Computer Counselor - September 1997
Internet Mailing Lists
A Simple E-mail is all you need to reach the Internet's best legal resources
By Daryl Teshima and Guy Alvarez
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly technology magazine. Guy Alvarez is manager of the law division of SharkNet, a full-service Internet/intranet consulting firm.
One big problem with technology is that it's more promise than performance. Take, for example, all the hype about "push" technology. Cutting-edge push products such as PointCast and the next Internet Explorer promise to transform the Internet so that it delivers the information you want straight to your desktop. Instead of "pulling" information from the Net by surfing, push products automatically upload it onto your computer.
The prospect of the Internet making information house calls sounds exciting until you realize that it has been around for years. For attorneys, the ultimate push technology-Internet mailing lists-has been available since the days of DOS. Mailing lists deliver customized information directly to your e-mail in-box.
Mailing lists also have several advantages over newer push products. For instance, all you need to use a mailing list is an Internet e-mail account. Unlike many programs today, mailing lists do not require that you use PCs, the latest version of Windows, or a Web browser. You can even use plain old DOS as long as you can send and retrieve Internet e-mail. Another big advantage is that mailing lists are interactive-you can communicate with other mailing list participants and often get answers to questions as well as news on the latest developments. Furthermore, these mailing lists allow attorneys to access material that is not available anywhere else on the Internet: practical, word-of-mouth information.
For example, suppose you have a case in Georgia. If you are unfamiliar with Georgia procedures and regulations, you may go to the library and spend several hours researching Georgia state law, or go online using Lexis or Westlaw and spend a substantial amount of money researching the required procedures. Alternatively, you could locate the mailing list for Georgia attorneys, subscribe, and then post a message asking if anyone is familiar with the information you are seeking. Odds are that you will receive several responses with citations to cases and treatises or other useful primary law information. In addition, you may receive practical insights from local practitioners such as past experiences with a judge, the name of an expert, or the best way to get the intended result.
Besides being wonderful resources on given subjects, mailing lists are a terrific way to network, since you are communicating daily with attorneys and individuals with similar interests. What better way to display your knowledge in a particular field and make valuable contacts that may eventually refer work and clients to you?
Joining a Mailing List
Internet enthusiasts commonly refer to mailing lists as "listservs," a name that comes from a software program, Listserv, that is one of three programs that manages these types of lists. Listservs work just like a conventional paper mailing list: once your e-mail address has been added to the list, messages on the list will begin to appear in your e-mail in-box. Subscribing to a mailing list is easy. In most cases, you simply send a request to a subscription address, where either a person or a computer reads it and adds you to the list. From then on, you read and respond to messages from the list's main address.
One important tip: every list has two addresses, a subscription address and a posting address. When you are ready to join a mailing list, you must send a message to the subscription address asking to subscribe to the list. The actual commands vary from program to program, but usually all you need to do is send a message with the words "subscribe [listname] [yourname]." In a matter of minutes, you should receive an e-mail reply confirming your subscription; then you will start receiving messages that other subscribers send to the list. If you want to send a message to the list, you must send your message to the list's posting address. The software will take that message and send it to all list subscribers.
Perhaps the most difficult task is finding a mailing list that fits your particular needs. There are several Internet newsletters and magazines that track and report on different mailing lists each month. However, the best place to find information on mailing lists is the Internet. There are two sites that do an excellent job of compiling information on mailing lists. The first is Lyo's Law Lists, maintained by Lyonette Louis-Jacques, a law librarian at the University of Chicago School of Law. Her site (http:/ / www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists) maintains a searchable index of legal mailing lists. Most lists are also broken down by subject area or geographic region. Another useful site is the Liszt mailing list directory (www.liszt.com). This searchable directory is maintained by Amazon.com, the largest online bookstore on the Internet, and contains mailing lists on a wide array of topics.
Participating in E-mail Lists
The single most important point you must know about Internet mailing lists is the strict prohibition against any advertising, marketing, promotion, or selling, except on those mailing lists created for that purpose. If you violate this rule of conduct, you will probably "get flamed" by group participants. Flaming takes many forms, but it basically means that your reputation will suffer.
Despite this caveat, many attorneys have been successful at using mailing lists to market their legal skills to a wide array of clients. Handled properly, legal mailing lists can provide marvelous opportunities for lawyers to develop a reputation as experts in a particular practice of law and to use this recognition to attract potential clients.
The most important thing to remember is that in order for the marketing efforts to be successful, you must be willing to devote some time to monitoring the lists. You should subscribe to the mailing list and follow it for a few weeks to get a feel for the type of posts that appear on the list plus its overall dynamics. Ideally, you should search for mailing lists that relate to an area of law in which you have significant experience or interest.
After monitoring the list, you should then send a message to the list, introducing yourself and the type of work you do. Following this message, try to contribute by posting a recent opinion or development in the particular practice of law, or by offering suggestions to other list members' questions. If actively involved with the list, you should begin to develop a reputation as an expert in your particular field.
It may seem that providing free legal advice is a sure way to get sued for malpractice. In reality, an attorney can include the proper disclaimer in messages, and all an attorney should provide is a helpful pointer, a reference to a particular treatise, a valuable contact's name or address, a referral, or an offer to discuss the matter in more detail via telephone or private e-mail.
Too Much E-mail?
No one is enthusiastic about the prospect of going through many unimportant e-mail messages every day. To help with this problem, you have two options. First, you may use an e-mail program that supports e-mail message filtering. With such a program, you can, for example, transfer all e-mail from a particular mailing list into specific folders. Or you can have the filtering program delete messages unless they contain certain key words and phrases. Programs such as Eudora and the latest version of Netscape Mail handle these functions efficiently.
You can also subscribe to some mailing lists in a digest format. When you set up a digest subscription, you will periodically receive digest postings that contain the latest 10 or 15 postings to the regular list. This substantially cuts down the number of messages you receive daily.
To convert from a regular subscription to digest mode, you must find the set of commands that the list's software is using. To do this, send e-mail to the subscription address that says "help," and you will receive a message reviewing the list of commands. If this list does not give you the answer, you should contact the list's owner.
Future of Mailing Lists
As more and more law firms decide to create Web sites for their firms, a new type of list is emerging. They are called one-way lists, a lower-maintenance sibling of the Internet legal mailing lists. These are not true mailing lists, because they are not interactive; subscribers are not able to respond to posts and the owner is the only one who posts articles. Nonetheless, these new mailing lists are being used by several Internet-savvy law firms as tools for distributing firm information and as a way to keep visitors coming back to their Web sites. The reason is that these lists are relatively easy to set up and maintain. One-way lists operate in the following manner: you're doing a search on bankruptcy law and you stumble upon a law firm that specializes in bankruptcy law. You add the firm's address to your bookmarks and sign up for their mailing list directly at the site. Several months have passed and you have forgotten all about the firm and its Web site. You check your in-box and see that you have a message from the firm advising you of a decision of interest that is now available at their Web site. This is a nonintrusive way to market that Web site and the firm's services.
Another advantage that one-way lists offer is that they are relatively easy to set up. You don't need sophisticated software or even space on a server. You can create the list in your computer's e-mail program. Most e-mail software contains a feature called an address book. You can use different address books to create different lists. Every time someone else wants to join your list, you simply add the individual to your address book. Thus, when sending a message to the whole list at large, you only need to press one button.
As the Internet continues to expand and more firms go online, expect to see more and more of these types of lists. There are several now in existence and they provide large amounts of valuable legal information to their subscribers.