Professional collaboration networks

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. Continue Reading

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

A new offshoring strategy?

Another day, another article about a major international law firm getting involved in India’s legal market. Pretty soon, the question’s going to change from “Why is your firm in India?” to “Why isn’t your firm in India?” But today’s entry is notable for other reasons.

Howrey LLP, reports The American Lawyer, is opening a new office in Pune, India. Note, however, that Howrey is not contracting with an offshoring company like Pangea3 or SDD Global to have that company’s lawyers do work for them. Instead, Howrey is opening its own branded office, not to practise law (still illegal for foreign firms in India) but to handle document management, a labour-intensive task for this litigation/IP-heavy firm.

Howrey becomes the first US-based firm to go this route; previously, Clifford Chance set up a back-office operation in a New Delhi suburb. And as Ron Friedmann has noted, Seyfarth Shaw and Lovells have done more than just dip their toes in Indian waters too.

But here’s what’s really interesting. In the article, Howrey’s managing partner and CEO, Robert Ruyak, leads off by making very clear, “It’s not offshoring.” And the article goes on to include this quote:

Ruyak concedes that clients “don’t want to use outsourcing.” But this, he repeats, will be different. “We will have our own people working on this. It’s training, it’s control, maintaining the security, the quality of the results.” He adds that clients will have the choice of whether to use the Indian office to cut costs or to have their work done in the U.S.

Howrey evidently perceives that there is a reputational risk associated with offshoring — that some clients (and no doubt, more than a few partners) have reservations relating to quality, process or security. I haven’t heard of any Indian offshoring firm accused of any of these defects, but perception usually trumps reality, so Howrey seems to want a different approach. Continue Reading

Student-focused law degrees

Mark Osler at the Law School Innovation blog points us towards the University of Dayton Law School, which offers students the option to complete the standard three-year degree in just two calendar years (including a summer off) through an earlier start date and a more intensive course load. The implications, as Mark observes, include less time and lower costs. The major downside would appear to be less time to fully absorb the law school experience.

But would that necessarily be a bad thing? I’m certainly not the only law school grad who found third-year largely unnecessary and mostly frustrating, from academic, career and even social points of view (two years is probably the maximum time you can keep future lawyers cooped up before nerves fray and friendships splinter). When you spend a year taking courses marked as “elective,” that’s a pretty good sign you’re going through the non-essential motions of a degree program.

What interests me even more than the two-year accelerated program, though, is the way Dayton arranges its curriculum. The “Lawyer as Problem Solver” program lets students choose from among three curricular tracks: advocacy and dispute resolution, personal and transactional law, and intellectual property, cyberlaw and creativity. As you might guess, the first is geared towards students who want to focus on litigation and mediation, the second is for those interested in transactional solicitor-type work, and the third is meant for those headed for the entrepreneurial new-media industries. In all three cases, this is a program designed for people who fully intend to practise law.

Now, we’re not looking at a fundamental reimagining of the law school degree here. The track courses constitute less than one-sixth of the total course load, and of the 31 courses required to graduate (30 for the personal/transactional law track), all but three are mandatory core offerings. It’s also too bad that only the personal/transactional law track offers a course in law practice management. The course looks brilliant and seems like it ought to be required for everyone, especially since the school states flat out that the track system is there to “help prepare students for practice in a particular area of law.” 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.

Transforming the practising bar

If you’d like a glimpse of the legal profession of the near-to-mid-future, look to London. Yesterday, the UK’s Bar Standards Board launched a consultation paper concerning the effect on barristers of the new Legal Services Act, which received Royal Assent last October. (The Solicitors Regulation Authority addressed the LSA’s impact earlier.) Here’s LegalWeek and The Lawyer on the announcement.

The BSB’s 50-page consultation document asks for submissions on how the Board should respond to the LSA, specifically regarding Legal Disciplinary Partnerships (different types of lawyers and a minority of non-lawyers practising together) and Alternative Business Structures (firms that offer both legal and non-legal professional services and that could be owned by non-lawyers, from shareholders to supermarkets). LDPs might not seem like a big deal to North American lawyers accustomed to our fused profession, but we should understand that it represents a whole new way of looking at the Bar in England and Wales, and it won’t be an easy road there.

But it’s the ABS regime that has people on this side of the pond talking, because it authorizes not just multi-disciplinary practices, which the Canadian and American bars wrestled with and ultimately rejected over the past decade, but also non-lawyer ownership of legal service provision, which is anathema to the vast majority of lawyers and their regulatory bodies. ABSs aren’t likely to appear in the UK before 2011 — it takes time to set up an entirely new governance structure for an ancient profession — but they will come. And when they do, it’s only a matter of time before they cross the pond.

There’s been a lot written about the future impact of the LSA on North American lawyers — Bruce MacEwen has been on top of this from the beginning — but it seems to me that if any member of the Magic Circle floats shares, merges with an accountancy, or otherwise takes advantage of the ABS options to greatly enhance its capital and strategic reach, then their New York-based competitors are going to want a level playing field on which to compete. And if that kind of regulatory change occurs in one US jurisdiction, dominoes will start falling all over various states and into Canada. In a globalized economy, any country that refuses to allow its lawyers to play by the same business rules as their foreign competitors will relegate those lawyers to a purely local purview. That’s not in anyone’s interests.

This is not happening overnight — probably we’ll see this whole situation play itself out around the middle of the next decade. But it’s not far away, either: by the time today’s first-year law students are into their third year of practice, this will be the reality on the ground. The challenge for law firms is to start thinking now about what kind of business structure makes the most sense for their practices and clients, because their options should expand dramatically in the near future. The challenge for governing bodies is how to prepare themselves and their members for an entirely new way of organizing the practising bar.

Here’s a parting thought from BSB Chair Ruth Evans, announcing the Board’s consultation paper: “We may not see barristers selling their services in the supermarket aisles quite yet, but we can expect changes in the way some organize their affairs and offer their services.” Emphasis added, and how.

Eversheds: how to set new client standards

I was jazzed a year ago when Eversheds struck a deal with Tyco to become the service and manufacturing multinational’s primary outside counsel, reducing Tyco’s complement of law firms for most legal matters from 250 to 1. Those who doubted the wisdom of the arrangement at the time worried that Tyco would miss out on other firms’ offerings and would suffer from Eversheds’ inevitable sense of complacency, while the firm would be at a greater risk of business-losing conflicts. Even when international gas and engineering giant Linde struck a similar deal shortly afterwards with DLA Piper, there was still uncertainty over this kind of approach.

Well, one year on, says The Lawyer, Tyco is still partnering with Eversheds and singing its praises, especially since the firm must get Tyco to sign off on every legal task it performs on the client’s behalf in order to get paid for it. So how did Eversheds do? Today, it’s now sitting on no fewer than six similar arrangements with other companies, each of which looked at the Tyco deal and were impressed by what they saw. Now other London-based firms are trying to emulate Eversheds’ approach, including Hammonds and Pinsent Masons. So I’d say, on the whole, that this has been a pretty successful undertaking so far.

What really impressed me here, though, is how Tyco’s partnership with Eversheds indirectly helped bring the six other companies on board. When Eversheds first proposed the present arrangement to Tyco, it proffered two cutting-edge software programs: Dealtrack, a budgeting and cost management tool, and Rapid Resolution, a project management application for litigation. But Tyco wanted more: it wanted a way to precisely estimate the total amount it was spending on its legal services company-wide.

Eversheds rose to the challenge and integrated Dealtrack and Rapid Resolution into a more powerful new program called the Global Account Management System (GAMS). “The system breaks down a company’s legal spend by country, jurisdiction or practice area, providing a heat map [of] where money is being either wasted or used efficiently,” says The Lawyer. But there’s more to it than even that. Continue Reading

MCLE’s new look

The cover story for National‘s March 2008 edition will explore mandatory continuing professional development, or MCPD, which will be up and running in Canada less than a year from now. If you’re from England, Wales, Australia, or any of the 43 US states with MCLE regimes, it might surprise you to learn that no Canadian jurisdiction currently mandates ongoing professional development among its members. If you’re from Canada, it might surprise you to learn that a Canadian jurisdiction is going to do just that.

A little less than three months ago (November 7/07), the Law Society of British Columbia’s Lawyer Education Committee released what I expect will one day be seen as a landmark report on MCPD. Earlier this month, the law society accepted the committee’s recommendation for a limited CPD regime in B.C. starting in January 2009. Other provinces are talking about MCPD to a greater or lesser extent, including Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, but none currently intends to go as far as B.C. is going. I recommend the final report, and its interim antecedent, for a thorough and impassioned exploration of the state of post-call legal education in Canada and worldwide.

For me, however, the landmark nature of the report doesn’t arise so much from the new mandatory status of CPD. One way or another, either through law society requirement or through outside intervention by the marketplace or the state, the days when lawyers could choose whether or not to upgrade their skills and knowledge are coming to an end. What’s really promising about the B.C. decision is the broad range of approved CPD activities. Continue Reading

Something’s actually happening

There’s a lot of buzz building about an article in today’s New York Times with the rather odd title “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms.” It summarizes a recent rash of new business models in American law firms, from flextime for lawyers to flat-fee bills for clients to alternative billable-hour schemes and more. It’s the second article the Times has run recently about lawyers seeking satisfaction, and it prompted its rivals at the WSJ’s Law Blog to ask: is there really something happening here?

The WSJ blog’s readers are providing their usual snarky responses: “This new ‘movement’ will dovetail nicely into the massive layoffs that will be coming in the coming months,” says one. “So, you want more time with your family or to pursue your passion for flamenco guitar? Here is 3 months severance.” Nice. So, here’s my answer to the blog’s question: yes. As Judith shouted at Reg in The Life of Brian, “Something’s actually happening!”

I can refer to you any number of articles and links about law firms that are making changes to the way they manage their employees and their work — see the Financial Times‘ law firm innovation report and the Innovaction Awards, for starters. In addition to the firms identified in the Times article, there are others making changes to how they operate in terms of compensation, of partnership, of billable hours, of women in law firms, and even of the entire firm itself. And these are just a few of the ones we hear about — other changes are occurring, quietly and beneath the radar, in areas such as recruitment, retention, training, parental leave, and evaluation.

Law firms are under pressure. They’ve gotten used to a comfortable world where they could set the tone and pace of operations. That comfort zone is evaporating from two directions: externally from clients and internally from lawyers. Clients really are more sophisticated and more demanding, and they’re looking for more than their firms have traditionally been willing to give them. And lawyers really are more inclined to walk away from (or try to change) work conditions that don’t satisfy a wide range of personal needs.

But even that’s not really new — both clients and lawyers are longstanding complainers, and pressure has been brought before, which law firms have ignored. And keep in mind that many, many law firms are continuing to ignore these pressures. What’s really new this time, I think, is not just that law firms are changing the way they do business, but why. I think they’re doing it, voluntarily, to gain a competitive advantage. Continue Reading