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Commentary: Gmail a useful communications tool

Looking for a good, free e-mail provider? Just Google it.

About.com released its "Readers Choice Awards 2010" this spring. The overwhelming favorite was Google's Gmail for "Best Free Email Service." Forty-six percent of survey participants opted for Gmail, over competitors GMX Mail (21 percent), Yahoo! Mail (19 percent), and Windows Live Hotmail (8 percent).

In addition, Lifehacker polled its readers last summer about their favorite e-mail service for Web mail, and 80 percent of the more than 18,000 votes cast were for Gmail.

I discovered these results when I Googled "the most popular e-mail service." To be sure Google wasn't fudging anything, I used the same search terms on Bing. The same results appeared, more or less.

Perhaps a less scientific, but still persuasive, measure is to simply open at random the Wisconsin Lawyer member directory we receive every January. On just about any page, you'll find someone listing a Gmail address for e-mail – or Yahoo, MSN, etc.

Clearly, free Web mail is popular, and Gmail appears to be the most popular of the free Web mail services.

Gmail in the Law Office

At the recent State Bar of Wisconsin Annual Convention, the association's law practice management adviser, Nerino Petro, recommended using Gmail for e-mail management.

If you're on a list serve, for example, you might want to use the Gmail account for those communiqués so they're kept apart from client e-mail. You can view them at your convenience. Moreover, if you're ever drowning in e-mail, you can just visit that account and delete. You might miss out on a smart tip, but you won't be committing legal malpractice, either.

Another, similar use that comes to mind is using Gmail for e-filing. What's being sent is all public record, after all, and messages from the court can be easily retrieved.

Petro also discussed using Gmail for client communications while preserving confidentiality. He spoke of the nonbinding authority for the proposition that it's ethically permissible.

The New York State Bar Association gave it the thumbs-up in Opinion 820 (Feb. 8, 2008). The issue was the use of e-mail that scans e-mails for advertising purposes; the answer was, it's OK as long as it's software doing the scanning, rather than human beings.

Apparently and unfortunately, no other committee or court has considered the question in the two years that have passed.

When you Google – or Bing (is that a word?) – "should lawyers use Gmail," you'll find mixed reviews.

Last summer, Toby Brown, one of the authors of "Three Geeks and a Law Blog," said it's an ethics breach. Then again, Ernest Svenson, better known as "Ernie the Attorney," highly recommends Gmail.

Incidentally, both have been honored as ABA Blawg 100 recipients, which lends them both a certain degree of credibility in the Blawgosphere.

In comparison to its competitors, Ernie likes that Gmail has lots of online storage, is searchable, and offers threaded e-mails, so related e-mails, i.e. those with the same subject line and recipients, are grouped together.

The Local Perspective

Baraboo lawyer Andrew I. Martinez says lately, he uses his Gmail account primarily for personal use, or for extracurriculars – it's the address he lists for his participation in the State Bar's Solo and Small Firm Committee, for example. However, before he and his law partner established their firm's own domain name, he used Gmail for client communications, and occasionally he still uses it for that purpose.

Martinez doesn't use the ubiquitous Outlook, but rather Web mail exclusively, and, like Svenson, he likes Gmail's interface.

As for Gmail's security, Martinez says, "My view is, if you can't use Gmail, you shouldn't be using email, period."

He's aware that in January, the Chinese government successfully hacked Gmail accounts for two human rights activists. As a result, Google began using Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS, as a default setting for encrypting all Gmail traffic. Thanks, China.

Moreover, Google is probably no more or less of a target than Yahoo!, Hotmail or some of the other more popular Web mail services, in Martinez's view. "I don't know if any e-mail provider is completely impervious to hackers," he says.

Martinez is careful to make sure clients understand the risks of communicating via e-mail, in addition to using the standard confidentiality disclaimer on all work-related e-mails. The reality is, many clients want to use e-mail to reach him, whatever the risks may be, and from his perspective it's his job to serve clients.

From a marketing standpoint, giving an e-mail address with your own domain name strikes a more professional chord to Martinez.

That can be done with Gmail, by the way, by investing in the Google Apps Premier Edition, for $50 per year per user – so instead of name@gmail.com , your address is name@surnamelaw.com, for example. Ernie the Attorney does this. As for Martinez, he thinks name@gmail.com sounds fine, and it's easy to remember. Also, it doesn't convey to the client "I'm over 40," as an AOL e-mail address connotes to some.

Finally, there's the concern that somehow Google will lose all your e-mail up in the clouds.

There are ways to prevent that, such as using Gmail's IMAP to download and sync the messages, using your mobile phone or desktop/laptop. Another possibility is Gmail Backup. Once downloaded, please backup, and occasionally test your ability to restore. Or, if you're old-school, just print and file those e-mails.

On the Web:

The case against using Gmail

The case for using Gmail (PDF)

Gmail IMAP

Gmail Backup

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