Crowdsourcing legal research

A terrific discussion is underway at SLAW, prompted by news of a new Canadian online research service, about the future of commercial legal databases. Ever since the LII system (Legal Information Institute) got rolling, the writing has been on the wall for fee-based online caselaw databases — how much longer can you charge a price for what a competitor is giving away free?

The answer lies in value-add, which is where I think the really interesting developments will emerge. What will be the killer app for online legal research? At SLAW, Wendy suggests commentary and analysis, Laurel recommends a winnowing function, and Simon C suggests citation frequency tracking — all excellent ideas that an enterprising database provider should move on right now.

My contribution is the idea of a Digg-like function that would allow those viewing a case to determine how helpful it had been to previous readers in a given subject area. It would harness the wisdom of crowds to help determine what is and isn’t an important case. It could adopt the simple Digg click approach, or the slightly more detailed Amazon “Was this review helpful to you?” five-star format, to let users signal whether a given case is worth future researchers’ time. It’s not that far off from the old library rule that a well-worn book with marked pages and wrinkled binding shows its heavy use and utility to those who have come before.

But what I especially find appealing about this idea is that it would help bring about the democratization of caselaw selection. During my time as editor of The Lawyers Weekly, I discovered something important about front-page news: it’s arbitrary. As a news consumer, I had accepted the unspoken presumption that what a newspaper placed on its front page, above the fold, was the most important news of the day. Then I was put in charge of choosing what would run above-the-fold-on-front. I chose front-page stories, and cases to be reported on, for a variety of reasons, and precedential significance was only one of them. Take a look at your local paper for confirmation that what’s on top of page one isn’t what you’d necessarily agree is the top story. Ditto for what leads off the newscast, local or CNN.

The same goes for the printed law reports that all of us (save the newest arrivals to the profession) grew up with. Who decides what gets reported and what doesn’t? One person, or a small handful of people, who may or may not have viewpoints, interests or biases that affect their choices. With every case now online, and tagging systems increasingly sophisticated, there’s no reason to keep assigning the editorial function to an elite few. The crowdsourced approach to online caselaw rating allows the entire legal community to weigh in on whether a given decision is important, and why. Given the choice between the expert and the crowd, I’d like to hear from the crowd.

It’s the natural next step towards an overall collaborative approach to legal research. Thanks to JD Supra, we can already see what a collaborative precedent and document database looks like. What will come next? Collective annotation of key statutes through a wiki? A multiplicity of online law reviews like The Court? More law school case summary services like Twistlaw? The discussion about the future of legal research won’t center around the commercial providers much longer. It will center around which free, collaborative sites create the best ways for lawyers and legal professionals to collectively improve everyone’s ability to find the legal information they need.

Money talks

I get a huge kick out of law firm innovation. It’s one of the reasons I signed on last year to be a judge for the College of Law Practice Management‘s Innovaction Awards, and why I’m doing so again this year. It’s like being a film buff on the screening committee for the Oscars.

So I was happy to see this Legal Blog Watch article penned by Carolyn Elefant. The Rosen Law Firm, a major family law outfit based in North Carolina, set up an internal wiki for operational and knowledge management, to which all lawyers and staff contribute. It essentially replaces the firm’s previous Lotus Notes regime and saves them thousands of dollars. That alone is innovative, compared to most firms.

But the kicker is that in order to motivate employees to participate, every Wiki contribution puts the author’s name into a draw for a $1,000 prize. That, as you might imagine, spurred the rapid development of the Wiki, which is now an invaluable firm asset.

This isn’t Rosen’s first venture into innovation: the firm has also distributed dozens of copies of a video game to help kids through a divorce, and name partner Lee Rosen wrote this excellent article on getting the most out of your firm’s technology investment. But I’m really impressed with the Wiki and the $1,000 incentive prize, which sets an example more firms ought to consider.

Law firms ask a lot of their employees, mostly with regard to cramming a whole lot of work into comparatively few hours. The lawyers, in particular, are directly motivated by the compensation and advancement systems built into the billable hour regime, and they place billable activity in extreme priority to everything else, including marketing, business development, practice management, pro bono work and, most importantly, their own personal time. So if firms want their lawyers to do things other than bill time, they need to design a reward system that can compete on those grounds. Continue Reading

The trust factor in online networks

Three separate items about social networking for lawyers hit my feed reader today, each of which deserves a read. At SLAW, Steve Matthews of Stem Legal says Facebook is not a viable marketing tool for lawyers, in part because its closed-door nature prevents a lawyer’s marketing efforts from reaching a wider audience. In the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, Denise Howell and Ernest Svenson compare Facebook, LinkedIn and other online tools for lawyers and talk about the power of online profile. Finally, LegalWeek looks at the utility of social network platforms for in-house counsel, with a particular focus on Legal OnRamp, and sees a generally bright future.

As I’ve written before, it’s important that we don’t conflate the online networks of the future with the present Facebook model. Not trying to diss Facebook too hard here — I like Scrabulous as much as the next English major — but the term “social networking” is now all but synonymous with Facebook, and has imported all of Facebook’s benefits and limitations (it’s similar to how “blog” has hard a hard time escaping the gravitational pull of millions of bloggers grinding political axes or writing about their cats.)

To my mind, Facebook’s greatest limitation is its artificiality, or perhaps its spinnability: you can control your page and paint the picture of yourself that you want the world to see. You can choose your friends, tell only the stories you want told, and vary the level of access people can have to those stories. No wonder marketers love Facebook — it’s the ultimate PR platform. Incautious Facebook users (of which there are several million) don’t think or bother to be so calculating, and reveal more of themselves to the world at large than they should. You can tell them from their drunken shirtless photo albums, for a start.

But more sophisticated Facebook users craft their page carefully, using it as a gallery on which to hang their commissioned and closely supervised self-portraits. They list the books they want you to think they read, rather than the books they actually have read, controlling the message of their identity as firmly and cynically as any political spin doctor. The results are far more impressive to the casual reader, but the real person behind the facade never shows up, except by accident. You can’t count on authenticity from Facebook, because we can’t trust that a person is who he portrays himself to be. Continue Reading

Beyond Facebook

Lawyers are going to have to figure out what to make of social networking. By and large, as the link to the articles in last fall’s edition of National indicates, a few are active believers, a few more are cautious optimists, and the vast majority are dismissive or clueless. I can actually understand that. I’ll be the first to admit that Facebook is a pleasant distraction and offers some tantalizing prospects for collaborative achievements, but I’ve received one too many Zombie invitations to be a huge fan. Time-pressed lawyers need fewer distractions, not more.

But Facebook is not everything that social networking is or can be. Using social software to connect and collaborate for any number of purposes is still in its infancy, and there are any number of law-related applications that we’ve just begin to think about. Could we use it to improve legal publishing? Absolutely. Could it be used as a marketing tool? Sure. Could we use it to make the legal conference more effective? Why not?

Now, from Ross Kodner, who’s attending LegalTech in New York, comes word that Microsoft, of all companies, is offering the next big application of social networking for lawyers: using its SharePoint system to create a practice management system inside a law firm that runs on social networking principles. Ross is evangelical in his enthusiasm for what he calls intrasocial networking:

SharePoint connects data . . . and people . . . and opportunities like no other practice management approach I’ve seen. Intrasocial networking will propel law practices of all sizes to surpass currently foreseeable revenue targets, and to surpass client expectations. Intrasocial networking will allow law practices to intrinsically incorporate traditional corporate concepts of “quality control,” “customer satisfaction,” and maybe even eventually, Six Sigma mentalities ….

We’ve only scratched the surface of what social networks will allow us to do as lawyers. Collaboration is one of the cornerstones of the new legal profession, and social networks are the early manifestations of how it will happen. This will be fun.

Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for the LegalTech links.