Category: Tips & Tricks

First Blogging, Now Twittering

Many people just don’t get it about blogs. Even fewer are picking up on the potential of Twitter. Is it even on your radar screen?

What’s the big deal about blogs? Let’s clear that up if you’re still confused about it.

What makes a good blog unique is not just the more frequent postings than a “normal” web site. Rather, it’s about being able to subscribe and have the information come to you, instead of making you go out and find it. Sure, you can set up alerts in Google and/or Yahoo on topics of your choice, and get information that way. But that means you’ve got to be pretty good about the key words you use, and it also means there’s a lot of relevant or helpful information you’re going to miss.

Blogs are first and foremost about content — free content — and getting that content delivered to you at a location which is convenient. For example, you can have blog post announcements sent to your Outlook inbox, to a GMail inbox, or to an RSS feed aggregator like Bloglines, each of which helps to keep your Inbox leaner.

My method until recently was Bloglines, and it worked like a charm. But I had to actively go to my Bloglines home page in order to review the new posts from all the blogs I subscribe to. Recently, I set up an iGoogle customized screen, which incorporates all my favorite blogs. I was already using Google as my Internet Explorer home page. Now every time I open Internet Explorer all the blogs I subscribe to are neatly arranged and showing live links to the last 3 posts. Plus some other “personal” favorites like a Sudoku of the day. Love it. I go to IE throughout the day, so there’s less chance of missing something from one of my favorite blogs.

One other thing about blogs. Think of them as article-ettes. Posts of, hopefully, not more than 400 words on a topic, which is typically interlaced with links to additional reference material. That’s the second big think about blog posts. Instead of quoting others, the writer just provides the link(s) to referenced information found elsewhere. Truly putting the spider web design of the WWW to good use.

OK, so with blogs we find brief writings on topics of our interest with lots of links to further information, and we can subscribe to bring that information right to our desktop or other location automatically.

So what’s the diff about Twitter? Think of Twitter as the Instant Messaging format of a blog. Some call Twitter a “microblog” site. Imagine millions of people answering the question “What are you doing?” all day and night in “tweets” of 140 characters or fewer. That’s what Twitter is all about.

My impression of Twitter when it first made the scene was that I had way more important things to do than sit around all day reading the inane musings of dull people sharing the ins and outs of their day in excruciating minute by minute detail. That was before I read a recent post on the Deliberations blog site entitled “Twittering Voir Dire” which fired up my imagination. Imagine the live stream of information coming from the court room during a high profile trial. All the excitement and none of the boredom.

Hmmm . . . maybe I should reconsider that Facebook invite I got to join my cousin’s network? There are a whole host of new tools becoming available. Don’t let them blow past you without a little imagination on your part as to their potential.

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Need a Calculator?

Sometimes you need a specialty calculator, and need it now. Not to worry. The World Wide Web offers anything you need.

The ultimate calculator web site is Martindale’s Calculators On-line Center with links to over 23,000 calculators. Whether it’s a calculator for unit conversions (e.g. Fahrenheit to Celsius, pounds to kilograms), board feet, square roots or differential equations, you can locate it here.

Another option is the Google on-line virtual calculator. You just type the formula into Google and it completes the equation for you. You have to learn a few conventions (like using * for multiplication), but for most simple calculations this may be the only virtual calculator you need. It also handles units of measure and conversions, for example, entering “radius of Earth in miles” returns “radius of earth = 3 963.1676 miles.” Try it, it’s easy!

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Our Love – Hate Relationship with Email

Not since the fax machine has anything had such an impact on law firm operations as email has. Yet, despite the ubiquitous role of email at law firms, it is not a perfect relationship by any means. Email is an imperfect medium at best, and is prone to creating problems if not handled carefully. In fact, just about as soon as there was email, people were getting fired for using it incorrectly. In an article entitled “Our Love / Hate Relationship with Email,” which was recently posted to the web site of Freedman Consulting, the author explores the pros and cons on this medium, and offers a solid tip on where to find email etiquette training.

All attorneys and staff should read this article.

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Time to Renew Your DO NOT CALL Registration

The Do Not Call list offers citizens the opportunity to avoid most unwanted telemarketing calls. Under the law, the list is updated on a quarterly basis, and telemarketers have 30 days to remove new numbers from their call lists once the quarterly list becomes available. Telemarketers are subject to fines if they fail to comply.

The next updated information will be available to telemarketers on October 1, 2007. If you wish more information about this contact Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Thanks to Pennsylvania Bar Association tech guru Michael Smith for the following reminder:

Pennsylvanians who registered their telephone numbers for the Do Not Call list in 2002 will need to re-register by Sept. 15. State Attorney General Tom Corbett kicked off a sign-up campaign this morning, as registration for the list is only valid for five years from the date of initial participation.

“This Do Not Call List has been wildly popular,” said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Hampden. “One million Pennsylvanians registered for it in the first two weeks it was operational in 2002, and millions more have registered in the past five years.”

Subscribers can register their names, addresses and up to 5 landline and/or cell phone numbers by calling (888) 777-3406 or by visiting www.nocallsplease.com.

The toll-free hotline and Web site are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Office of the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing the law and handling registrations.

If people do not re-register by Sept. 15, their numbers will be dropped from the registry on Nov. 1.

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Protecting Online Communities and Listservs from Trolls

Ok, we have a few new things to absorb here. This is about trolls, troll-whisperers, disemvoweling, and mostly about participating productively and peaceably in message boards, listservs, and on-line communities.

First, many of you have noticed that I have been conspicuously negligent in posting. That is because I am in the final throes of preparation for the first Managing Partner Development Institute What You Didn’t Learn in Law School Conference, which is scheduled for June 1 and 2, 2007 at the state-of-the-art Normandy Farms Hotel and Conference Center in Blue Bell, PA. With all undue modesty aside, the content of this event is phenomenal for current and aspiring managing partners of law firms from 2 to 50+ attorneys in size. Registrations are coming in briskly from PA, MD, NJ and DE. I hope you will consider joining us.

Now to the topic at hand — many of you have participated in an online message board or listserv and encountered a troll. A troll is someone who comes onto an online community looking to pick fights. A troll has two victory conditions: either everyone ends up talking about him, or no one talks at all. Unfortunately it can take only one troll to significantly squash meaningful interaction in an online forum. There are also unknowing trolls who are not mean-spirited, but have the same effect.

Back in the days when CompuServe was about the only option for listservs or bulletin boards, I participated in one such listserv set up by a chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. There was in fact a troll who became more and more vitriolic over time, to the extent that people ultimately became silenced. They were loathe to post because they did not want to subject themselves to the biting sarcastic comments of the troll. Eventually many people left the forum.

What was particularly sad was that the troll, in person, was a very nice, affable person. He did not intend to be a troll. He just thought he was more clever than he was, and his sense of humor may have come across in person, but in email text the words were biting and way too critical. When I attempted to point out the problem to listserv moderators and regular participants, they rushed to the defense of the troll. After all, the regulars “knew” him, and knew the spirit in which words were written. But that did not make it more palatable for those new to the forum, or unfamiliar to the troll.

On the Pennsylvania Bar Association listserv there are two well-meaning trolls who occasionally stir up flame wars by posting what they believe are humorous (one troll) or particularly insightful (the other troll) comments. The results usually reverberate quickly; resulting in departures from the listserv, but more a temporary flame war which subsides after a troll-whisperer posts soothing thoughts to cool the flames.

My experience here is the same as it was back in the CompuServe days, though. When I attempt to point out the problem to the appropriate person(s), they rush to the defense of the troll. I am encouraged by the fact that fewer of the people who lurk in the background stand by silently and endure the trolls words directed at others, nor do they just quietly cancel subscriptions. They are speaking up more and more often, in an effort to appropriately civilize the listserv and it’s participants.

I came across a particularly interesting post written by Cory Doctorow entitled “How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community” and you may find it equally worthwhile reading, particularly if you are active in a listserv or bulletin board. There’s some technical stuff in there which is not necessary to understand unless you’re running your own forum. I anticipated mean-spirited trolls when I designed my blog by turning off comments. I had heard too many horror stories about trolls posting pornographic, derogatory, or outright threatening comments. I wanted to take no chances. If someone contacts me through my blog or web site with an insightful comment I respond privately or create a new post in which it’s included.

What’s amazing is that if you read the above-referenced article, it contains reference to a blogger who actually received so many death threats through her blog that she cancelled a speaking engagement and has been virtually bunkered down in her house ever since.

We’re fortunate that our legal community doesn’t often encounter that kind of psychological depravity. No, our trolls are strictly well-intentioned people who are incapable of “hearing themselves” through the eyes of others. They simply don’t know how poorly their words come across, or how many negative feelings they may inadvertently be generating.

My suggestion to all of you who are participants in listservs or bulletin boards — and that includes all you lurkers out there who read but do not post — is that you do not put up with trolls and their actions. Doctorow says that a talented troll-whisperer suggests picking up the phone to have a few calm words with the troll. It may be the only way to help the miscreant “see” their words from the perspective of others. Even if you don’t want to pick up the phone, I encourage you to post in response. Not start a flame war, mind you. Just a simple post which says “Whether purposefully intended or not, your post offends the spirit of civility which normally pervades this forum.”

That’s my troll-whisperer methodology, and I’m sticking to it.

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When a Small Tech Adjustment Turns Into a Big Tech Headache

Too many IT people step over the line from cutting edge to bleeding edge or wind up just plummeting off the edge entirely into an endless free-fall of bad consequences for all end-users, all for the lack of a little forethought and well-considered conservatism. I’ve seen it one too many times.

Whether the IT person is in-house talent or outside service personnel, the result is too often the same. An hour after they leave, or sometimes moments after they arrive, the system comes screeching or grinding to a halt over a careless action. And they are either unavailable or powerless to fix it, leaving the end users holding the bag.

Example? How about the IT person who decided to just shut down a network without prior notice or query to implement a “3 minute” power supply replacement, only to find the system would not reboot with the new supply, and the old one officially died upon removal. Oh, did I mention that a lawyer was in the conference room in the middle of a 4+ hour complicated closing at the time? You would have thought it was the fourth of July based on the fireworks.

Example? How about the IT person who heard a funny noise coming from the PBX phone switch and decided to reboot it on the chance it would take care of the problem. Want to take a guess? Yep, you got it. It was an impending hard drive controller failure, and the hard drive failed when it stopped spinning. The firm was without phone service for over 24 hours, and lost all its voicemail messages, current and saved.

Example? How about the IT department at Research in Motion making a minor software update that was supposed to optimize system cache memory, without adequately testing it first? Want to take a guess? Well, if you know any Blackberry users, you probably already know most needed a padded cell and/or methadone to deal with the withdrawal symptoms when the system failed and left literally millions of users jonesing to use their thumbs from late Tuesday, April 17th, into Wednesday the 18th. Complicating matters was the fact that the company’s backup system also “performed poorly.”

“The system routine was expected to be non-impacting with respect to the real-time operation of the BlackBerry infrastructure, but the pre-testing of the system routine proved to be insufficient,” Research in Motion said in a statement.

I don’t care whether you outsource your IT, have your own in-house talent, or if you literally do it yourself. Just always keep in mind that you should never mess around with anything, no matter how “simple” or “straight-forward” or “non impacting” you think it will be, without first asking yourself what you can do to undo it if the worst happens. Do you have the ability to “go back” software-wise short of a full restore? If you have to do a restore, do you have a current backup? Have you done a restore recently, or even tested your back-up to make sure it will work as desired when needed?

If the system is down, even for a few minutes, who will be affected? Have you checked with them to see if they can deal with it without adversely impacting client deadlines?

How will you fix it if it turns into a boo-boo? How long will it take?

Always test everything you can in advance. Always make sure you have a full software backup before installing any software, patch update, whatever. Never ever power down unless you are pretty darn sure you can power back up, or have back-up hardware available. One thing I’ve learned time and time again — if you suspect a hardware problem, the worst thing is to power down before a technician with replacement parts arrives or is enroute. Ok, we’ll make an exception when there’s smoke coming out of the exhaust vent. 🙂

If we learn nothing else from RIM’s recent outage, it should be to remind us that there is virtually nothing we can do to our computers which is truly “non impacting,” so always take a conservative approach.

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MetaGlossary

Sometimes you just need to know what something means — a word, a phrase, or an acronym. The MetaGlossary site now defines over 2,000,000 terms and phrases, and it’s easy to use. Just enter your search query, and you’ll get back a list of definitions, and the web pages from where they are defined. You can rate the definition and email it to a friend, if you like. If you’re using the Firefox browser, you can install a MetaGlossary plug-in that will allow you to run queries on a toolbar.

This tip comes from Internet Legal Research Weekly which is published by Tom Mighell. Each weekly issue features a few blogs, some “legally relevant” web sites, and at least one or two games.

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Yahoo Shortcuts

I’m not often wowed, but this is a real time saver. My congratulations to Yahoo, and my appreciation to Mary Ellen Bates for yet another fabulous internet search tip.

I’ve mentioned Mary Ellen Bates of Bates Information Services in my blog before. Her blog posts are about the most helpful around for internet sites and search tips which are actually universally helpful and simple to use. Her tip of March 24th (ok, I’m a little behind in my reading, aren’t you?) turned me on to Yahoo’s Personalized Shortcuts — searches that get you answers as well as web sites.

You can find a listing of the available shortcuts and instructions on how to use them here.

If you type “area code San Francisco” the first entry in the search results page will be text, rather than a URL: “The area code for San Francisco, CA is 415, 650 This city also exists in the US states of: CO – NM.”

In addition to these helpful search shortcuts, you can also create your own shortcuts — essentially a macro that executes a command. You can find the instructions on how to do so here.

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X Marks the DOC

Many lawyers believe that they can avoid upgrading to the Microsoft Office 2007 Suite and Windows Vista for a while and be unaffected by the recent Microsoft upgrades. Those lawyers would be wrong, however. Documents created with Word, PowerPoint or Excel 2007 utilize a different file format and cannot be opened in the 2003 versions of those products.

Instead of Word documents ending with the file name extension .doc, the new format is .docx. We are already getting the first reports of lawyers who are unable to open their client’s documents. If your firm has upgraded to the latest versions, you will want to take care to make certain that your clients do not have a similar frustration if you send them documents in this format.

Here are some tips:

1) If you’re not going to upgrade your software for a while, go to the Microsoft Web site at http://tinyurl.com/y5a879. There you can download and install the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats.

2) Even though the new file format offer some benefits, you can make your clients’ lives easier by simply using “Save as” to save any document you wish to send to them with the old file format.

3) If you are just sending a client a document to review, consider whether it is better to send it in PDF format than Word or Excel.

4) The following Web site offers free file conversion, but one would want to only use this for non-confidential documents: http://www.docx2doc.com.

My appreciation to the Oklahoma and South Carolina Bar Associations for including this information in their respective E-Newsletters. It reminded me to post it again on the blog, now that the software has actually been released.

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Verify Your Email Addresses

Misdirected emails are no joke. The addition or deletion of just one character in the address can send confidential or merely embarrassing information moving at the speed of byte. A Boston law firm recently had this lesson glaringly reinforced. I had to share it both for the humor, and for the lesson clearly illustrated. I read about it online in an article by Roger Parloff in CNN Money.com. He writes:

Job application etiquette: the polite rejection letter

A lawyer I know sent me the following email exchange relating to an interview for employment at a trusts & estates firm in Boston. I verified its authenticity from both ends of the exchange, but have taken pity on the law firm, and will withhold its name and that of its administrator. The exchange demonstrates the importance of examining email addresses closely for unexpected things like middle initials or appended numbers. (For ease of reading, I’ve rearranged the thread so you can read from top to bottom.)

====================
From: A.L.
Date: February 14, 2007
Subject: Law clerk position
To: Samuel F.

Hi Sam,

I am in touch with you regarding your email to M. L. about employment with our firm. We are currently looking for a temporary law clerk.

I’d be happy to meet with you. Please let me know when you’re available.

Thanks!

A. L.
Administrator
[Law Firm and address omitted]
Boston, MA 02108
====================

From: Samuel F.
Date: Feb 20, 2007 6:25 PM
Subject: Re: Law clerk position
To: A.L.

Dear Ms. L.,

Your message was a pleasant surprise. Regrettably, I must decline. My schedule as a second-grader is quite hectic already. Moreover, I am very busy planning my eighth birthday party next month.

I will of course keep you in mind when I graduate from law school in 2024.

Yours,
Samuel F.
====================

Yesterday I spoke to A.L., who said she’d meant to write to a different Samuel F. –a recent graduate of American University Law School who had submitted a resume to the firm–but had inadvertently omitted a character from the email address.

Since the Samuel F. who received the email also happens to be the son of a lawyer, I have my suspicions that his father may have lent him some assistance with his reply.

Gee, you think? 🙂 You’ve got to love a lawyer with a wry sense of humor. I’m sure this exchange will be the subject of much laughter at cocktail parties and bar events for years to come. And thanks to the internet, it is already being shared globally.

But the underlying events aren’t really very funny for law firms, so wipe that smile off your face. Imagine that instead of a job interview offer, the email contained sensitive or embarrassing information, or worse, a confidential and potentially dangerous attachment which was not encrypted or passworded. What consequences, aside from the humiliation the Boston firm — certainly not anonymous in their local community — suffered, would accrue? Malpractice? Probably. Economic loss? Probably. Damage to the firm’s reputation? Definitely. This really is no joking matter.

For a few years now I have been privy to confidential email exchanges among a group of teachers in New Hampshire. No matter how many times I “reply to all” to advise that I am not the person they wish to include in their mailing list, and request to be removed, I still continue to occasionally receive emails from one of them who has not made the correction. Troubling that despite my repeated warnings and requests, I still receive emails here and there all this time later.

If you’re thinking this can’t happen at your firm, think again. With the common practice of decentralizing contacts, it’s easy for one person to receive or note a correction, while others are not notified and continue to use an incorrect address. When email addresses are entered “on the fly” by typing them into the address line, mistakes abound. Even use of the “address autocomplete” feature in Outlook can have dire consequences for those whose mouse skills are sloppy — it’s just too easy to accidentally click on the wrong name in the suggested list of names.

One of my fellow practice management advisors in another state suggests turning off the address autocomplete feature as a safety precaution. I disagree. I think that’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s a tool which is a real time-saver. But as with any tool, one must use it carefully and skillfully.

Personally, I find that the address autocomplete at least eliminates the possibility of totally typing in a wrong address for someone who has previously written to me. If the name does not pop up in the suggested list as I start typing, I know I’ve mistyped. So I find that it is a safety feature to have it ENABLED rather than DISABLED. [Tools / Options / Preferences / Email Options / Advanced Email Options / check box for “Suggest Names While Completing . . .” ]

On the other hand, I must admit that I have on rare occasion sloppily clicked on the wrong name in the suggested list of names. And that leads to the next point — always double check that you have the correct party(s) in the address line(s) before you hit send.

Try to use a centralized contact list at your firm. That way if a correction is made, everyone will use the corrected address. Create a contact for anyone you will probably want to maintain contact with, no matter how infrequently. If you take care in creating the contact accurately, thereafter, you use that contact address, and can’t inadvertently misdirect email. Ok, you’re thinking that if you have four John Smiths in the database, you might pick the incorrect one. But that’s why you have the free text area in your contacts — so that you can enter enough information about the person or company so that you can correctly identify them later.

If I click the “TO…” address button on an email, it takes me into contacts. If I then search on “Smith” and come up with four names, I click on one and click “Properties” which opens a view of the entire contact. I look at the company name, text area, and sometimes (often, actually) I have an actual photo of the contact. With these additional pieces of information I can be sure of the selected contact. And not worry about mistyping.

I also include the company name in the title of the email address. So for the name associated with the email address I don’t let Outlook default to johnsmith@yahoo.com. Instead I type John Smith @ ABC Law Firm. That way it is much easier for me to pick the correct name from the address autocomplete list, and to spot mistakes before I hit SEND.

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