Putting your message across

These days it is common to see people quoting email addresses in correspondence and on business cards. In recent years the use of public email services has become widespread, through such services as the Internet or Compuserve which provide individuals with their own personal email service accessible by millions of people throughout the world.

Most lawyers have access to their own in-house email system, but typically these do not allow you to communicate directly with clients. What is not generally known, however, is that these public email services can provide the easiest way for you to do so.

Sending messages to clients on a different network to you is surprisingly simple. All the major networks have a presence on the Internet and many firms attach their in-house networks directly to it. The Internet address of your client is stored on your in-house system and is selected in the same way as an internal address.

Sending files is, however, a little more tricky because there is no one, agreed, file transmission standard. If you want to send a word processed document, diagram or spreadsheet, you need to check that your client has the software to read the file you want to send. Don't forget to check the version number too.

You will then need UUCode software. This is available from many sources. UUCode converts a file into text which can be included in a standard mail message. Your client will need the UUCode decoding software to get the file back.

It is also better to use a compression package for email. If your message is too large for mail systems to cope with, you will have to split it into pieces and send them separately, which is time consuming and prone to error.

Using public email is arguably not secure, particularly the Internet. The Internet is anarchic – no one runs it and no one is in control. Some firms are therefore reluctant to connect to such an enterprise. In practice, however, the sheer numbers of messages passing through the Internet every day means you're pretty safe. If you are concerned about security you can install a stand-alone gateway PC, and screen all messages. This may not have the convenience of being able to send messages from your desktop to your client's desktop, but is certainly much better than having no link at all.

One way to protect yourself is to always encrypt your message. Many word processor and spreadsheet packages provide this as standard, or you can buy a cheap compression package like PKZIP or WinZip both of which have an encryption feature. Before sending a sensitive message, however, you should always check you have the right address and that it is not a general purpose mailbox.

So, where do you start? First, if your firm has an email network, find out if it can get to the Internet and whether it gives you a personal Internet address. If not, you can make your own connection through a PC and a modem that connects the PC to the telephone line.

Modem speeds are measured in bits per second – 14,400bps is the best; there are faster modems but they come at premium prices. You don't need a dedicated telephone line but, if you want to connect via your firm's switchboard, you should check it is a 'two-wire' system. If not, you will need to make special arrangements. Invest in a T connector so you can connect your modem and telephone at the same time.

Next, you will need a service provider that gives you access to email and the software to make it work. We use Compuserve in place of an in-house email network. It has the simplest user interface on the market and acceptable charges. You can contact them on 0800 289 458. Alternatives include CompuLink Information Exchange, Demon and Cityscape.

Sending messages to clients and getting messages back is astonishingly easy. We use the network for sending documents and messages to clients, for internal communication and for access to information services. It works for us, so why not give it a try?

Andy Henderson is a consultant at Moores Rowland Consulting 100413.2544@compuserve.com