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E-mail has become an essential part of our work lives. In fact, many of us rely on our e-mail for nearly every aspect of our work. Our reliance on e-mail to perform so many tasks for us does not come without complications, however. As a result of e-mail’s universal utility, the volume of e-mail we send and receive has grown tremendously, while at the same time the value of the information in the e-mails has become increasingly important. The problem with these twin effects lies in the difficulty of finding that useful, even critical, piece of information that is now buried amid the thousands of e-mails in our in-boxes. There are two important reasons to tame the rising e-mail volume monster in your firm: first, to increase productivity and ensure that e-mail realizes its promise of helping us do more with less, and second, to meet the legal requirements for the retention of records. Significantly, state bar codes of professional conduct, though varying in term length, typically mandate that client files be retained for five, seven, or even more years. Further, client files are actually owned by the client and should be turned over upon request. In addition, they are formed — in the majority of ethics committee opinions commenting on the matter — not just of final documents but also of correspondence (between client and attorney, as well as pertinent communication between attorney and third parties), intermediate work product, and other sorts of written material. Much of this material is now contained in the form of e-mail. These professional responsibility requirements mandate not only the ability to store, but also the ability to find pertinent client file information. Of course, as the technology for finding and managing electronic information gets better and becomes more widely available, the standard of responsibility gets even higher. The benefits to a law firm of managing its e-mail accrue not just from meeting professional codes of responsibility, however. Being able to identify and find all pertinent client information can be useful internally as well. Having a complete record can provide to a new lawyer coming in to an account or matter the background required to understand the file and ensure the retention of critical information even as employees change jobs. As a user of legal services, I also know that much of the legal advice we receive from outside counsel at my company, Recommind Inc. (which provides search and knowledge management solutions for law firms), is received via e-mail — and we want to keep it that way. The advice received in e-mail can be provided quickly, with a minimum of fuss, and I have a written record of it to fall back on. Of course, having this record in my in-box requires that I be able to find the information later on. We’ve all experienced the frustration of not being able to find some necessary piece of information that we know is in our in-boxes. Effective tools for finding this information can lead to substantial gains in personal productivity. NOW FOR SOLUTIONS Now that we understand the benefits of managing e-mail, what do we do about it? The primary task of e-mail is to provide us with the communication tool that we have all come to rely on so heavily. Our very reliance on e-mail, however, is what has created the e-mail monster — more e-mail than we know what to do with. The solution to taming this monster, then, consists of two tasks: being able to find and manipulate the specific e-mails an attorney may be looking for and storing the tremendous volume of e-mail that accumulates over the long term. These two tasks can be addressed with two kinds of products: enterprise (firmwide) search systems and e-mail storage solutions. From the user’s perspective, the most basic problem associated with e-mail is finding what we are all looking for in our own e-mail boxes. I have a tremendously difficult time finding communications from my attorney, and I’m sure she has the same problem. Sophisticated enterprise search technologies that work in conjunction with e-mail and storage systems can assist greatly in helping users find what they are looking for without inordinate effort. An important benefit of these systems is that they can be used not only in conjunction with the basic e-mail system to assist in finding information in each attorney’s in-box, but also in conjunction with either of the long-term storage technologies outlined below, providing one view into multiple systems. For storage, vendors offer two basic approaches. The first approach requires individual users within the firm to select specific mails as being relevant to a particular matter and deliberately include them in a document management system. This system has the advantage of reducing the quantity of e-mail being saved over time, but the disadvantage of its likelihood of being incomplete. The second approach is to save all mail flowing through the mail system and to store it in an e-mail archive. This system has the advantage of completeness, but the disadvantage associated with storing a tremendous volume of e-mail. A PATENT HORROR STORY Let me illustrate the impact of these various technologies with a concrete example, where two different problems encapsulating two distinct benefits of e-mail management are faced. Imagine that, at your firm, you are the responsible patent matter attorney for a midsize technology corporation that sends you a lot of patent work. Your firm also does considerable other business in different areas with this company. As a result of all the business done between your firm and the company, a lot of e-mail flows. In the process of working on the patent application, several patent attorneys with differing expertise work on the file, along with several engineers and the in-house lawyers of the client. At one point, one of your client’s engineers sends you a piece of information that is important to the application. After a week or two, when you sit down to begin seriously working on the file, you know that something important was sent over but can’t recall what it was exactly or who sent it. How many times have we all experienced this? How many hours of your own potentially billable time and that of your secretary’s are wasted trying to track it down? (The number is surprisingly large: The consulting and research firm Delphi Group found in a 2004 study that approximately 42 percent of corporate professionals spend a full day a week searching for materials of one sort or another.) Situations like this show how specialized search and text manipulation tools can help save time on a day-to-day basis by allowing you to find what you are looking for right away instead of taking 30 minutes of your time. Those 30-minute searches add up to a tremendous cost to the firm in lost potentially billable time if a lawyer searches or to a real cost if a secretary does. Let’s continue the example with another problem faced on the same file. While the root cause of this problem is a mistake unrelated to e-mail management, poor e-mail management magnifies it tremendously. When the patent application is complete a few weeks later, it is packaged up and with several others sent over to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for filing. You, as the responsible attorney, send a quick e-mail note over to your client indicating that the filing has been made. When a paralegal at your office checks on the status of these filings a few days after they are filed, she receives an e-mail back with the status of all but the specific application we are discussing. Not noticing the discrepancy, she continues on with her work. A year later, when the client enquires about the status of the application, you ask the PTO and find out that although they have the paperwork, the patent was not filed correctly — it was sent in an envelope with another application and hence does not have a filing date. In the interim, another company has filed in the same area and your client’s patent will not be granted if resubmitted. Understandably, your client files suit against you for considerable damages. In this case, neither the e-mail you sent confirming the filing to your client, nor the e-mail from the PTO indicating that it was not received are likely to be explicitly filed into a document management system. They are both, however, very important parts of your client’s file, and very important information for you to have as you start to defend the suit. In this case, deploying e-mail archiving and enterprise search tools can help. E-mail archives are relatively simple systems that have been developed for the long-term storage of e-mail. They provide a repository for e-mails to be stored separate from your actual e-mail product. It’s important to use a separate system, which can prevent the performance of your e-mail system from deteriorating as more and more e-mail piles up. Archives also usually contain policy rules that allow you to automatically transfer e-mail from the e-mail product to the archive after some defined period and to similarly delete e-mail after another defined (records retention) period. In the example above, the two critical e-mails would have been saved in an archive instead of being deleted, so that your firm at least would have had a copy of the e-mails on hand. The challenge then would have been finding them. Finding the two e-mails in the mass of mail sent between you and your client is a daunting task even though your client and the PTO also have copies. They may only be uncovered in discovery unless you also have sophisticated search tools to help you search the haystack. Enterprise search tools provide one point of access to all of the information within your firm, including both your day-to-day e-mail product, a document management system, an e-mail archive, and other systems you may have. This view into the whole firm ensures that you don’t miss one critical piece of information by looking in one system (such as your current e-mail in-box) without looking into another (your document management system or an e-mail archive). The most-developed of these tools also provide advanced search capabilities that allow you to identify relevant e-mails (or other documents) even if they don’t contain the exact words used in a query. In the above example, the two e-mails would be found in a search for e-mails related to patent work for your client, even if an important relevant mail (like the one from the PTO that omits to mention receipt of your client file) does not contain the exact keywords. Wouldn’t it save you a lot of effort and money to settle directly and quietly by uncovering these mails yourself, rather than uncovering them in discovery much further down the road? The cost of advanced storage and retrieval tools begins to look cheap under these circumstances, particularly given the productivity gains and firm knowledge-sharing benefits they provide. A final thought: Although the particulars in the law firm scenario described above have been changed, the scenario and its ensuing lawsuit are real. That’s one big reason why your firm ought to tame the e-mail monster. Robert Tennant is CEO of Recommind Inc., a Berkeley, Calif.-based provider of enterprise search and knowledge-management systems for law firms.

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