The three types of collaboration

There was a lot to take away from yet another excellent ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago last week. One thing I didn’t take away, though, was my laptop. I managed to lose it the night before leaving and spent a fruitless morning searching all over the Hilton Chicago hoping to find it. Happily for me (and for the CBA, whose laptop it actually is), a good samaritan at the ABA (yet to be identified and thanked) found it and is shipping it north as I type. But until it arrives, I’m bereft of all the notes I took during the conference (aside from those recorded in my irregular Twitter feed from TECHSHOW), and so the detailed report  I had hoped to file for you is essentially sitting at Customs for an indefinite period of time.

In the absence of said notes, and since many other attendees have already written excellent reports from and summaries of TECHSHOW, I thought I’d instead focus on something that occurred to me while attending the CLE sessions, touring the trade show, and engaging in the various social and cyber events connected with the conference.

We’ve been talking about collaboration in the practice of law for some time, and it now appears to be arriving in force. But what’s interesting is that you can detect three different streams of collaboration starting to manifest themselves, each distinct in nature and impact from the others. I think they can usefully be referred to as lawyer-to-lawyer (L2L), lawyer-to-client (L2C) and client-to-client (C2C) collaboration.

Lawyer-to-lawyer (L2L) is the simplest, if not always the easiest, type of collaboration for lawyers: working with other lawyers (colleagues, opponents, or interested observers) to further a goal or increase their knowledge. There are numerous options within law firms: shared calendars and documents, meeting managers, instant messaging, wikis, and videoconferencing. Lawyers can also collaborate with other lawyers outside the firm, of course: marking up an agreement or prospectus on Google Docs or with the advanced collaboration tools on the newest Adobe Acrobat versions. Online meetings and webinars can put lawyers in the same space without incurring travel time and costs. And social networks represent a whole new frontier of L2L collaboration. (Read Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell’s now-definitive text  The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies for more.)

All these tools have the effect of making lawyers’ interactions with each other more powerful, streamlined and efficient. This is a good thing for lawyers insofar as civility and collegiality are easier to extend to collaborators than to competitors, a bad thing insofar as many lawyers’ business models reward inefficiency — expect to see more of the former and a lot less of the latter as the years go by. There still remains the old cultural obstacle, lawyers’ unwillingness to share knowledge and insight even with colleagues. But I suspect that over time, the evidence that collaborating lawyers are happier and wealthier than hoarding lawyers will become overwhelming, and natural selection will do the rest.

Lawyer-to-client (L2C) collaboration is in some respects a simple variation on the L2L version, only with clients at the other end of the line. In addition to the L2L instances cited above, extranets are the most common examples of L2C collaboration, with online project management and real-time document assembly growing as well. But L2C collaboration is less a matter of technology and more a matter of adopting a fresh attitude and mindset towards a lawyer’s role. L2C collaboration is harder for lawyers because it builds into the foundation of the client relationship elements of trust and transparency with which a lot of practitioners are acutely uncomfortable.

L2C-collaborating lawyers need to be so confident about their own processes and the value they deliver that they will have no compunction about giving clients the run of the factory floor, so to speak. They also need to be willing to cede some control over the relationship — always a challenge for this profession — and to actually listen to what clients are saying and work hard to accommodate their needs within their own procedures. Lawyers who open up their practices and processes to clients and who solicit clients’ active participation in the progression and resolution of their matters are the gutsy exceptions today; not too far down the road, they’ll be the general rule, because the market will require it.

That brings us to the third and and most powerful form of collaboration: client-to-client (C2C). Every lawyer should be paying extremely close attention to C2C collaboration, because it has the power to disintermediate them, in whole or in part, from the legal services delivery process.

It maddens clients that lawyers constantly reinvent wheels that have been invented thousands of times before, at substantial cost in lawyers’ time and clients’ money. They think, justifiably enough, that the amount of time a given lawyer spends to complete a task should be inversely proportional to that lawyer’s experience and expertise in this area. Lawyers’ failure to implement this simple marketplace rule can be traced directly to their habit of selling their hours rather than their expertise. Clients have had just about enough of that. And it’s occurring to them that many, many other clients must be in exactly the same position.

In C2C collaboration, clients pool their own legal knowledge and resources to form a vast living database that has the potential to replace much of what lawyers sell. One of the disruptive legal technologies discussed by Richard Susskind in The End of Lawyers? — and emphasized by him during his TECHSHOW keynote address — is “closed client communities” that draw upon their members’ collective experience and wisdom in legal matters.

Imagine millions of social networks cropping up, each peopled by and devoted to a single specific legal matter — divorcing spouses with children in Ohio, laid-off white-collar workers in British Columbia, high-tech startups in County Durham, industrial CLOs with environmental issues in New South Wales. Members contribute their own stories to wikis, supply both questions and answers to Q-and-A sections, and console or encourage fellow members in forums. The end result can be a civilian version of the kind of KM systems many clients wish their law firms would create and make available to them: a database of known facts, creditable experiences, and reasonable extrapolations of what will happen in a typical matter of this type.

This is a prime example of what a C2C collaborative system would look like — and there’s really nothing to stop clients from forming them right now. The best current example is Legal OnRamp, which gears its focus to high-level corporate counsel worldwide. But OnRamp also counts law firm lawyers and others as members, and makes conversations between lawyers and clients about legal services innovation one of its deliverables. In the Susskindian future, many such communities will emerge, cutting deeply into lawyers’ traditional inventory.

Will C2C collaboration make lawyers irrelevant? Of course not — there are extremely few areas of law where even the best-informed clients can wisely go it alone. But C2C collaboration will be one of the forces that will greatly narrow the range of profitable services lawyers can sell. It will hasten the arrival of the day where most of what lawyers do consists of high-value analysis, judgment and counsel, rather than knowledge and process. And quite frankly, it would also constitute a step towards greater access to justice for a lot of people.

As more instances of collaboration emerge in the practice of law, watch to see into which category each instance falls. L2L collaboration will become increasingly common and should be welcomed for its efficiencies. L2C collaboration will also grow and should markedly improve levels of lawyer effectiveness and client satisfaction. But the C2C collaborations are the game-changers, and we need to watch them carefully, because they will directly affect the fundamental nature of what lawyers can sell.

The problem, of course, is that lawyers may not hear about these C2C instances until it ‘s too late — because we’re not going to be part of those conversations.


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