Filing - the disruptive approach (Slacking for Lawyers)

I've previously described some theoretical and practical steps you can take to make filing easier. But what if I said there was a tool that would mean you never had to file an email again? 

Enter Slack

Credit: Slack

Credit: Slack

Slack is a team chat application. Slack has many great features, but at its core, it is a collaborative communication tool. Users post messages and other communications to channels, for other users to review, comment and respond as appropriate. While users can be invited to particular channels or requested to make a specific contribution, more commonly individual users are responsible for selecting the channels they monitor. 

Slack was originally designed for intra-business communications, but does have the capability to establish cross-organisation teams. One business establishes the Slack account, and invites external users to contribute.

A note on alternatives

There are plenty of other team chat tools, including Microsoft Teams, Hipchat, ClearchatWorkplace by Facebook, and many others. For options targeted specifically at lawyers, New Zealand's own LawVu offers its own collaboration communication tool as part of its legal management solution. ThreadKM is another legal-specific tool. They all work on a similar principle, although features do vary. While I generally refer to Slack below, the same principles apply to these other products too.

How is that any different from email?

The key difference between email and Slack is the difference between pushing and pulling. The sender of an email decides who receives it - they push the email to the recipients. Contrast this with Slack, where the user pushes his or her message only as far as the channel. It is then up to other users to determine how often they monitor that channel, and when and how they contribute. Very importantly, all emails relating to a particular matter are already grouped together.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Take Alice, an in-house legal counsel. She has briefed Bob, a senior associate at BigLaw on a particular matter. They are now working out the next steps on the matter, and emails are flying back and forth. Alice is keen to keep Chris, her General Counsel in the loop as it is a significant matter. Bob similarly wants to keep his responsible partner, Dave, informed. But Bob is also out of the office next week and so is bringing another senior associate, Emily, up to speed on the matter.  The list of names in Outlook's "CC" box grows longer.

Chris (the General Counsel) suddenly sees something in the email chain of particular interest and replies to Bob, but doesn't use reply all. Bob responds, remembering to copy Dave and Emily to keep them informed, but completely forgetting about Alice. In the meantime, Alice has seen the same issue and responded to an earlier email in the chain. Bob now has two separate emails asking about the same thing, and replies to each.

Bob goes on leave and Emily duly takes over. The matter progresses during the course of the week and Emily copies Bob on each and every email to make sure he knows what happens when he is back in the office.

Dave is pretty busy at the best of times and hasn't paid the slightest bit of attention to any emails about this particular matter (or in fact, any email where he is just CC'ed). Every email is just dropped into a subfolder of his inbox.

The matter is now finished to everyone's satisfaction. Filing time!

In the in-house legal team, Alice is quite meticulous about filing, and takes her time sorting through the various emails for duplicates and produces a complete record of all correspondence - or so it seems to her. She wasn't included on some of the correspondence when Chris forgot to use reply all.

Meanwhile at BigLaw, Bob has a comprehensive record of everything. But after having taken a week off he is under pressure with a dozen other deadlines. Bob makes a half-hearted effort at sorting out the various emails from his inbox, but totally forgets that there will be emails in his sent items too. Eventually he gives up and just selects all the emails to or from Alice or with a vaguely relevant subject line and drops them all into the firm's electronic records management system. He certainly doesn't bother to figure out which emails are part of a conversation thread and are so reproduced in replies and forwards. Down the hall, Emily has done exactly the same thing - though she remembers about sent items. The records management system begins to groan under the weight of 22 copies of an email saying "Are you free at 2pm to chat about this?".

Dave on the other hand doesn't believe in electronic filing. Instead he tells his secretary to print off all the emails in that particular subfolder. Physical files are created, holes are punched, and many reams of paper inserted.

Contrast that with a Slack channel:

Alice creates a channel and invites Bob and Chris to contribute. Bob in turn notifies Dave about it, and suggests he monitor it if he is interested or concerned (Bob is prudent and also tells Dave he will flag any items of particular concern to his attention). When Bob knows he needs to hand over to Emily, he simply invites her to the channel and invites her to read the full history of the matter. All messages are available to all users.

In this scenario, there is one single chain of communications, able to be monitored (or not) by the relevant individuals. There is no risk of mis-replies or duplication of messages.

Okay, sure. Sounds great. But you started off talking about not having to file emails?

Slack just isn't a different way of messaging. The Slack channel is the complete record of all communications relating to that particular matter. Slack's name is even an acronym for Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge. All communications are already sorted for subsequent reference (so long as you a Slack user). Slack also offers several export options. You could even print off the channel if you really have a thing for paper.

In addition to messages, Slack also allows you to exchange files (just like email attachments!). Given that these also appear in the channel, there is no need to separately file those either.

And for those that want to get really disruptive you could even consider an AI bot to help you parse your knowledge.

Slack and lawyers - what's the catch?

There are plenty of articles online arguing for and against the use of Slack by lawyers. However, even the pro-Slack articles acknowledge the difficulty that law firms will have in getting their clients to adopt Slack as a means of communication and collaboration. How do we get client's to use our Slack account? Why would they bother? What's the "killer app"? That is, what's the reason to shift away from email?

For me, Slack's killer app is killing off filing as a separate (painful) process. The productivity gains from Outlook's CC nightmare is another potential gain, though far harder to quantify.

But I would encourage in-house teams to consider Slack as a client-driven initiative. That is, the client, not the firm, should be requesting the use of Slack or another similar tool. External counsel will almost certainly have better (or at least, more lawyer-centric) filing systems than their in-house cousins. The benefits for in-house counsel are likely to be far more significant.

And in this sense, the alternatives do vary somewhat. Slack's general approach is that a single business "owns" the Slack account, with external users invited to contribute. Some other tools are somewhat more collaborative with a form of joint ownership. In the Slack model, I would suggest that the client should own the Slack account. All communications posted to that Slack account, whether from in-house lawyers or external counsel, are then controlled by the client.

Slack etiquette

For in-house teams and firms thinking about Slack or another team chat tool, one thing to consider is the expectations for Slack etiquette. One popular impression of Slack is that it's just an informal real-time messaging tool. Some anti-Slack articles bemoan the end of language as we know it as communications degenerate into emojis and text-speak. 

But there is no reason Slack has to be used that way, particularly for external communications (and certainly I have seen plenty of informal email communications too). However, expectations should be set that it is a business communication tool and communications should be made accordingly.

Credit: The Simpsons via http://knowyourmeme.com

Credit: The Simpsons via http://knowyourmeme.com

Oh, but, but... but it's in the cloud!

It's inevitable that some will be concerned about the idea cloud based communications. I will post more extensively on the cloud another time.  If that is a genuine concern for you or your business, a self-hosted option might be for you (for example, HipChat Server, or if you're really keen, Riot). But if that's your concern, remember that unless both the sender and recipient run their own email servers, email is "the cloud". Even then, email isn't a secure form of communication