E-mails may save time, but they can increase costs

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Published on 10/17/05

A number of years ago when I was managing a law office, a partner complained to me about the speed with which people wanted a response to a fax. If he didn't get back to them within 20 minutes, they called to ask if he received the fax and, if so, why he hadn't responded.

Today, with e-mail, colleagues and clients seem to expect that response within 20 seconds.

Given the rapidity of response that e-mails encourage, it's my belief that very few lawyers are truly capturing the time that they're spending on a legitimate client matter.

Like phone conversations, communications by e-mail on client matters represent billable time. Yet lawyers are going so fast, doing so many things, that they don't actually write down their time notation as they're working on e-mails. And if they don't do it then, by the end of the day, let alone the end of the week, they're going to forget how much time was spent.

Client e-mails get so enmeshed in what has been called "administrivia" that their importance frequently is lost and not adequately accounted for. The result is lost revenues and lost profits.

E-mails also involve other costs that are not readily apparent.

Based on my own experience, I would guess that most lawyers take about one to two hours each workday to "clear out" their e-mail boxes apart from getting to client matters. If we assume 200 workdays per year (there are more), and two hours per day, and $200 per hour billable value for an attorney (most are charging more today), the calculation is $80,000 of wasted billable time annually.

It goes without saying that this is hugely expensive.

Inappropriate e-mail can jeopardize both attorney-client privilege and work product privilege. And even if those are not waived, the lawyer and the client are put at risk by having to defend a challenge.

Consider the proliferation of disclaimers and cautions at the end of law firm e-mails, as well as risks ranging from hacked Wi-Fi connections to subpoenaed indiscreet e-mail messages.

Some clients remain uncomfortable with the idea of e-mail communication. This echoes the old voice-mail issue: Can technology replace the personal touch? Telephone companies soon started an advertising campaign ("Reach out and touch someone") to bring technology back to the human level. Now, we have the idea of "high tech and high touch," but that still has drawbacks for some users.

Today's lawyers often seem inseparable from their Blackberries. Most of us have been in meetings where attorneys are sitting there with Blackberries in hand, and their thumbs are moving while they're participating in the conversation. I'm convinced that such multi-tasking means they are either reacting too quickly to their e-mail, or they are missing something important in the live dialogue as it is going on.

Technology users can never forget that their gadgets are productivity tools, not ends in themselves. They need to be managed just as any other communication modality must be.

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