E-mail has become the favoured method of communication among the UK’s top lawyers, but there is still much work to do if it is to become the reliable and accessible service that businesses need.

E-mail has taken over as the primary source of business communication among UK heads of legal, according to a snapshot survey looking at the personal use of technology among general counsel in the UK’s top companies.

An overwhelming majority (80%) of the 100 general counsel questioned said that e-mail is the method of communication they use most often for business. E-mail came significantly ahead of the second favourite form of business communication, the telephone, which was identified by only 13% of respondents. Post was identified by 5% and face-to-face communication by only 2% of the respondents.

The poll, conducted in association with iManage UK, a supplier of systems for collaborative content management, looked at personal usage of IT and e-mail among the UK’s top in-house lawyers.

Unsurprisingly, most of the corporate counsel questioned have a computer or laptop on their desk at work — although there are still 4% who are prepared to admit that they do not.

Responses indicated that the computers are most frequently used for communicating internally with business users; followed in turn by drafting documents, communicating with external law firms and communicating with the legal function.

More than half of the respondents (59%) now communicate internally with the business via the intranet and 46% use the intranet to communicate with their legal function.

And, to complete the picture of e-mail dominance, 12% of the respondents had a BlackBerry or similar device, giving them 24-hour remote access to their e-mail accounts.

But despite the fact that e-mail has now overtaken all other forms of business communication for general counsel in the UK, the level of e-mails received by respondents remained relatively low. Asked approximately how many e-mails they send and receive during the course of an average day, one-third of those questioned put the number at less than 30, with only 24% claiming to send and receive more than 80 e-mails a day. The mean average was only 51.9.

Nevertheless, many general counsel clearly feel frustrated and overwhelmed at the number of
e-mails they receive and the immediacy of the e-mail as a form of communication appears to be less than welcome. A majority of those questioned (59%) agreed with the statement ‘I have become overloaded with e-mail and it is ruling my life’, with one-fifth (20%) strongly agreeing with the statement — only 13% strongly disagreed.

“It is striking that e-mail is now by far the most common tool for business communications. But at the same time 59% of respondents agree they receive too many of them,” says Sharon Forder, marketing director at iManage UK. “This is evidence that e-mail has become a victim of its own success. It underlines why more and more suppliers in the legal sector are pioneering innovative systems that are helping to tackle the problems associated with
e-mail overload.”

David Hickson, head of legal affairs at Lastminute.com, uses e-mail as his main communication tool, although he says that sometimes a fax still has a little more gravitas. Hickson is also a fan of BlackBerry-type devices.

“The best thing about PDA [personal digital assistant] devices and remote e-mail technologies is there is a less painful amount of e-mails on your return to the office after a holiday,” he says. “Either you have replied to them already or at least you know what is in them.”

Wireless e-mail devices like BlackBerry, although well established in the US legal market, were only released in the UK a couple of years ago and give users remote access to their desktop e-mail systems. While they are now in common usage in UK law firms, they have only recently begun to take a hold among corporate counsel.

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