Features - Mining Mailing Lists

By Kenneth E. Johnson, Published on September 15, 1998

Kenneth E. Johnson is Information Services Project Leader at Mayer, Brown and Platt in Chicago. He is the author of "Lawyer’s Quick Guide to E-Mail" and "The Lawyer's Guide to Creating Web Pages", published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. He is vice-chair of the LPM Computer and Technology Division, TechShow WebMaster, and editor on the LPM Newsletter Board.

(Archived 10/15/98)

Legal researchers are well versed in searching the Web. But there is another source of information that isn't as well known -- though lawyers are increasingly discovering it. That resource is Internet mailing lists.

Mailing lists are subscriber-based, global discussion groups, which take place through e-mail. Each message you send to the list is automatically distributed to all subscribers of the list. When someone answers your message, each subscriber gets a copy of the reply. Everyone sees every message, and can contribute with new messages and replies as they desire. As you can imagine, mailing lists can cover a variety of topics and generate a lot of messages -- though each mailing list typically has a specific subject matter.

From a technical perspective, mailing lists are run by a mailing list program. The person or organization who makes the list available and handles the administrative duties (like subscriptions) is called the list owner. The two most popular mailing list programs are LISTSERV and Majordomo. Generically, mailing lists are often called listservs or listservers, even if the software running the list is something other than LISTSERV. You generally don't need to be concerned with the specific program running the list; commands to interact with the list will be sent you to when you subscribe.

Why add mailing lists to your research toolbox? Most importantly, it is an excellent way of getting help from your peers. You can ask a question, and it is very likely you'll get several replies in a short time. Then there will be replies to those replies, and quickly you'll find what you are looking for -- and likely a whole lot more. On a more general level, mailing lists let you find other lawyers/librarians with similar interests, and stay current on legal developments. And all this is delivered directly to your Inbox.


Finding Mailing Lists

There are thousands of different mailing lists. Luckily, finding legal-related lists is easy. The best source is the Law Lists site, maintained by Lyonette Louis-Jacques at the University of Chicago Law Library. General information about the Law List is found at: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/info.html. You can also search for specific mailing lists by keyword at: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists. For example, my search using "law library" as the keyword finds twenty-six lists, including:

Other sources of mailing lists are:


Types of Mailing Lists

There are three different types of mailing lists, and you interact with each in a slightly different way:

ANNOUNCEMENT: This is a one-way mailing list. Mail is sent from the list owner to the subscribers. Subscribers cannot send mail to the list for distribution. These types of lists are often used by bar associations and vendors to get information quickly to their members/customers. Law firms can also use an announcement list to distribute information (such as newsletters) to their clients.
MODERATED: In a moderated list, the list owner reviews and approves all messages before redistributing them to the subscribers. These lists tend to be very focused, since off-topic or inappropriate messages are not sent out. Moderators can be seen as editors or censors, depending on your point of view -- and whether your messages get through.
UNMODERATED: The most common type of list, where there is no intervention in the distribution of messages. The mailing list software automatically sends every message to every subscriber. The list owner doesn't become involved unless there is a technical problem, or a gross violation of the rules of the list. Unmoderated lists cover a wide range of topics, often veering off into areas not related to the list's subject area. These side trips aren't necessarily bad; sometimes they can be quite interesting. Ultimately if the off-topic discussion goes too far, or too long, list members will ask that it be dropped.


Subscribing to Mailing Lists

The most important thing to remember about mailing lists is that they have two e-mail addresses. One address is used for administrative tasks, such as subscribing, unsubscribing, and getting help. This is the address you initially use to subscribe to the list. The second e-mail address is the one where all mail is sent, called the list address. Keep these separate. Don't send list messages to the administrative address, or they will come back to you with errors (and won't be redistributed). Sending administrative matters (like an unsubscribe command) to the list address will go to all subscribers, where everyone will see -- and likely comment on -- your mistake.

When you find information about a list, such as on the Law Lists web site, there will be instructions for subscribing to the list. In general, to subscribe to a list simply send a message to the administrative list address, with the word "subscribe" followed by the list name. Some lists require you to send your full name also. If the list has a prerequisite to joining, say a list restricted to lawyers, you may also be asked to give information indicating that you fit the requirements. Finally, some lists require you to respond to a welcome message to complete the subscription process. This is done to ensure you really want to join the list, and are at the e-mail address you provided.

By the way, you must send messages to the list from the e-mail address you subscribed from. If you use a different address, the mailing list software will reject the message as not coming from the subscriber of the list. (On a moderated list, the moderator may see that it is a legitimate message and pass it on through). If you have multiple e-mail addresses, you need to decide which one to use for the list. You can always change later, by unsubscribing from the old address and then resubscribing from the new address.

After subscribing, you will receive a confirmation message from the mailing list software. KEEP THIS MESSAGE! It will tell you how to get help on list commands, how to find frequently asked questions about the list (if available), and how to get off the mailing list. Typically you get off by sending an "unsubscribe" message to the administrative address, in the same format you used to subscribe.

Once subscribed, to send a message use the list address, NOT the administrative address. When you receive messages from the list, you simply reply to them.   Most mailing lists will send the reply back to the list address, rather than to the author. Check this the first few times you reply, because the list owner can set the replies to go directly to the author's e-mail account and not to the list. If this is the case, you will need to insert the list address manually.

Mailing lists can generate a large number of messages each day, so it is probably not a good idea to subscribe to several mailing lists all at one time. Subscribe to one and see what the volume of messages is going to be, then add another list. If the total volume of messages from your lists is too high -- we all have work to do other than read e-mail all day -- you may need to consider unsubscribing from one or two lists.

However, another option is to get list messages in digest form, if the list software supports that option. With a digest, individual messages are combined into one large message before sending, typically daily. You still get all the messages, but they are often easier to handle in a digest form. Check the mailing list's help to see if a digest is available, and how to set yourself up for it.

Filters are a good way of handling mailing list messages. Filters are a feature of most e-mail software; they are rules on how to handle incoming messages. With filters, you can direct mailing list messages to their own individual folder or mailbox as they arrive. This keeps your Inbox smaller, and keeps all the mailing list messages together so they are easier to read. (For more information on filters, see "Managing your EMail with Filters.")


Mailing List Netiquette

Mailing lists have developed their own standard rules of conduct, called Netiquette. Following them will make you a good mailing list subscriber:

Mailing lists are increasingly important resources for information in the practice of law. If you don't subscribe already, look for some relevant lists and give them a try.