other professionals or using them with others within your own practice, e-mail may remain the most reliable communications medium.

Google Wave is still in a very limited trial, although a number of lawyers have been invited and have suggested how it might be beneficial to the profession. In most cases, these communication practices sound similar to how we already use e-mail. They raise the same issues as other Web-based applications or software-as-a-service relating to client communications and security and retention issues.

It may be that these new technologies are more of a distraction, and that we should be thinking more about how we use e-mail and minimizing its defects or maximizing both its benefits and its acceptance by others. When we take a foundation communications tool and use it more thoughtfully, like focusing on our “forwarding quotient”, we can find new life in a tried and true communications tool.


  1. While there are many new useful communication methods that provide alternatives to email, I don’t think we’ve yet created one that can replace email entirely. Email is global (almost everyone you’ll need to deal with has an email address), it’s private (allowing you to talk to clients without fear of others overhearing), and it can be any length necessary.

    I do think that there are ways that we can better utilize email, and that starts with considering when other methods of communication would be better than email. For example, if you’re writing more than a few paragraphs, or the question you’re asking is going to require an in depth response, it might be best to pick up the phone and have a five minute conversation. Or, if you’re sending a mass email to all of your clients, consider whether it might be better to make this announcement via social media.

    I doubt that email will entirely lose it’s value soon, though.

  2. In the Socialonomics video that we blogged about a few weeks back it refers to Boston College discontinuing emails to student applicants since they were using a shared Facebook space to the same end. [Actually the Chronicle of Higher Education less alarmingly pointed out that the reason the new students didn’t need BC email addresses was that they all had others.]

    For what it’s worth my daughter reports on the complete pervasive adoption of text messaging in various forms with her peers.

    It is likely a generational thing.

  3. I don’t think we can attribute it to a rapid evolution of the species. It’s more of a time-of-life thing: most folks of my generation aren’t spending as much time anymore trying to stay connected with the gang so we can all hang out together. And for that purpose, I think it’s about the hardware–you don’t need anything more than a basic cell phone to text.

    In terms of the software, texting is where email was in the early 1990s. Too may different proprietary systems in use, and the bridges just starting to be built.

  4. I suspect that the clients will drive the adoption, whatever the legal profession settles on. If a client is willing to use Wave, then the firm can help the client use the technology and understand it. If the client requests the firm use it, you know they’ll be there. But if a client resists, ain’t no firm going to push the question.

    I suspect it won’t be long before we’re looking back on posts like this and chuckling indulgently. After all, e-mail became the “dinosaur” way to communicate inside of twenty years!

  5. As someone whose first email account was back in 1987, I’m overdue for a phase-out. Not that I can access more than a few percent of the 500,000 or so emails I’ve sent and received.

  6. The WSJ asked a similar question recently. I wrote about it onthe emailtide blog. I think that many of the newer technologies complement email rather than displace it. For businesses bound by strict compliance regulation all these new communication channels present some serious challenges.

  7. Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said at a RealTime CrunchUp event in San Francisco,

    Email is not going to disappear. Possibly ever. Until the robots kill us all.

    Buchheit shared that he has yet to even try Google Wave, and denies it’s a replacement for e-mail. It’s more of a collaboration tool, one that still needs considerable refinement.

  8. We deal with others in real time – whether face to face or by some electronic method which may or may not include visual contact – or by exchanging messages in a process which may almost be contemporaneous, or the messages may be separated by varying lengths of time.

    Sometimes we don’t want to deal in real time.

    Email is nothing more than a description of one method of exchanging messages which doesn’t require the parties to be in contact with each other, contemporaneously, though they may be.

    In this case, a rose by another name may smell differently, may even be sweeter, but it’ll still serve the same purpose.

    In the meantime, prognosticators get to write columns and give lectures (and I suppose some of them get to charge for them, too. Nice gig.)

  9. Nice gig? I’d say. It’s how I make side cash.

    Dan York points out some confidentiality issues though that could make Google Wave a no-go for law firms, for now.

    How’s that for prognostication?