The Good, The Bad, the “Listserv”

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I’ve signed up for one of my state bar association’s email listservs about five times in three years. I’ve subscribed five times because I’ve unsubscribed four. If you don’t know what a listserv is, the Pennsylvania Bar Association describes it as “an internet-based discussion group of individual subscribers. Discussions are accomplished through the use of e-mail.”

Listservs can be a good way to get some questions answered by attorneys that love answering questions (both correctly and incorrectly), but they can also be giant pains-in-the-ass.

Yay for Listserv!

Many states have multiple listservs, each dedicated specifically to one area of law. There are also some national listservs out there tailored to subscribers with common interests like “solo/small” law practice. By subscribing to a listserv, you get the benefit of receiving emails discussing updates in your field, difficult client scenarios and substantive discussions about nuanced state law in your field. If you are a relatively new attorney—as I am—a listserv can be a highly valuable learning tool because it’s an opportunity for you to hear about what is happening in your field.

Subscribing to a listserv also enables you to ask questions. I’ve written before about the value in asking stupid questions, and that principal still holds here. Often, when presented with a particular problem in your practice, you won’t know anyone who can directly answer your question or possibly even point you in the right direction. That’s where the listserv can come in. If you have a question that you can’t crack, you can send an email to scores of attorneys that are willing to answer your question. Advantage you.

You also aren’t alone in your need to ask questions. There are lots of other attorneys—new and old—tapping this resource for information, so it’s a great opportunity to learn where other lawyers get their answers. In my experience, folks are pretty good at showing their work in these email threads, so it allows you to go along for the ride. The really boring and very nerdy ride of knowledge. Pro-tip: If you keep all of these emails, you can also just search old email threads to see if a current question you have has been answered previously.

Boo to Listserv!

Do you love getting emails? I mean, like ALL the emails in the world? Then do I have a treat for you! If, however, you don’t love getting 20 emails a day, then you may occasionally get irritated after you join the a listserv.

In a previous post, I noted a recent study that checking emails while working makes you dumber than someone on drugs doing the same kind of work. If you have the same kind of Pavlovian “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, YOU HAVE EMAIL” response that I normally do, your workday may be in for a whole lot of interruptions if you subscribe to one or more lists.

I know other lawyers that specifically dedicated a new email address for these emails to alleviate the constant interruptions. I personally tried using Gmail filters to accomplish the same goal. Either of these is a better alternative than having a flood of emails in your inbox about joint-tenancy issues or some new bankruptcy case procedure, but it can still be a pain.

This is also fairly nitpicky, but if you are new to your field, you may dread reading through these emails because they will make you feel dumb and inadequate. Much of the time, the people providing answers to difficult questions on these email chains are well-reputed and very experienced attorneys. Reading over the ease with which they dissect the problems in these emails is not unlike watching Ken Jennings on “Jeopardy!;” you feel inexperienced, lost, and simple. These are discouraging feelings if you’ve never had them.

Joining up with one of your state’s listservs is still probably worth it. Aggravating, but worth it. The best advice I can give you is to make plans for the thousands of emails you’ll be getting, and be prepared to feel like an idiot. Also be prepared to learn quite a bit.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smilla4/4193154902/)

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  • The best thing about a bar association listserv is that you will automatically discover that there are a lot of lawyers a lot dumber than you engaged in the practice of law.

    It’s like Jerry Springer but for lawyers.

  • I subscribe to my state’s solo/small listserv. I send all the messages to a folder that I visit a couple of times a week just to mark everything as read. Once in a while, something interesting will catch my eye that tempts me to respond, but then I remember that I will get 27 out of office autoreplies if I do. So I rarely contribute, in other words.

    • If you just reply to the person asking the question you can avoid those out of office messages

      • But that defeats the purpose of a listserv. And it doesn’t change the fact that, if I wanted to post a question or comment myself, I would still get all those messages.

        Email lists kind of suck, is my point. A forum is generally a much better way to facilitate communication among a group of people.

  • Rhonda Panken

    I subscribe to a wonderful listserv for New Jersey attorneys, largely in solo and small practice, administered by the Washington University School of Law. We have regular meet-ups and many of the listserv participants have been incredible resources and supports to me in my journey to solo. I highly recommend such a list.

  • Rhonda Panken

    I subscribe to a wonderful listserv for New Jersey attorneys,in solo and small practice, administered by the Washington University School of Law. We have regular meet-ups and many of the listserv participants have been incredible resources and supports to me in my journey to solo. I highly recommend such a list. The generosity of the participants has been invaluable and amazing.

  • shg

    “Reading over the ease with which they dissect the problems in these emails is not unlike watching Ken Jennings on “Jeopardy!;” you feel inexperienced, lost, and simple. These are discouraging feelings if you’ve never had them.”

    This is a feature, not a flaw. If you’re inexperienced, lost and simple, best to know it and deal with it rather than give yourself a balloon and pretend you’re an expert on the internet.

    On the other hand, my experience with listservs is quite different, with idiotic questions receiving similary idioti answers. The problem is that the people asking were too “inexperienced, lost and simple” to realize that the people answering them were just as lost as they were.

    • Tyler White

      “This is a feature, not a flaw. If you’re inexperienced, lost and simple, best to know it and deal with it rather than give yourself a balloon and pretend you’re an expert on the internet.”

      True enough; we shouldn’t blame listservs or other lawyers for the occasional feelings of inadequacy that combat the ego of a new lawyer. We should just blame it on being new… it just sucks sometimes to be reminded of that fact.

      The passage you mention was intended more as a word of caution to newbies that sign up for these things, knowing full well that we need to occasionally be brought down a peg or two.

    • The problem is that the people asking were too “inexperienced, lost and simple” to realize that the people answering them were just as lost as they were.

      This. Again and again and again.

      Plus, no matter how experienced the attorney who responds, it’s really hard to give good advice to someone based on a fictionalized snippet of the facts in an email, often written by someone without sufficient experience to know which facts are the ones that make a difference. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from responding.

  • zocco

    I used to subscribe to the NYSBA Trusts & Estates Listserv. It was always the same three or four people answering every question.

  • I am an active member of about 10 list serves, most of them specific to my specialty, medical malpractice, and one specific to Macs in law offices. I probably receive 300+ e-mails a day from these list serves. Do I read them all? Absolutely not. I have rules set up to direct traffic from each to a specific folder for that list serve. I can then review them when it is convenient to me. I can usually just scan the subject line and delete most of the messages without reading them.
    But … when something is of interest to me, the information exchanged is invaluable. As a plaintiff’s attorney, the information and knowledge shared on our list serves helps level the playing field for my clients. It keeps me up to date on the latest developments, helps me to find (or avoid) experts and helps me to find referral attorneys for geographic or practice specific areas in which I don’t practice. I would NEVER think of practicing without my list serves.

    • It’s listserv by the way. Tyler wasn’t misspelling it. The name comes from the software originally (and often, still) used to host the mailing lists.

  • jennifer rose

    “I’ve written before about the value in asking stupid questions, and that principal still holds here.”

    Principle, not principal. Remember the rule.