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Monthly Archives: August 2013

ANALYZING MAILING LIST TRAFFIC

 

The mailing list seemed like a huge one, listing some 2,500 subscribers in its ranks. Its activity appeared remarkable, issuing forth over six million messages to those subscribers in a month’s time. But was it really that busy, or were the numbers elusive?

 

Of those 2,500 subscribers, 775 had their subscriptions set to NOMAIL, which meant that they weren’t receiving individual messages. Some of those used that setting, because they had multiple e­-mail addresses and wanted the ability to post from any e-mail address, while receiving mail from but one. Others only wanted to be able to access list messages from the list’s archives on the web, sparing their inboxes from extra mail. Some may have been on vacation, and some may have just wanted to be in the club.

 

That left 1725 subscribers who received mail from the list. Four hundred of those received the digest version of the list, which would mean that those subscribers would not receive each and every individual message. Instead, a daily compilation of the list’s activity would hit their inboxes. That left only 1325 list subscribers who received list mail as individual messages – just a hair over the total list’s subscriber base.

 

Working the numbers, the results revealed that the number of messages per subscriber were nearly double the amount shown at first blush. It was clear that a simple read of the number of subscribers and the number of messages did not show the whole picture. Even a count of the subscribers who were receiving individual messages doesn’t reveal whether those subscribers are actually opening the messages, reading them and savoring every word. Many list subscribers simply direct incoming listserve mail to a special e-mail address or mailbox, looking at it only sporadically or long enough to delete, giving it as much attention as another missive from Publishers Clearinghouse. The number of subscribers who actually pay attention to their listserve mail may be much, much lower than the subscription numbers and list activity reveal.

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MAILING LIST OR MESSAGE BOARD?

Why do mailing lists thrive when message boards fail? Almost every active mailing list, once it reaches a certain size, flirts with the notion of converting itself to a message board. There’s something seductive about the allure of a message board, fueled by an application fancier and more elaborate than mailing list packages. Crossing that threshold can be a dangerous step for a successful mailing list.

Mailing lists push, and message boards pull. What does that mean? The mailing list delivers each message to every subscriber’s inbox, pushing itself at even the laziest subscriber; participants to a message board must make the effort to go to the web-based board. Busy subscribers need the push of a mailing list, because the trip to a message board can easily fall into the category of optional activities, postponement leading to forgetting about it entirely. The personal nature of push, right down to each message delivered to the subscriber with his very own name at the top, keeps subscribers invested and develops a sense of community that just isn’t present in pull systems.

Message boards can be configured to deliver many features that mailing lists offer, notifying subscribers of new posts, enabling subscribers to receive notification of new posts made under a certain thread. Archived posts reside right on the message board, while mailing list subscribers must access archives separately from the list itself. Web-based systems seem better suited for narrowly defined and technical subject areas than general discussion about broader issues. Consequently, users may visit a message board with less frequency, on an as-needed basis, losing contact with the online community. The seeming anonymity and lack of personalization creates less involvement in the pull system of a message board.

Except in moderated lists, a post made is a bell that can’t be unrung. It’s out there and delivered to all subscribers, even when that post may veer from the list’s subject matter and standards. Message boards offer the luxury of removing errant posts. Mailing list subscribers shoulder a greater burden of responsibility for posts.

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IT’S NOT NICE TO FORWARD MAILING LIST MESSAGES

Many law-related mailing lists entertain a rule that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” and it’s downright disappointing when subscribers violate that rule. A core value of many law-related mailing lists is that information shared among list subscriber remains within the community and is not be shared with outsiders. A list, particularly a closed one, has a bond among its subscribers and a sense of community. One of the early tenets of mailing list etiquette was “Never forward a post outside of the list to which it was originally submitted.” And that rule is often ignored by well-intended list subscribers who don’t give a second thought to re-posting a list message to another list without seeking permission. You’d think they’d know better, but they don’t.

 

The forwarded post doesn’t even have to reveal a deeply-held secret. Let’s even forget the matter of who owns the posts made to a list. More often than not, a list subscriber simply asks a question, and another subscriber forwards that message to another list, thinking he’s being helpful. Or the subscriber will forward that message to someone not on the mailing list whom he thinks has the answer, expecting that the recipient is so interested in helping others that he or she will jump to provide answers. Every week or so, an AV-rated lawyer who really ought to know better, will forward me a message he’s received from a mailing list, suggesting that I respond to a subscriber who wants to know something about law in Mexico. My initial polite responses descended to “I’m not on the mailing list, and I’m not about to answer questions to someone who hasn’t asked me,” and then finally to simply deleting the message without any response.

 

The better route is to suggest either on-list or privately that So-and-So might have the answer. The subscriber posing the question doesn’t deserve to have his or her ignorance broadcast beyond the mailing list. Think twice before blithely forwarding that query on to others.

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GIVE BACK OR GET OUT

 

“What you take from the Net you must give back,” said the young in altruistic and sanctimonious tones back in the early days of the Internet. And before long, as use of the Internet became ubiquitous and everyone just got too busy, all of that was forgotten. Everyone just took it for granted.

 

Most discussion groups try to encourage subscribers to introduce themselves, asking for their participation, but those pleas almost never go beyond mere lip service. Sacramento area lawyer Jonathan Stein, who developed Solo Marketing, http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/solomarketing/, a list designed to discuss marketing ideas for solo and small law firms, two and a half years ago, decided enough was enough, and he laid down the law a few months ago. He not only broadcast the list’s rules to subscribers, but his enforcement of those rules caught subscribers’ attention. And in the process, he conquered list bloat, making a reduced number of subscribers value the list and contribute.

 

Stein’s rules were easy enough to follow. Subscribers were required to complete the database, revealing their names, city and state, practice area, phone number, and website. They were required to introduce themselves to the list within a week of joining it, reveal their real names when sending e-mail, and include a signature block containing their names, locations and phone numbers. The business of posting to the list wasn’t simply a precatory matter, but a mandate. He enforced the rules by deleting those subscribers who just wanted to sit back and lurk. Those list subscribers who were content simply to be passive list members, assigning about a much value to the list as one might attach to a copy of The Watchtower left at the doors by the ever-thoughtful Jehovah’s Witnesses, might have been piqued at first, but Stein’s approach of “Give back or get out” worked.

 

The days of altruism in mailing lists may not be over after all.

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THE DRAMA QUEEN’S GUIDE TO INFAMY ON MAILING LISTS

 

It can take months for many list subscribers to work their way up to persona non grata status, but a determined lawyer can go from being completely unknown to batting less than zero in only a few days. With little concerted effort, a list newbie can make a lasting impression upon a thousand or more lawyers who participate in a law-related mailing list to share information, seek answers, network and socialize. The online behavior of some of these lawyers can make bystanders hope that a poseur stolen the identity of the poor, misbegotten lawyer.

 

Let’s explore some of the ways a new subscriber can convince other lawyers on a mailing list that he or she is a complete idiot:

 

  • Ignore the list’s rules, declaring that your familiarity with online communities trumps the rules. Flout all rules and conventions.

 

  • Before introducing yourself, and within only a few days of joining the list, point out to the list all of its failings, from the threads under discussion to the participants’ style and even the mechanics of a list’s operation. Your time is simply too valuable to be spent lurking and discovering a list’s culture.

 

  • Draw particular attention to your posts by using ALL CAPs, poor grammar and inorthography.

 

  • Personally attack, insult and deride one or more of the list’s Most Valued Players.

 

  • Rebuff all attempts at reason, lobbing taunts of unprofessionalism. Be sure to call your detractors insecure, unsuccessfully, and obviously lacking in intelligence.

 

  • Respond to every post, either on-list or off, and then complain that the list’s taking up too much of your valuable time.

 

  • Deliberately foment discord to draw attention in your direction, and prove that your unwillingness to rise about the fray.

 

  • Scream “invasion of privacy” if anyone mentions any Googled reference about you.

 

  • Threaten legal action against the listowner, the list’s sponsor, list subscribers and anyone within earshot.
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MAKE YOUR SIGNATURE MEAN SOMETHING

Signature bloat on mailing lists has to stop. And so, too, does signature sloth.

Some mailing lists require that every post include the sender’s signature, revealing name, address, serial number and really important stuff; others may only require that information on a subscriber’s debut post. And some don’t care one way or another. That doesn’t mean that the same signature block, which often includes all conceivable contact information as well as a link to the subscriber’s website, blog, AIM name, ICQ#, Yahoo Identity, MSN Identity, alternate cell phone numbers, Skype address, CB radio handle, and favorite slogan necessarily has to appear at the end of every post.

Readers’ eyes glaze over after seeing the same signature block post after post, and before long, all of that information becomes less meaningful than a full e-mail header. Couple that with the obligatory tag lines inserted by the list host, broadcasting that the mailing list is a service of the Wonderful Non-profit Lawyer’s Club, a subsidiary of the For-Profit Lawyer’s Guild, the “how to get off of this list” instruction, and the plug for the sponsoring organization’s annual bake sale and CLE event, and before long, the automatically-inserted material exceeds the hand-crafted content. When a subscriber fails to trim all of the extraneous matter from a reply, even more useless bulk is added to the message. And the carelessly inserted automatic block sometimes appears at the end of the post, mixed in with some previous poster’s signature, rendering it practically useless. Fiber may be a part of a good diet, but mailing lists for busy lawyers can do without the added roughage.

“It’s automatic,” claim the lazy. That’s nonsense. Nearly every modern e-mail program offers up the ability to use multiple signatures. Even though the humble Gmamil offers the option of a single signature or none at all, Lifehacker.com has a method available for those just want to see if it can be done at http://tinyurl.com/yr2evf. (I’m not sure which is more extreme: using Gmail as the primary law office e-mail client or trying to refill a Bic pen.)

Different purposes demand different signatures, and the signature block should be periodically changed, if for no reason other than eye appeal. A short signature block can convey just as much necessary information as one which approaches the length of a Tolstoy novel. Even something as simple as:

Joe Lawyer

Austin, Texas

LawList subscriber since 1995

 

will do the job. Just make sure that it appears where it’ll credit and identify the author of the post.

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DON’T ASK TOO MANY QUESTIONS

 

The ink wasn’t dry on the new lawyer’s bar card before he joined a mailing list, and he pounded the list with post after post, as many as twenty in a single day. What was the difference between an hourly rate of $150 and $250? Could a lawyer cold call prospective clients? What’s the difference between a demand and an offer? Did anyone have a form for a non-engagement letter? The shopping list of queries went on and on, and the list’s subscribers became outraged. Acknowledging the freewheeling nature of the Internet, they knew that “annoying” and “pestering” should not be part of the deal, and they snickered that the newbie was taxing the list’s patience.

 

How can you avoid overusing a mailing list?

  • Lurk, and learn the list culture before posting. Don’t simply hop on to a mailing list and interrogate the community before learning its standards and style.

 

  • Make a preliminary effort to find the answer on your own.

 

  • Use Google or another search engine to ferret out answers to questions of fact.

 

  • Explore and mine the list’s archived messages. The same question may have already been asked and answered, even as recently as last month. Some responses have the shelf life of a Hostess Twinkie.

 

  • Frame your questions carefully. Well-drafted questions elicit better answers. Think before posting, paring down extraneous matter, and getting to the heart of the problem.

 

  • Let responses to your questions season before jumping in with a request for clarification. You’re not cross-examining the witness. List subscribers volunteer their time and expertise, and they deserve respect. While some mailing lists thrive on debate, it’s not good form to pepper those who respond with challenges and requests for clarification until you’ve learned the list culture. Many who respond are content to freely provide answers, but they’re not willing to sit back in the cyber-equivalent of the Socratic Method. Wait until all of the answers have been delivered before responding.

 

  • Don’t respond to each post separately, even if it’s an expression of gratitude.

 

  • Pace yourself. Don’t ask more than a few questions a week.

 

Remember the lesson about the boy who cried wolf. The list subscriber who asks too many questions will find himself ignored when he really needs an answer.

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WHEN RULES RUN AMOK

 

Managing and moderating a mailing list had worn out one list owner’s patience, and the loss of friendships she’d incurred bothered her even more. Instead if simply transferring the hereditaments of list ownership to some other soul or closing down the list, she opted to take another approach. She appointed a committee of three volunteers to manage the list, charging one with the administrative chores, another with the back-breaking task of moderating the list, and the third to simply fill out the ranks of the committee, acting as a tie-breaker. That wasn’t a bad idea, but the disgruntled list owner didn’t stop there. Lest any of the triumvirate risk censure, ridicule or ill will among the rest the list, she went on to cloak each in anonymity, setting up special user names for each, informing the entire list that the committee’s identity would be kept secret. The entire scheme bore the scent of Klansmen cloaked in white hoods. Or a mailing list operating under the auspices of Homeland Security.

The committee’s anonymity, the list owner insisted, would permit them to carry out the administrative and moderating functions of running the list without impairing their relationships with other subscribers, leaving the secret committee free to participate in the list under their real names.

“What kind of nonsense is this?” the list subscribers uniformly cried out. It was clear that they really didn’t relish the concept of having a mailing list, which had been moving along just fine, suddenly being patrolled by the unknown of their own. They even likened the action to the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and the Red Scare. The move was extreme and over the top. Anyone moderating a list, or even taking on the background role of housekeeping, should be identifiable and part of the list – even if it does spell exercising some restraint and good behavior as a participant in the list. Sometimes lawyers and listowners take governance to the extreme.

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WE’RE FROM THE GOVERNMENT, AND WE’VE GOT A LIST FOR YOU

The U.S. government harbors a trove of mailing list resources useful to lawyers. Exploring just one cabinet-level agency lead us to some interesting finds. Nearly all of these lists are announcement-only, but there are some fascinating gems among them.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.hhs.gov) is a behemoth bureaucracy, but within it repose myriad resources for the adventurous list-lurker. Exploring only a small segment of that department revealed enough lists to flood anyone’s inbox. We took a peek at only a tiny corner, coming up with the gazillion lists operated by the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nih.gov/) has a gazillion lists shown at https://list.nih.gov/cgi-bin/show_list_archives, ranging from CYTOKN-L, the NIH Cytokine Interest Group (CIG) email discussion forum with 521 subscribers to MEDIGAPENFORCE, Medigap Regulation and Enforcement Activities with some 2,839 subscribers.

That was more than a little mind-boggling, so we snuck over to another side of the same department’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration (http://www.fda.gov), where we found yet another menu of lists at

http://www.fda.gov/emaillist.html. This page provided more description and categorization of its lists, along with subscription buttons and notes about the frequency of distribution of lists ranging from Drug Shortages and FDA-related Federal Register Notices to Breast Implants. Deciding to narrow down the search, we took a look at the Indian Health Service (http://www.ihs.gov/), still within the same department, where we found yet more lists at http://www.ihs.gov/cio/listserver/index.cfm?module=list&option=list&newquery=1, ranging from Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence to the Behavioral Health Initiative Newsletter and the Breastfeeding Forum. Returning to the HHS home page and exploring some more, we came upon the Office for Civil Rights-Privacy Listserv at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/listserv.html, which promised information about the OCR HIPAA Privacy Rule educational materials, FAQs, guidance and technical assistance materials.

Who knows what finds might lurk within the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice? We’ll just have to find out another day.

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DO LISTSERVES MAKE LAWYERS LAZY AND INCOMPENT?

 

Des Moines, Iowa, personal injury lawyer Steve Lombardi, who blogs at InjuryBoard (http://desmoines.injuryboard.com), thinks that listserves “have become a place where lazy lawyers fool themselves into thinking they can get questions answered and avoid associating with more qualified lawyers, and in his blog post “Lawyers’ LISTSERVS can be a disservice to clients” (http://tinyurl.com/2le7gn), he called upon trial associations to take the reigns in monitoring just how law-related listserves should be used.

Carolyn Elefant, blogging at MyShingle (www.myshingle.com) took him to task at once, in a post “Listserves: The Problem or the Solution for Improving Lawyer Competency?” (http://tinyurl.com/23rkn8), defending the free-wheeling nature of legal mailing lists, and insisting that “even before listserves, lawyers accepted cases beyond their skills for a variety of reasons: sometimes to gain experience, sometimes because of greed and sometimes because they don’t even know that they’re out of their depth. Rather than exacerbate this problems, listserves offer a solution, by serving as a lifeline to lawyers in over their head.”

In the space of a single day, the food fight was on, commentators to MyShingle lining up to agree with Elefant’s position. Was Lombardi just having a bad hair day? His response (http://tinyurl.com/2ypffp) signaled that he was holding tight to his guns.

Using a law-related listserve as a substitute for legal research and relying solely upon information conveyed in listserve would be about as prudent as performing brain surgery after watching a YouTube presentation, but listserves do remain an important tool in any lawyer’s arsenal. Free exchange of advice and relationship-building among lawyers predated the invention of e-mail; lawyers once gathered in the attorneys’ room over at county courthouse and compared notes for years before anyone ever thought up the idea of a computer. Lawyers learned to ferret out those who knew what they were talking about and to winnow out bad advice back in the old days, and they’re just as capable of doing so today.

 

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