New Internet and communications technologies continue to change our daily lives. It’s possible today to switch easily between e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, blogging and social networking sites.

Teenagers simply use all of these at the same time! But for those who are a bit older, the impact of new technologies is profound. For in-house counsel, it is becoming increasingly important to think about both the challenges and opportunities these changes create.

The challenges can be formidable. Every employee is a potential blogger, either publicly with a company’s
consent or anonymously without it. What policy should a company adopt, and what are the implications for the legal issues we manage? At Microsoft, more than 1,500 employees maintain blogs–a large number even for an IT company.

Given this interest, we decided in 2005 to provide our employees with guidance on how to blog legally and with a common sense eye toward company policy. The goal was not to devise entirely new policies for blogging, but to help employees apply existing standards on confidentiality and business conduct in this new online environment. It was important to provide this advice in a form that employee bloggers would find natural and useful–namely, a list of frequently asked questions and best practices posted on an internal “blog for bloggers.”

As this illustrates, new technology tools create new opportunities as well. Inside a company, Intranets and blogs are useful tools for sharing information with employees. Advances in online video technology give us the ability to reach people in a more compelling way, including for employee training. Perhaps most interestingly, the same Web 2.0 technologies that have made the Internet more interactive also enable lawyers and business people to work together in new ways. These innovations create new legal questions of their own, but there’s little doubt that these are a promising aspect of what will be a wave of the future.

One of the most exciting aspects of these tools is the ability to make broad communication with employees a two-way street. For example, at Microsoft we participate in an annual anonymous employee poll conducted across the company, and each year more than 80 percent of the legal department participates. We use the extensive quantitative feedback (and typically more than 1,000 verbatim comments) to identify and develop new internal initiatives each year.

Similarly, after every department meeting our employees use an online tool to react to what they heard and tell their departments’ leaders how we’re doing. We have similar processes for client feedback, including an annual survey that rates their satisfaction.

New technologies create external opportunities as well. Increasingly, legal statements come from companies not in the form of a traditional press release, but as less formal blog postings. These communications are in their infancy and raise new questions. In a media- and Internet-dominated age, does it make sense for a legal department to have an external blog? What does it make sense to say? How often should the legal department say something? A decade from now these questions may well seem like old hat.

Amidst this change, however, one thing will remain constant: There is no substitute for conversations in person. I get some of the best feedback when I have breakfast once a month with a dozen people from across our department. And if an issue is sensitive or difficult, the best way to talk about it is to walk to someone’s office and sit down in person.

Technology is giving us new tools that can make us more effective. But we shouldn’t forget that some of the best communications require no technology at all. They simply require that we get up from our computers.

Brad Smith is the senior VP, -general counsel and corporate secretary of Microsoft Corp.