"You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”

- Albert Einstein

I stumbled across this quote while reading an article from LawVision, encouraging lawyers to look beyond the "precedent" of their current practice and innovate their business. It's a worthy read, and it immediately made me think: are the collaboration technologies that most lawyers use today really "next level"?

We've been hyped on the promises of "digital communication" for a while. But the reality is often disappointing: overstuffed email inboxes, cumbersome document storage systems, and wonky extranets. Many new technologies implemented by firms lead lawyers to frustration, and frustration always drives them back to email.

Email is a universal protocol that goes everywhere and that everyone is familiar with. It's on your phone. It's on your desktop. And it requires almost no training. At most law firms, email is a useful default for all sorts of communication - both internal and external. But over-reliance on email introduces problems for the user that kills productivity.

According to this study by McKinsey Global Institute, knowledge workers spend an average of 28% of their time "reading and managing email." For lawyers specifically, we believe the figure is significantly higher than that. I just spoke to a partner last week who said he spent 95% of his time in Outlook.

So a tremendous amount of time is being spent with email. We should ask ourselves, "Is it really the best tool?"

Endless Decisions: The Hidden Costs of Email

There are plenty of articles talking about the problems with email. Yet one aspect is often overlooked: every message you create or receive is embedded with countless small decisions. These decisions add up and then are multiplied across hundreds of messages a day. That's why email is unpleasant.

Here are a few examples of those "micro-decisions":

  • Who's This Going To? Each time you create a new email, you must decide who to include in the message, then fill out their names in the "To" field. Seems simple, if not tedious. But often you wonder, "Should I include [X]? Or 'cc [Y]?" For each message, we make tiny calculations about whether we're bothering some people, slighting others, and so on.

  • What's This Email About? Ah, the "Subject" line. How often do these ever match up with the contents of the email? Frequently we don't even want a subject line - we're just trying to send a message. So you mull over this input field before typing something vague like, "Hey" or "Update." Not useful to a reader or a search engine.

  • Is This Something I Want to Make Permanent? Before you click "Send", you might ask yourself, do I really want to send this? Emails are permanent records. When you send an email, you are making copies. These copies live forever and you can never take them back or edit them.

And then, of course, there's the big one:

  • What to Do with the Emails in my Inbox? Once an email arrives in your inbox, it's there. Eventually, you need to do something about it. And when you send an email, it forces someone else to "do something" with the message, too. Disposing of each email requires answering even more questions:
    • Do I save this email?
    • Will I need it again?
    • Is it important enough to save to the document management system?
    • Has someone already done that?
    • Which folder does it belong in?

These decisions have zero value. They don't make better lawyers or better work-product. In fact, the abundance of decisions have negative value. According to Daniel Levitin's "The Organized Mind," we have a limited number of decisions we can make per day before cognitive overload sets in. After that, our judgment starts to deteriorate.

And here's the key: "Once we’ve hit that limit it doesn’t matter how important [the decisions] are."

If that's the case, why are we wasting our decisions - hundreds of them - on questions about email management?

How Lawyers Use Email

So let's take a look at what happens with email at most law firms. A team of four lawyers are working together and communicating regularly via email on a matter. Steve recalls hearing about a blog post on mobile device e-discovery that he thinks might be related to their ACME Industries case.

An average exchange might go something like this...

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First, look at the subject line . . . is this email even about a "blog post" anymore? Of course not. Their conversation generated critical analysis and action items, but that's not reflected anywhere in the subject. If someone goes back to look for this discussion, it won't be easy to find.

Second, how will the team track the updates on the new action items? These new tasks aren't recorded anywhere. Plus, there's no way for team members to check in on the status of each task . . . except to send another email.

But here's the biggest problem: each person sent one and received three emails . . . and there are four team members. So even in this simple example, the team generated 16 emails!

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Consider the duplicative, wasteful energy of four lawyers just trying to "do something" with these emails after reading them. Using only four messages, we generated 16 email copies. This email traffic imposed dozens and dozens of worthless decisions on high-value knowledge workers. I made this conversation really simple to illustrate a point. In reality, these types of exchanges can run dozens of messages long.

Why are we working like this? Especially when we're often communicating with the same colleagues over and over again. Do we really need to open up a new message, fill out the recipients, and electronically dump multiple copies in inboxes all over the office? Of course not. It makes sense to work in a more fluid, collaborative environment, rather than exchanging static messages.

Some firms have implemented Microsoft Lync or similar IM systems. But IM lacks two critical features for legal knowledge workers:

  • persistence
  • matter-centricity

If it's not persistent and it's not matter-centric, you better not put anything worthwhile in an instant message. You'll never find it again. In fact, some firms even prohibit substantive communication in IM. But if we can fix these problems and start reducing cognitive load associated with email management, we can make happier, higher-performing lawyers.

Threads: "Next Level" Communication

At ThreadKM, we tackling the email problem head-on with Threads: the first matter-centric, real-time communication platform ever built.

It's a real-time discussion environment for legal work, allowing you to exchange ideas, files, links and more instantly across any device. Of course, it is fully matter-centric, and you can easily go back or search to find exactly the conversation you need. Add hashtags as you write, notify people directly with @mentions, and more.

In short, we're bringing the best collaboration technology available to the legal environment. Similar tools have helped organizations significantly reduce email generated by internal discussion. Now lawyers can do the same.

Here's a rundown of why it works:

  1. Communicate with Your Team. When you enter a Thread, you are talking to your team. No filling out the "To" or "Subject" fields. Just jump in and talk directly with colleagues. Unlike email inboxes, when you get a message in a Thread, you can trust it's worthy of your attention.

  2. No Filing Messages. Ever. It's all saved in the Thread. Remember the dozens of micro-decisions about filing your email? Those are gone.

  3. Edit and Delete Your Contributions. Did you make a typo? Or need to re-phrase your thoughts? ThreadKM lets you do that. When conversing with colleagues, we're interested in progress, not cataloging permanent records. (Of course, an admin can activate a legal hold on any Thread to preserve data.)

  4. Get Notifications Instantly. Get automated updates pushed to a Thread, letting you know about whatever kind of data you're interested in. An reviewer marked a document as hot? Boom, here's a link to the document. An associate posted a new time entry to the billing system? Yep, you can see it instantly in Threads.

These are just of few of the reasons Threads work better than email. There are dozens more, including plenty you will discover for yourself!

Want to be the first to know when it's available? Contact me (dan@threadkm.com) for a demo and check it out today.