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.

RSS up and running

I finally managed to figure out what I was doing wrong with the RSS feed on WordPress — launching a new blog, I’m finding, is a lot like setting sail in a new ship while you’re still hammering the nails into the hull. If you’d like to obtain the Law21 feed, look for the RSS icon at the top of the first column to the right. Thanks!

Legal secretaries 2.0

With an assist to Ron Friedmann‘s Strategic Legal Technology blog for locating the story, here’s another neat law firm innovation that qualifies as a “why didn’t we think of that?” moment. A Buffalo law firm, Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham & Coppola LLC (I’m sure glad I don’t answer the phones there), is giving each of its legal secretaries a specialty for which she’s responsible and to which she can devote her attention and training, rather than assigning her to work for a specific lawyer. Here’s the managing partner, Tony Rupp, with the details:

“We have secretaries specializing in different fields,” Rupp said. “We have someone who’s filing, someone who’s calendaring, someone who’s filing motions and several typists who are concentrating on transcribing the dictation and producing the documents.”

This is a great idea, and it highlights an area in which law firms have been extremely slow to innovate: workflow. The traditional alignment of one lawyer -> one secretary still makes sense in a solo practice, but in a firm with multiple lawyers and a large volume and range of tasks to perform, keeping that alignment just encourages redundancy and inefficiency.

Allowing secretaries to focus on and develop expertise in one particular area creates clear channels through with assignments can flow much more easily and efficiently. Lawyers have specialties; why shouldn’t their secretaries have them too? More importantly, logistics is revolutionizing commerce worldwide, and while a study of law firm logistics (or rather, the near-complete lack thereof) would be a major undertaking, it’s still encouraging to see even one example of a firm willing to rethink how it accomplishes its daily work.

Now, that said, what disappoints me about this effort is that the secretaries’ specialties are still largely clerical and administrative. Continue Reading

Virtually legal

I’ve just assigned a feature article for the April/May 2008 issue of National that aims to explore the future of the sole practitioner. As I noted in a previous post, I’m worried about the near-term prospects for solos, especially in smaller centers, but I’m bullish on their chances down the road, so long as they’re willing to rethink their business models and invest in technology and innovation. Two recent articles make me think that the brighter future for smaller practices might arrive sooner than anticipated.

Stephanie Kimbro is a North Carolina solo who operates a virtual law office. In a guest post at Susan Cartier Liebel’s Build A Solo Practice LLC blog, Kimbro describes her wholly web-based practice: no physical office quarters, secure personal home pages for clients, and a state-wide client base that can access its files 24/7. She provides unbundled services, bills and collects over the Internet, and competes with big firms using just the merest fraction of their overhead costs. Best of all, she’s in control of her own time and her own life. She’s already heard from other solos who want to license her homegrown software application and launch similar VLOs.

Further north in Pittsburgh, we find the Delta Law Group, two lawyers who have created, if possible, an even more innovative virtual firm. New clients are met by a partner who videotapes the detailed first consultation and then outsources the file to one of several local solos and specialists. Like Kimbro’s firm, Delta provides its clients with a secure extranet to follow the progress of their matters and conducts its administrative tasks online. Delta profits from an extremely low overhead as well as from access to a range of talented lawyers in whatever field of expertise is required.

These virtual firms obviously have their limitations — for example, they can’t take on huge or complex matters — but today’s small practices have the same strictures, serve the same kinds of clients and take on the same typical matters. The difference is that these firms liberate their lawyers from the burden of overhead, empower their clients with access and choice, acquire clients hundreds of miles away, and hire talented lawyers only for the duration of a single file. Oh, and they can afford to charge very reasonable rates. None of it would be possible without the Internet, or without an openness by these lawyers to innovation.

Small, flexible, accessible, affordable, and turn-on-a-dimeable — that’s what tomorrow’s solo and small firms will look like. It seems that, in some quarters at least, tomorrow has arrived early.

This post originally appeared as an article at Slaw on December 16, 2007.

If you’ve ever ordered an item from Amazon, you know that every time you log back in to the website, you’re greeted with a list of recommended books, CDs and DVDs. Amazon compiles this list based both on your product purchases and the pages you’ve recently browsed. Essentially, Amazon alters its understanding of and relationship with you every time you use its services — whether browsing, adding items to your shopping cart, or actually purchasing something. Every point of contact between you and Amazon is another data point that redefines the relationship’s fluid dynamic.

There’s a lesson here for lawyers, and with technology continuing to evolve at an astounding rate, it’s a lesson that lawyers can start implementing right now. Lawyers already can — and someday, they all will have to — tailor their interactions with clients in the same way.

In the era, all types of client behaviour and activity can be automatically recorded and used to create and constantly improve a multi-dimensional profile of the client. This profile in turn can guide the lawyer’s interactions with the client, from billing and communication to service delivery and business development. To some extent, the technological tools to do this, from database software to customer relations management, already exist. Continue Reading

What clients want

What do lawyers sell? To this day, you’ll hear a lot of lawyers say, “The only thing I have to sell is my time.” That’s the wrong answer, not only because it encourages our unhealthy fixation on hourly billing, but also because most clients prefer to pay for as little of our time as possible.

It’s also wrong to say that “lawyers sell knowledge.” We used to make a living at that, because we were virtually the only ones who had access to legal knowledge, and scarcity produces demand. We knew what there was to know and could solve the problems people pay to have solved.

But the Internet has helped make basic legal knowledge ubiquitous, non-lawyer competitors have turned intermediate legal knowledge into marketable assets, and as our cover story on information overload makes clear, advanced legal knowledge — “knowing what there is to know” — is becoming a practical impossibility. Legal knowledge, per se, is an increasingly shaky foundation upon which to build a competitive business.

So what can lawyers sell? Well, in the past few months, I’ve come across three firms (two Australian, one American) that have created online compliance and training programs for corporate clients. Employees log in and complete a series of lawyer-designed training modules that explain the legal and regulatory obligations in a given area, from employment law to corporate governance to privacy issues.

In the result, the client upgrades its employees’ competence, reduces its risk exposure, and can respond with detailed records to outside audits and reviews. The law firm earns a fee for the service while cementing its relationship with the client, and its lawyers spend their time on other value-building work rather than fielding phone inquiries or helping put out fires caused by poorly trained employees.

Doesn’t this mean the firm is billing fewer hours to the client? Why is the firm investing so much time and money in a project that will make clients rely less on lawyers? Ask these firms, and they’ll tell you: “It’s what the clients want. It allows them to meet their business needs.”

And that’s what lawyers must now sell: client empowerment. We must help clients, individual and organizational, to take greater responsibility for their legal lives — to develop “good legal habits” that prevent problems from developing. Doctors don’t just cure patients; they help them develop regimes to stay healthy in the first place. Why should lawyers be different?

Clients are ready to take more responsibility in their encounters with the law. Help them do that, and you’ll never want for work.
This post first appeared as the editorial in the October/November 2007 issue of National magazine.

Client empowerment

The August 2007 edition of the Law Society Journal (New South Wales) talks about Nova Legal and Advisory, an incorporated legal business in Sydney consisting of both a traditional law firm and a corporate governance, compliance and risk management consulting firm. It’s the latter business that has come up with the innovative Nova Solutions, “an integrated online management tool for the governance infrastructure needs of organizations.”

As the article (membership required) explains, Nova Solutions is an online training and compliance program authored and maintained by the firm. Armed with the knowledge of clients’ legal needs in HR, compliance, governance and training, Nova’s lawyers worked with researchers, technical writers and tech people to create, says writer Julie Lewis,

“an intranet package tailored to each company, where users can click on a screen to see the company’s policies in relation to a range of regulatory and compliance issues, and click again to complete a training course to bring them up to speed on the company’s requirements in those areas.”

This is the third such online training and compliance service I’ve seen law firms provide (the Self-Administered Legal Training program at Blake Dawson Waldron and the Compliance Management System at Holland & Hart are the other two), not to mention Howrey LLP’s Virtual University for internal associate training. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more, and I certainly expect this kind of service to flourish.

This is how lawyers will survive in the legal marketplace of the future: client empowerment. We will partner with clients, individual and organizational, and help them take greater responsibility for their legal lives — help them to develop “good legal habits” that prevent problems from developing. These online services don’t just provide an efficient, 24/7 means of providing clients with legal knowledge; they also anticipate and disable the kinds of issues that otherwise grow into full-blown legal headaches. Doctors don’t just cure patients; they also help them develop regimes to stay healthy in the first place. Why should lawyers be different?

One of these days we’ll see a law “firm” with no bricks, no mortar, no street address — just a full-scale online presence with which clients interact to reduce their legal exposure. Of course, there’s no guarantee that lawyers will be running it.

This post first appeared as a post at the College of Law Practice Management’s blog on September 18, 2007.

Gated communities on the Net

I received a press release today for a lawyer social networking site called LawLink, which apparently aims to be LinkedIn for Lawyers, or maybe Facebook Without the Kids. Free registration allows you to “network with other attorneys, develop new business leads, share information with other attorneys, develop new business leads,” etc. A lawyers’ social network site is a fine idea — although many lawyers are still unfamiliar with or dismissive of LinkedIn/Facebook, lawyers are networking and gossip mavens at heart, and I do think this will catch on within the profession soon enough.

LawLink, however, is restricted to American lawyers only — among the required application fields are “Bar Number” and “State,” and can I just say how annoying it is to come across any major online operation that offers access, service or delivery to anyone in the 50 states but nowhere else in the world? Anyway, LawLink’s press release underlines that this site is “exclusively” for lawyers, and they’re serious: the registration form requires you to “declare under penalty of perjury that I am an attorney licensed to practice law in the United States.” First time I’ve seen a website threaten would-be registrants with jail time.

There are two opposing trends at play here. One is the fact that in the Web’s global village, drawing your admissibility lines across national borders sure looks like a recipe for future irrelevance. But the other is that online communities are, perhaps understandably, anxious to maintain control over who can join — Wikipedia has demonstrated that a completely open-door policy lets in a lot of people with whom you’d really rather not share a room. So we have little gated communities all over an Internet that is increasingly universal in scope and access. Which trend will win out, do you think?

This post originally appeared as a post at Slaw on September 18, 2007.

21st-century legal technology

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 27th, 2006.

As someone who still pays his bills with a chequebook and stamps, I’m a little reluctant to address the whole question of technology in the legal profession. But here we go anyway:

To get a sense of the degree to which the law is still a pen-and-paper profession, listen to the language that lawyers use. “Paper the other side,” articling students are told. “Note up the case. Write a memo to file. Docket your time.” In our mind’s eye, it seems, we’re working in the age of bound ledgers and three-ring-binder timesheets, and the phrases we use unconsciously reflect that. That’s going to be a problem for 21st-century lawyers, for whom trying to ignore technology will be like trying to politely overlook that tornado outside the window. Continue Reading

21st-century legal publishing

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 26th, 2006.

“I’ve been a lawyer in Toronto now for four years. Over this time, a lot of law magazines, newspapers and newsletters have crossed my desk. Even though these are publications for lawyers, I never feel like they are really talking to me. They always feel a little old, a little earnest and, well, a little boring.”

That’s not me talking — these are the words of Melissa Kluger, Editor-in-Chief of a new blog titled “Precedent: The New Rules of Law and Style.” It’s pretty good — entertaining and thoughtful, and that’s a tough combination to pull off. Hers is another fresh voice in the legal blog world.

But I was struck by her quote above, since I suspect she’s not the only lawyer who finds the publications offered to Canada’s lawyers old, earnest and boring (three characteristics my daughter will someday ascribe to me; I suspect I’ve got the second and third down already). Here’s a brief look at the major national and regional legal periodicals: Continue Reading