E-mail, integral to today’s law firm practice, is unquestionably the single technology that has most transformed the practice of law in the past 35 years. What started out as an alternative to telephone communications has become ubiquitous and, coupled with the ability to send documents, totally revolutionized law firm practice.

E-mail has facilitated instant collaboration between and among lawyers across the globe. It is the glue that has fueled the creation of national and international law firms, expanding our practices to faraway locations.

Depending on the U.S. mail or even Federal Express to communicate or send drafts of documents is a thing of the past. E-mail makes it possible for lawyers in New York to work in real time with lawyers in Beijing or New Delhi as if they were located down the hall in the same firm. Even the courts have adopted this technology, requiring litigators to file their pleadings through e-mail. No longer do we undertake the drill of making the requisite number of copies and arranging for a clerk to physically serve papers at the adversary’s law office. A couple of clicks of the mouse, and the court and adversary have the papers instantaneously and simultaneously.

The speed of e-mail and its ability to send and receive documents from mobile devices means that our work at the office does not stay at the office. E-mail has tethered us to the office 24/7. Even airplanes, the last bastion of peace and quiet, are gradually and universally establishing WiFi links 30,000 feet above the ground so we do not lose, even for one hour, the ability to be connected to our clients and colleagues. For better or worse, this has created the expectation from clients that their lawyers can and will respond instantly to their problems.

If you are a litigator, as I am, e-mail has also transformed the discovery process. Indeed, the “e” in e-mail may technically stand for electronic mail, but any litigator will tell you it really means “evidence.” While almost all document discovery today is focused on electronic as opposed to paper documents, it is a rare case in which the critical evidence is not found almost exclusively in the e-mails. This new medium of communication somehow causes people to let down their guard and write the dumbest and most incriminating statements.

The good news for associates is that law firms are rarely sending them to stuffy warehouses to rummage through boxes and boxes of old and dusty paper documents. The bad news for many lawyers, not enamored with technology, is that they must now have a working understanding of computers and related technology to work effectively in uncovering relevant e-mails. With our clients trending toward the use of “cloud” providers with documents being retained by third parties, law firm practice will continue to mean not only keeping up with developments in the law but also understanding the latest developments in computer technology.