The January 2008 edition of the ABA’s Law Practice magazine contains an intriguing article by Tom Mighell about a social network for Texas lawyers. (Hat tip to Larry Bodine.) Tom describes the Texas Bar Circle, which is less than a year old but already has 2,200 members who build profiles, link to colleagues’ or friends’ pages, read State Bar news, create groups, browse a careers section, and participate in discussions. The TBC is restricted only to Texas lawyers, making it another of the gated communities on the web that I wrote about last fall. Altogether, it’s a fantastic development and, I hope, one that creates a precedent for other state bars and provincial law societies to do the same.
Services like the TBC, of course, are essentially a variation on the basic social network model made über-famous by FaceBook: a self-assembling online community of people who connect with friends and make new ones, acquire and share information, and establish an identity for themselves on the Net. You could describe an online community like this as existential — the value it provides lies in the experience of the community itself, in the gathering and intermingling of lives. A business network like the TBC or LinkedIn adds a professional angle, but at the end of the day, these sites are primarily about connecting and are a lot of fun, which is obviously a good and sorely needed thing in the law.
But I’ve been thinking recently about what the next generation of social networks will look like — networks that don’t just connect people, but also put them to work. It lies, I think, in the difference between connectivity and collaboration. Facebook is, at its heart, a simple connectivity application: an ongoing global experiment to see if everyone really is separated by six degrees, and which of them is single at the moment. But it doesn’t, and isn’t meant to, produce anything — outside of massive groups whose very size and presence is intended to publicize a particular cause, Facebook is not a collaborative space.
Collaboration is applied connectivity – we’re all together here, so now let’s accomplish something. A truly collaborative online network for professionals would allow them to both connect and construct – to accomplish tasks, build knowledge, or move a project ahead in some way. Achieving this goal requires more than just lawyers, who tend to hoard information and expertise when left to their own devices. It requires clients, too — and when you add them to the mix, new possibilities emerge.
Legal OnRamp, which includes both in-house counsel (read: clients) and private-firm lawyers as members, is headed in this direction. OnRamp aims to bring lawyers and clients together in the same place, to network and to share information and best practices. But it also has recently added extranets, wikis and other collaborative tools for its members to use. It points us in the direction of the professional collaboration network.
A professional collaboration network could tackle matters far beyond the scope of a single deal or transaction, though — more than just an extranet. For example, a law firm and its corporate client could create an online network in which all employees of both parties could get to know each other, understand better what everyone does, find the right person to answer a key question, and identify emerging legal and business issues that affect the whole team. The network would essentially be a 24/7/365 combination of networking event, strategic planning session, knowledge management portal, and CLE seminar. It offers countless possibilities for deeply entrenched cooperation and integration of inside and outside professional teams.
Nor would a professional collaboration network have to be limited to a single firm and a single client, or to purely business matters. Systemic issues that hamstring the legal process could be tackled through online collaboration, too. Imagine a select network of lawyers and clients who interact in order to build a set of billing guidelines that offer better alternatives to the billable hour system. Or imagine a collaboration of lawyers, clients, and justice and government officials seeking solutions to the growing epidemic of self-represented litigants. Professional collaboration networks could offer the opportunity to create online think tanks or task forces to address problems that affect all participants in the legal system, but that are too unwieldy to tackle in a piecemeal fashion.
When social networks graduate from simple connectivity to full-bore collaboration, that’s when the rubber will hit the road. Lawyers will come to see just how much they can accomplish through this medium, just as a tech-savvy younger generation of practitioners moves into decision-making positions. Cool stuff.