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I.T in practice: Magical, mystery email tour

Every Issue

Cite as: (2005) 79(7) LIJ, p. 96


Internal practice information technology (IT) staff, external consultants to legal firms and practice managers for smaller firms are called on regularly by staff to explain the mysteries of certain aspects of email. Although many of these queries are peculiar to the firm’s IT environment, or can relate to the level of expertise and training of the person asking the question, there is still a handful of common questions requiring detailed explanation.

1. Why does this person say I have a virus?
If the email user is absolutely sure that they do not have a virus on their computer, they may have been sent some spam (see below) which does have a virus in it. The safest thing is to delete the email without opening it.

Often the user will receive an email from someone they don’t know which looks like it is responding to an email that was never sent. In the world of email, as in the realm of normal mail, it is possible to forge someone’s return address.[1]

A virus-laden computer somewhere outside the practice may be acting as a “zombie” by sending a virus to each of that computer user’s email contact lists and forging a return address that is someone else on that contact list. Many people just delete these emails or leave them to their virus or spam filters to block.

2. Why can’t I receive messages?
The most common reason that messages are not received is the incorrect spelling of email addresses. There is no standard for the structure of email addresses using people’s first and last names, either in full or with just initials. The ability to be contacted is essential for a professional firm, so it is best to establish an extensive range of aliases for each user – for example, Jane Brown might be jane.brown@, jane_brown@, jbrown@, jane.b@, jxb@, etc.

3. Why can’t I still receive messages?
With the rampant prevalence of unsolicited or junk email (spam), many practices are putting spam filters in place. These may be in their office network servers, at their Internet service provider or inside their desktop email package. In some cases, these spam filters may have already been installed without email users knowing of their existence or what could happen to their emails. Spam filters mark email as “dirty”, “clean”, or somewhere in between by allocating a spam confidence level (SCL) to each piece of email. The SCL is based on word and picture content, known spam phrases, grammatical structure, frequency and repetitiveness, and source.[2]

Emails that are definitely spam (dirty) are merely deleted without the user ever seeing them and clean emails pass directly into the user’s inbox. However, suspected spam usually goes into a junk or spam folder within the user’s inbox. Here is the point where staff often think that they haven’t been receiving emails. They are there but have merely been shifted to a junk mail folder. From there, the supposedly “lost” emails should be manually shifted back into the inbox by marking them as clean (or not junk).

4. Why can’t I send messages?
Between a user’s computer and the email recipient, there are many stops along the way – the local computer, the firm’s Internet gateway and possibly an internal mail server, the Internet and a copy of all that at the recipient’s end. There are spam filters and virus filters, domain name lookups and email blacklists.

All parts of the email chain need to be working perfectly for emails to travel from sender to recipient. When an email fails to be delivered, some email servers will try sending it again for gradually-increasing intervals for up to five days. In the meantime, the computer user may only periodically be informed of what is happening, and then finally receive a non-delivery report (NDR) on total failure.

The NDR will usually give a good explanation – albeit using computer jargon – of the failure reason.

Some firms insist that staff track emails by requesting both a “delivery receipt” and a “read receipt” at the time of sending.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent IT consultant firm.
For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the LIV Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/members/sections/lpm/.

itcolumn@liv.asn.au


[1] See http://virusbusters.itcs.umich.edu/forged_from.html.

[2] For a humorous perspective on this, see http://j-walk.com/other/conf.

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