Ode to the "Virtual Water Cooler"

David G. Post
American Lawyer, November 1994
[Return to D.Post home page]

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You may freely redistribute this column; please retain author and publication attribution. If you are not currently receiving these columns directly and would like to do so, please send me an e-mail at Postd@erols.com and let me know -- D. Post
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Most people imagine the Supreme Court as an institution of robes, velvet curtains, and ceiling-high bookcases--an institution that sometimes seems bent on preserving vestiges of the Nineteenth Century. But within the court's walls, the electronic age is altering the way the court's work is done. I'm not talking about Lexis or Westlaw, but something that sounds more mundane on the surface but which is probably more revolutionary over the long term: electronic mail.

I got a glimpse of this last year, when I clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Several times each day a message would arrive from one of the other clerks over the court's internal e-mail system, of the "Has anyone worked on a cert petition raising a Penry claim arising out of voluntary intoxication?" variety. Usually, I had nothing to say in response to such queries, although sometimes I could pass along a purely "informational" reply ("see Smith v. Texas, No. 93-1234, January 17th conference"). If I was feeling more expansive, or if the subject were one in which I was particularly interested, or if I simply felt that I needed a break from my work, I might take a few minutes to compose a more thoughtful response ("Forget voluntary intoxication as a basis for a Penry claim; take a look at the majority opinion in Johnson v. Texas, where the Court discussed the scope of Penry and . . ."). And if I were interested in the question raised but couldn't then take the time away from whatever it was that I was then working on, I could always wait until I had a few minutes to spare, take a quick look at what had crossed the network, and add a few words if I felt that I had anything interesting to say.

Multiply by 40 people my experience there, and you have a pretty rich conversation going on, and one that is impossible to imagine in any other medium. The e-mail system became an indispensable part of day-to-day work at the court--one that, for me, and for many of the clerks, added immeasurably to the richness of the experience of working at the court.

What is it about electronic mail that arouses so much passion? Few people can work up much excitement about, say, their fax machines, or word processing software, or on-line legal research--even those who use them on a daily basis and could not imagine working without them. These are all handy tools to get the job done, sure, but not a whole lot more than that.

But electronic mail? Randomly select 50 acquaintances or colleagues of yours, put them in a room together, and start talking about e-mail. I can almost guarantee you that one of them, at least, will turn out to be not only a committed user but a true devotee, a convert to a new medium, someone who has "gotten the bug."

Why this enthusiasm--exhilaration, even--about what is, after all, nothing more than a means of sending a message (or computer file) from one computer to another across a network?

Having used e-mail in three very different institutional contexts over the past couple of years--as an associate at a large law firm (Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C.), as a clerk at the Supreme Court, and as a member of the faculty at Georgetown University--I have seen that certain tasks can be accomplished more quickly and more efficiently using e-mail than with its main competitors in the workplace: handwritten or typed communication delivered by hand, mail, or fax machine, or verbal communication by telephone. Telephone tag, for example, which can be anything from a minor annoyance to a major headache, is virtually eliminated by the use of e-mail, as anyone who has ever tried to schedule a meeting among a dozen or so people can readily testify.

But while these efficiency gains are real and important, e-mail is much more than just a better and faster way to do the things (like scheduling meetings) that we've always done. Something deeper is at work here: a qualitative change in the way that information is shared within institutions and the way that collaborative work proceeds. It is these more fundamental effects that I believe are responsible for the intensity of the reaction of e-mail's adherents.

Take the experience at the Supreme Court, which illustrates how e-mail's special characteristics (SEE SIDEBAR) can fundamentally alter the character of communication and work within institutions.

 


SIDEBAR:

THE KEY FEATURES OF 
E-MAIL SYSTEMS 

1. E-mail (shorthand for  
electronic mail), unlike the  
telephone, is "asynchronous":  
sender and recipient do not need to  
be "on the line" at the same  
time. Thus, an e-mail message, sent  
from X to Y, can be effective even  
though Y may be talking on the  
telephone, at a meeting out of the  
office, or home sick at the moment X  
sends the message; Y can read the  
message whenever he is ready. At the  
moment Y reads the message, in most  
e-mail systems an electronic "receipt"  
can be returned to X, letting her  
know when the message was opened -- 
and, perhaps more importantly, that  
it had not been opened prior to that  
time (a crucial feature for time- 
sensitive information). 

 2. E-mail is a "broadcast"  
medium, allowing you to take a  
single message and send it to any  
number of recipients, e.g., the  
specific colleagues with whom you  
are working on a project, or all  
members of a pre-existing group,  
such as all law clerks, all  
members of the banking group, or  
all partners.  

3. E-mail uniquely combines the  
immediacy of instantaneous  
transmission with a kind of  
nonintrusiveness, by giving the  
recipient of a message control  
over both the timing of the  
response and the duration of the  
interaction. A telephone call  
catches the recipient unawares,  
and implicitly announces "I'm  
ready to talk to you about  
something, here's what it is, tell  
me -- right now -- --right now-- 
what you think of what I am  
saying." E-mail, by contrast,  
allows recipients to spend as  
little, or as much, time thinking  
about and composing a response as  
they see fit. 

 4. Unlike most written  
communication, e-mail is  
perceived as an informal medium.  
Many people who labor mightily  
over their own written  
communications to strike just the  
"right" tone and to eliminate  
all errors and possible ambiguities  
-- --and who therefore often avoid  
written communication unless it  
is absolutely required -- think-- 
think nothing of dashing off an  
e-mail with typographical mistakes,  
sentence fragments, and the like  
in response to a colleagues'  
question or comment. 

  


The process of scanning queries and posting one's thoughts undoubtedly saved prodigious amounts of time by allowing you to tap into the knowledge and experience that your colleagues carry around in their heads (the "wetware" database), which greatly enriches the information you can bring to bear on any particular problem. And in my experience, the value of the information obtained always outweighed the relatively trivial costs incurred to obtain it.

But there was great value in this process that had nothing to do with the amount of time saved. Instead of seeing "nine little law firms" at the court, everyone--even non-participants watching the discussions flow across the network--begins to perceive the outlines of a single collegial institution. Each reply that circulated--especially the many that began with the equivalent of "Funny you should ask; I've been thinking about this question too, and . . ."--subtly and even subconsciously reinforced a notion that is easy to lose sight of in any large institution: that we're all in this thing together, participating in a single organizational endeavor with at least some common goals and purposes.

People have many reasons for participating in this kind of electronic dialogue (or multi-logue?): a sincere desire to be helpful to others, a little egotism, perhaps, or the knowledge that you will need a reciprocal helping hand yourself at some point in the future. Most important is something simpler, I think: Many of us simply enjoy this kind of informal conversation with our colleagues. It is the "virtual water cooler," an electronic gathering of your coworkers conversing about questions of mutual interest. Indeed, this kind of contact helps to define our coworkers as colleagues, helping to set a tone of collegiality that can be difficult to achieve in any other way, given the stresses and often overwhelming time constraints in the modern workplace.

At Wilmer, Cutler, too, a similar kind of firmwide query was common, with questions such as: "Has anyone had any experience arguing before Judge X?"; "Does anybody know anything about Virginia's new limited liability company statute?"; "Does anyone have a good model escrow agreement I can look at?" As at the court, a wealth of useful information was uncovered in this way.

But here too, much more than efficient information-gathering was taking place. For example, in connection with a negotiation training session a colleague and I were planning, we broadcast a message outlining a "prisoner's dilemma" situation and asking anyone interested to give us their views on the "correct" strategy. We were inundated with dozens of replies, all from extremely busy people who nonetheless were interested enough in the problem to spend a few minutes thinking about it and putting a paragraph together. In fact, a spirited debate ensued for several days -- --so much so that we ended up scheduling a lunch where people could discuss the issues raised face-to-face and in "real time."

This may seem like a small, even trivial, incident -- --but given the paucity of opportunities to engage intellectually with most of your coworkers at a large law firm, it was anything but. Opportunities to make this kind of contact with colleagues are becoming scarcer as institutions become larger and more dispersed and the pressures of the profession intensify, but it is through these contacts that an institution becomes more than simply a collection of individuals who happen to be sitting in the same building or getting their paycheck from the same source. E-mail has a unique power to connect people together by allowing a running dialogue in which all can participate when and only when they choose, at their own pace, in their own fashion--all without taking more than a couple of minutes from the more "serious" tasks in which they are engaged. It's a lot of bang for a relatively small buck.

Several years ago, a woman who worked in the accounting department at Wilmer, Cutler, having heard that I was something of an opera fanatic, came into my office to talk about music. She had just heard her first opera, and was bursting with excitement. After we talked for a while, I became almost envious--that she had all of this wonderful music to look forward to, that she had yet to experience the exquisite thrill of hearing La Boheme, and Rosenkavalier, and Otello, etc. for the first time. As one who has gotten the e-mail bug, I feel much the same way when I meet people who have not yet been "e-mail enabled"--you've got something very interesting indeed to look forward to.
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