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Dean's List

March 14, 2005

Computer-security vendors assert that e-mail spam costs $20 billion a year in productivity losses. That number exaggerates the productivity of people who, like me, read a lot of e-mail. But after witnessing a recent spam outbreak from my law-school alma mater, I saw what happens when you mess with people who really do produce.

The dean of Columbia Law School, David M. Schizer, wanted alumni to see an op-ed piece in which he expressed concern at reports that some university students felt afraid to freely express their opinions about Middle East politics.

On March 3, the school e-mailed the piece to 10,866 law-school grads. But a glitch caused all the recipients to also get the automated out-of-office replies from grads who must not carry a BlackBerry when they're away from their desks.

Things snowballed, as busy lawyers e-mailed the dean and demanded to be taken off the e-mail list. "This is an unacceptable intrusion on my time," complained one e-mail, instantly copied to the 10,866 list members.

As the avalanche piled up in my inbox -- and those of the thousands who charge hundreds of dollars an hour -- someone wrote, "I think this is a study by the law school to track the out-of-office habits of the alum base." Seizing the chance to advertise, another said, "If anyone is looking for a good special-education lawyer, give me a call." Whether peeved or bemused, most e-mails warned of a "privileged and confidential, attorney-client communication, attorney work-product."

Schizer himself was out of the office that day, meeting with the law school's newly accepted applicants. He didn't learn about the spam storm until he returned at 2:30 p.m., and quickly got the university's computer center to unplug the runaway e-mail server. "I do regret the inconvenience that it caused people," he told me. "But I didn't send out an apology because I didn't want to trigger another problem."