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Jerry Askew, a legal technology expert and head of Askew Network Solutions, recalls a law firm relocation that placed a partner down the hall from his secretary. When a phone call came in, the secretary would have to yell down the hall to the attorney, who could only hear her when his door was open. Askew’s solution was to incorporate an internal instant messaging framework that allowed the secretary to send a pop-up box to the attorney’s desktop. Then the lawyer could click a button to tell the secretary that he would 1) take the call, 2) call them back later, or 3) declare himself “indisposed.” Instant communication is a luxury that we demand and expect in a world of mobile phones and BlackBerrys. Hardly anyone dares to post a letter by snail mail these days. Even with e-mail you have to wait for a response. That’s the main reason we have a technology called instant messaging, often hiply referred to as “IM.” To use IM, computer users download software to their PC that communicates with a server where many other people virtually congregate and chat. Because the majority of a typical businessperson’s day is spent staring at a computer monitor, workers find IM to be an easy and efficient way to communicate with others, both at the office and elsewhere. Used in this manner, instant messaging can be an effective tool. But, like many things in the world of technology, IM is the target of malcontents who choose to see it as a playground for malicious pranks. WIDE OPEN The best and worst part of the most popular IM platforms � AOL’s AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger � is that they’re wide open for anyone to use. All you need to do is sign up for a username and password. Once you’re on, you’re free to find chatmates anywhere in the world. While this may be acceptable from an entertainment perspective, it certainly doesn’t fly in the corporate world. The openness of IM systems provides grounds for viruses and digital worms. E-mail viruses are getting less and less effective these days, thanks to better user education and improved security software. But IM applications have proved to be the perfect launch pads for new threats. IMLogic, a leader in enterprise IM software, declares that the most dangerous and widespread attacks that occur over IM systems are worms. According to IMLogic’s informative “Threat Center,” the frequency and destructiveness of IM threats have grown by a factor of 10 in 2005, with a single month’s worth of threats now more than double the number of unique threats for all of 2004. CLICK ON ME How are IM worms and viruses successful? The danger is similar to that in e-mail, where a user opens an attached file and inadvertently installs a virus. IM applications have the ability to shuttle files from one user to another, so, naturally, malicious files are commonly sent to unsuspecting users. What might look like a cute screen saver or a darling baby picture could turn out to be a debilitating virus. This isn’t to say that the users are all to blame, but all the technical safety measures in the world can’t make up for the temporary recklessness of a person who opens a file he isn’t sure is absolutely safe. To make matters worse, IM software can be downloaded and installed by just about anyone in an organization. Network administrators can set up their firewalls to block suspicious Internet ports so messages can’t get through, but some IM software can simply go around or over the virtual wall. Many IT departments panic when IM software is found on workstations, so they start locking down all kinds of activity. But it’s important not to overlook the benefits that IM communication can bring to a law practice. INSTANT COMMUNICATION The primary benefit of IM in legal circles is instant communication with clients. When a client can’t reach you by phone, and getting an answer via e-mail might take too long, he could send you an instant message. An astute person can see the danger in this immediately: Not only does this communication open up a firm to innumerable digital threats, but the communication could be recorded and archived on servers owned by the IM provider, out of the firm’s reach. Jerry Askew suggests that a better use for instant messaging in a legal environment is to provide for “back-channel” communications that inevitably go on during a conference call or last-minute negotiations. When two attorneys separated by a hall or by several states are on a teleconference call, they may need to separately “chat” with each other outside the main conversation. Lastly, as mentioned earlier, IM applications can be an effective timesaver, allowing an attorney to communicate with a secretary or paralegal during a closed-door office session. So while IT professionals may panic at the sound of an IM chime, it pays to take the time to understand that instant messaging is a practical communication tool for attorneys. The secret is to provide them with a workable solution. Downloading and configuring the most popular IM software is not hard to do, and you may find some devoted fans of products such as AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. But it’s important to steer your users in a better direction. The most effective solution for IM within a law firm is a “closed” or internal system from companies such as IMLogic, Akonix, or WiredRed. The IM solution that Jerry Askew built for the law firm partner, using WiredRed, ran on an internal server behind the firm’s firewall. These closed systems give you the power to control all aspects of the IM fun that goes on at your firm. And compared with the alternative, a closed system will provide a peace of mind that you can never get from an open IM network. That’s great for IMing folks inside your organization, but what about chatting with a client or outside counsel? Fortunately, most providers provide a bridge to allow internal people to talk to outside chatters. Art Gilliland, vice president of products at IMLogic, says his company recognized early on that most enterprises managed their own IM system internally, so IMLogic provided an effective and secure method for connecting those internal IM platforms to global IM networks, such as those run by Microsoft, IBM, and AOL. Askew reports that one solution is to provide a link on a firm’s Extranet or Web site, allowing clients to connect. An outside user would interact with an attorney on the “inside” via that chat software. A “soft” method for controlling rampant IM use is to evangelize a corporate policy that all users must follow. While this is a great idea, I’m sure I don’t have to mention how hard it is to police such an edict. Askew proposes that the best method for controlling dangerous external instant messaging practices is to offer a great internal alternative. As long as you can point your users to a viable substitute that everyone can easily use, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on when they whine for their old software. As always, education is your best insurance against security issues that could arise with the use of instant messaging. It takes time, dedication, and a little bit of research to make sure you’re empowering attorneys to communicate better and faster. Instead of closing down instant messaging addicts, work to give them a tool they can use and that lets you rest easy at the same time.
Brett Burney is the legal practice support coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland. This article originally appeared on Law.com , an ALM Web site.

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