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.


  1. Doug Cornelius

    Jordan –

    I don’t agree with your categorization. Those are the type of relationships, but not the type of collaboration.

    I wrote a bit about this on on KM space through the lens of documents. In particular I found the comparison of wikis and document management systems to be illustrative of collaboration behaviors.

    The dynamic of lawyer to lawyer is very different depending on whether they are in the same firm or opposing counsel. Even in the same firm, the collaboration between an associate and a partner is very different than between a partner and a partner. For opposing counsel, there is not really collaboration because their clients want different things. It is hard to collaborate when you are in an adversarial position.

    I also don’t think there is really collaboration between clients and lawyers. (This is perhaps a more cynical view.) it is a bit more a competitive relationship.

    I have to admit, I had not given much thought to the client to client collaboration. Not that I am a “client” there are some new relationships to think about.

  2. Jordan Furlong

    Doug, those are interesting points. I think you’re absolutely right in terms of the variation in L2L collaboration depending on whether lawyers are in two different firms, in the same or different offices of one firm, and at roughly the same stage (partner vs. associate) of their careers. Breaking down the L2L categorization to reflect those relationships more accurately would be valuable, and your articles go a long way in that direction. I do think, though, that as a broad heading that separates lawyer-only collaborations from those that involve clients in whole or in part, L2L is still a useful category for present purposes.

    I’m also not sure that no relationship between “opposing” counsel can be collaborative. Maybe it depends on how we define “opposing” — lawyers representing each side in a bitter litigation probably would qualify as fully “adversarial” and wouldn’t collaborate in the usual sense, although there are still factors such as professionalism (the courtesy of finding mutually acceptable dates) and e-discovery standards (I think meet-and-confer really will make a big difference in this regard) that would play a role. But I also would submit that truly “adversarial” lawyer relationships aren’t the norm. Lawyers on opposite sides of a transaction, for instance, will always have to collaborate to a certain degree, and to the extent various tools enable that process, that’s a good thing.

    I think there are degrees of “collaboration” — it doesn’t need to include waivers of privilege or abandonment of client interests. I think you can collaborate with the lawyer representing “the other side” without giving away the farm in the process. But that will be a new habit for many lawyers to acquire, and perhaps will require a reconsideration of how our ethical codes instruct us to treat counsel representing other parties.

    I would certainly agree that the way lawyers have traditionally treated clients could be categorized as competitive, as well as patronizing or adversarial. But I’m not ready to say lawyers can’t collaborate with clients at all — if that is the case, in fact, lawyers will be extinct before too long, because collaboration is on its way to becoming a cultural norm. To the extent lawyers and clients have not collaborated well, I think the blame can be placed on the fact that the financial interests of lawyers and clients are usually in direct opposition: clients profit from quick resolution, lawyers from the opposite. So L2C collaboration will pick up speed at roughly the same rate that hourly billing crumbles away.

    I do think that C2C is the most important of these developments, though, and it’s really what I wanted to talk about in this post. Collaboration that involves lawyers is essentially about instilling greater efficiency and satisfaction into the legal services delivery process. Collaboration that does not involve lawyers is a disruptive event that has the power to completely undermine the profession as we know it.

  3. Doug Cornelius

    Jordan –

    It was hard for me to say that I disagreed with you, because that has rarely (if ever?) been the case.

    Let’s start with agreement. Client-to-client collaboration is becoming a reality. Legal OnRamp and perhaps in the future MarHub Connected offer an interesting paradigm shift of client to client communication. I rarely saw clients at bar functions or other typical lawyer social gatherings. I see few out there is the public web 2.0 world. But an online community may be able to be pulling them. Legal OnRamp seems to be working for that.

    That may also change the dynamic of the lawyer-client relationship. we keep talking about it, but I am not sure there is much movement.

    As for lawyer to lawyer, adversarial does not have to mean gladiator combat. It just means that they do not share the same objective.

    You can’t be collaborative if you don’t have the same objective. At stages of a matter you may be less adversarial than others. A good transactional lawyer knows when it is time to collaborate and when it is time to be adversarial to push their client’s agenda. Both sides of a transaction want to close the deal, but each side has different objectives in getting to the closing and what happens after the closing.

  4. Carolyn Elefant

    The one huge opportunity that any type of collaborative model presents for lawyers – and which Susskind mentions – is project management. I am currently involved in a lawyer collaborative model and also formed a trade association which is a quasi-client-client collaborative model. These efforts are not feasible without a strong project manager who can move action forward. Collaborative technology facilitates, but it does not run the show. As Seth Godin says in Tribes (the pop culture version of collaboration), “we need YOU to lead us.”

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