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Legal listservs offer affordable resource, but know the rules

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and Wisconsin Law Journal’s editor-at-large. She can be reached at [email protected]

Want to be a better lawyer, for cheap? Join a listserv.

Wauwatosa lawyer Jeff Hynes, moderator of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association listserv, characterized it as “the life-blood of our organization.” Attorney users swap extremely helpful information in exchange for “dirt-cheap dues.”

Listservs can be “incredibly valuable,” agreed Milwaukee plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer Jeff Pitman.

Pitman, past-president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, said he subscribes to several listservs as a result of being licensed in three other states other than Wisconsin. He’s active with other states’ plaintiff-lawyer specialty bars, as well as their state bars.

That makes for tons of email, he admitted. But he said it’s worth his while.

“It helps establish and maintain that you’re a good, smart lawyer and you know what you’re doing,” Pitman said. “And if you have a niche area, it certainly helps show that you have special experience in certain areas of the law.”

The access to a wealth of information can make life easier, as well, he said.

“You’ll probably receive information that is accurate without having to do the research yourself,” Pitman said. “And in this day and age of time crunches, that’s always useful.”

He added, wryly, “They also help confirm for me that I’m not as dumb as I think I am. There’s the fellowship of the listserv.”

There are rules, written and unwritten, for getting the most out of a legal listserv and maintaining the camaraderie.

For starters, stay on topic. Hynes said WELA members sometimes stray into personal, political views. Although the WELA listserv isn’t affiliated with the State Bar, so there are no concerns regarding the avoidance of political views, everyone’s time is limited. The group typically self-policies when someone takes it too far, he said. Seldom has Hynes had to cut someone off.

Don’t discuss fees. No one’s tried to do that on the WELA listserv, Hynes said, but if they did, he would quickly shut down the discussion.

Don’t be a jerk. Infrequently, discussions get heated, Hynes said. When it happens, he encourages the players to take their discussion off the listserv and continue it elsewhere.

Pitman suggested users stick to the legal issues and keep away from fact patterns, to avoid sharing client confidences.

And make sure you’re a giver as well as a taker. If you’re constantly asking for information on a listserv, such as inquiring whether anyone’s got a brief on a legal issue they might pass on, it’s customary to offer your knowledge as well.

“The rule is, share and share alike,” Pitman explained.

Also, don’t overtly troll a listserv looking for cases, although some members undoubtedly do get cases after providing advice that conveys expertise in a niche. It is OK to say you handle a particular kind of matter, but only if someone asks.

Finally, the cardinal rule for legal listservs: don’t disclose what’s discussed.

“We tell people that what goes on the listserv, stays on the listserv,” Hynes said, “but really with the understanding that we can’t enforce that.”

Be careful what you disclose, Pitman said.

“You have to assume that anything you say on there is going to be disclosed outside of the confines of the listserv,” he said. “Even though we have an agreement that we’re not going to do that, you have to be on the safe side and assume it could happen.”

People have criticized defense lawyers and experts on the WAJ listserv, Pitman said, only to have those comments revealed to their targets. Good listserv etiquette is to instead email someone privately when negative situations arise.

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and regular Wisconsin Law Journal contributor. She can be reached at [email protected].

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