The challenge of 'Screenagers' adapting to emails in legal practice

Female using mobile phone for email

If Google is a reflection of the human psyche, the remarkable fact that there are half as many search results for 'Elvis isn’t dead' than there is for 'Email is alive' is no surprise.

“I can’t believe our client doesn’t have email!” my well-meaning Gen Y colleague chuckled in disbelief when I was in private practice. It seemed incomprehensible to the young lawyer, growing up on the internet, that our client apparently had never encountered email throughout his 60 or so years of life. Of course one doesn’t need to be what the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary terms a 'screenager' to be adept at email, but I’ve observed that some of my screenager students feel greater ease with more popular communication apps. The Dictionary’s screenager definition is comprehensive, 'A young person typically in his or her teens or twenties, who is familiar with and adept at using digital technology, especially computers and the Internet'. If I could contribute to the lexigraphy, I’d helpfully add 'except email' right at the end of the definition, because as a lecturer I get a growing sense that some of my students, who though Internet-savvy with the latest smartphone and apps, aren’t entirely eager to embrace the fact that email is alive and well and thriving in legal practice.

But it’s no wonder some of my students think email has gone by the way of Morse code, telex and fax machines (which some law firms still use!). If Google is a reflection of the human psyche, the remarkable fact that there are half as many search results for 'Elvis isn’t dead' than there is for 'Email is alive' is no surprise given many tech futurists gleefully prognosticate that email will soon belong to an age of those quaint hunchback television sets that feature in historical documentaries when Elvis really was alive, all now broadcast on our flashy flatscreens. We regularly see Facebook, Twitter and Instagram icons badged across many corporate websites, yet you’ll search in vain for an email contact if you want to report lost luggage, sub-standard customer service, or why your favourite TV show was unjustifiably axed without consulting fans such as yourself. Pop culture commentators constantly glorify the latest Kardashian celebrity with their billions of followers, and deify the newest pop idol with millions of Twitter devotees. Yet the media will sensationally report that thousands of unsuspecting victims will receive spam email from a deposed despotic dictator desperate to share his dosh and dough for a few of your hard-earned dollars of course.

Now I’m no crotchety Grampa Simpson and I’ll quickly admit that my personal email activity with family and friends has declined significantly over the past decade in favour of SMS, WhatsApp, or simply picking up the phone and saying hello. But it dawned upon me from thoughtful conversations with some students that their dedication to email isn’t as high as their attention to Facebook messaging for instance. What really brought this home was when a student, in a sobering moment of self-awareness, admitted to me that neglecting emails from a course convenor led to a fail grade. Thankfully the student had an opportunity to resit, but I’m afraid law firms (unlike TV law firms who still quaintly prefer yellow legal pads to email) aren’t so merciful to lawyers who turn a blind eye to email. Whether we like it or not, email is still a primary communication tool for law firms even if it’s unfair there isn’t enough time in a day to read, let alone respond, to every email.

Occasionally I’ll be an amateur futurist and playfully prognosticate to my Screenager students that in the not too-distant future lawyers will present legal opinions to the Kardashians through Instagram and tweet their legal bills to Justin Bieber. Who knows, maybe jurors will use smartphones to swipe right for innocent, and swipe left for guilty. Even if the future is incredibly closer than we think, I’ll still predict that email will stick around for quite awhile…at least until Elvis is back in the building.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team