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Instant messaging is on the rise, as more and more young professionals prefer instant messaging to e-mail. And from a lawyer perspective, instant messages can be great for collaborating with other attorneys or support staff from either down the hall or in another part of the world. But instant messaging can also wreak havoc. Besides the potential for abuse or time-wasting conversations better left to e-mail, instant messaging can also bring in unwanted viruses or other dangers normally removed by filters established on network mail servers. The three primary commercial IM systems are AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger, while third-party software such as Trillian allows messages to be sent from one program to users on any of these systems, plus a few others as well. Installing these programs is a snap, and there is no up-front cost to subscribe to these services. But while the benefits of instant communication are certainly worth the risks, some careful considerations should be made to mitigate any dangers to your computer system or case files. It is probably a good idea for lawyers not to communicate with clients using instant messenger for a number of reasons. Unlike e-mail, there is not a readily available message trail, unless the session is captured and saved. And secondly, you don’t necessarily want your clients contacting you expecting answers any time you are on your PC. It is also hard to make sure billing is handled properly when having a quick IM conversation. When using IM for business purposes, it is best to use a second IM address for personal communications, just as you would use a personal e-mail for non-work-related matters. You don’t want clients or others you work with contacting you during off-hours, or accidentally send the wrong information to a client while conducting multiple chat sessions. When choosing an instant messenger name for professional reasons, make sure it has the proper demeanor, but don’ t provide too much information about you. For example, “iplitigator” is acceptable, whereas “hotstudlawyer” probably isn’t. Likewise, when you have an away message on your system, be careful what it says. It may not be best to let everyone know your have “gone fishing.” Like e-mail, instant messaging can spread viruses, worms, spyware and inappropriate material. Virus writers are targeting instant messaging applications due to their ability to spread malicious code much faster than e-mail. So when conduction IM sessions, it is best not to open attachments, such as pictures or documents from instant messages sent by clients, as these could be virus-laden or inappropriate. Even a file sent by a business associate could be a malicious virus sent unknowingly. Don’t open the file unless you were expecting it, or know what it is. In addition, links sent through instant messages may also lead to malicious Web sites, which could post spyware or malware on your machine. Chat rooms, even if on esoteric subjects such as underground storage tank litigation, are a particularly vulnerable area for the spread of malicious activities. While these chat rooms can provide important information on your practice, be wary of anything sent to you that you weren’t expecting or looks suspicious. IM conversations by default are not secure, although you can the instant messenger software can be encrypted, using either native utilities within the software, or more robust third-party software such as IM Secure Pro, available by download for $29.95 from Zone Alarms. (Currently this program is not compatible for Windows Vista.) Also, if you happen to use a public computer to conduct IM business, make sure you don’t choose the feature that allows you to log in automatically, and also make sure you log out of your screen name. If not, the next person who comes on the machine can pretend to be you. Instant messaging is a great way to communicate; just be aware of the down side and your system should act smoothly. BRIAN R. HARRIS is the director of information technology for the ALM Pennsylvania division and the former editor in chief of The Legal Intelligencer . Technology questions can be sent to Harris at [email protected]

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