The Firms

July 28, 2009 5:45 AM

Welcome to the Future: Oh So Social?

Posted by Paul Lippe

Unless you're just returning from a field trip in the Mars Rover, you've certainly heard that social networking--blogs, wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, even Martindale-Hubbell--is a hot topic.

I wrote a bit of a primer on Web 2.0 back in January, so I will attempt not to repeat any of that content here.

As we often do, many lawyers react to the notion of social networking by first trying to come up with reasons why it might be bad. The Am Law Daily, picking up on a post from the Drug and Device Law Blog, recently reported that there are no bloggers from the ten most profitable law firms.  As a system of self-publishing, blogging is functionally identical or superior in every respect to the e-mail and print newsletters that these firms currently publish, so I'm not sure this is anything more than a matter of habit.

Maybe the best place to begin is with the word "social." Lawyer skeptics understand "social" to describe the purpose, i.e., something different from professional. But social simply means distributed, as in different people use the tool in their own way, and the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Certainly e-mail is a social tool--it's used to communicate, used by different people and in different ways, and used just as much, if not more, for personal rather than business reasons. It was not so long ago--1992 to be exact--that most lawyers declared they would never use e-mail.

There's a fabulous new report from the U.K. entitled Social Networking For the Legal Profession, by knowledge management gurus Penny Edwards and Lee Bryant. Edwards and Bryant begin by describing some of the changes over the last generation in how organizations and professionals work. They make a number of key points about the role of social networking in law:

-Knowledge in law is distributed (i.e., social);

Most legal information is either on the free public Web or is available from someone in your network;

Given the widespread availability of information, the challenge is finding the most appropriate information, and the best way to validate or access information in law is via a trusted colleague (i.e., socially);

The financial pressure on the legal industry will accelerate adoption of these tools if they can help clients save money or law firms generate revenue; and

Younger people have lots of experience with these tools outside their professional lives, and will readily find ways to apply them professionally.

Then from David Maister, a sophisticated commentator on lawyers and the legal business, comes a new book in which he discusses the importance of relationships. Basically, clients choose professionals almost identically to the way people choose friends, they look for professionals who can: (a) put them at ease, (b) make them feel comfortable sharing their fears and concerns, (c) inspire trust in their ability to oversee both the client and his transaction, and (d) prove their dependability."

There's even a study from Australia, reported in The New York Times, concluding that having a good social network helps you live longer.

For my money, social networking will prove to be a powerful tool in law, because its structure reflects the distributed nature of the legal profession, so it has the potential to help improve quality and reduce costs at a time when these are more at the top of clients' priorities than ever before. For a clients' view of this, see the recent WestLaw webcast with GCs Jeff Carr and Mark Chandler, Law 2.0: How GCs are Using Web 2.0 Collaboration, or a recent webinar from Carol Todd Thomas, chief marketing officer of Jones Walker, on What Lawyers Need to Know About Social Networking.

It's probably fair to say that the quality of the low end of social networking content is lower than the low end of more traditional, more heavily mediated forms of print and electronic communication, but the quality of the high end is just as good and will improve over time (and skipping the low end is quite easy). For example, on Legal OnRamp, Dave Bohrer, a former Morgan Lewis partner who now has his own boutique IP firm, is coordinating ten lawyers from different firms collaborating to create an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in the Bilski case. This "wiki-brief" will argue against business method patents, but based on a different rationale than the Federal Circuit's opinion.  There's nothing especially revolutionary about this type of collaboration, and nothing about social networking that impedes high-quality intellectual endeavors.

I'm certainly not saying that anything that is social networking is per se good, any more than any of it is per se bad. I am on Twitter, and I'm pretty sure I "get" it, but I'm not sure Twitter will make sense for serious peer-to-peer communication for and among lawyers (still, you certainly have to respect its growth and participation, and recognize that it could evolve in ways that make it more useful for lawyers). And I don't see "networking" per se as especially valuable--the question is whether my network can help me succeed at my job, not how many links I have. Anybody who has thousands of links on Facebook or LinkedIn, when they clearly have no relationship with those folks, gives me the creeps.

Recently, bored with the debate over social networking, I sat down to read an analysis of the Supreme Court from a good, old-fashioned, "dead tree" source--The New York Times. The first authoritative source cited by Court reporter Adam Liptak to describe Justice Kennedy's swing role on the Roberts Court?  Akin Gump's SCOTUSBlog.

Paul Lippe is the founder of Legal OnRamp. He can be reached at

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This is extremely important for the legal industry to keep aware of in the coming months and years. Social Networking technology allows for instantaneous sharing of thoughts and idea with thousands of people. It saves time, money and it's easy.

Paul is dead on. There are some who dabble in Web 2.0 and are "outed" quickly. There are others who truly "get it"--Paul among them, and who embrace and exploit the power behind social networking. Of course, that has always been true--whether on the web or in person, people who network, get it.

"Maybe the best place to begin is with the word "social." Lawyer skeptics understand "social" to describe the purpose, i.e., something different from professional."

That is so on target.

The word social makes professionals, mainly lawyers, so hesitant to use it. For fear that this is just "fun and games."

David Maister is also dead on. Clients pick professionals like they pick their friends. If you can make a meaningful connection in "social" media, you could easily have a client for life.

"Social networking ... has the potential to help improve quality and reduce costs at a time when these are more at the top of clients' priorities than ever before."


And how do networks and social technologies do this?

Connections: By facilitating direct contact between people behind the firewall as well as with their clients and peers in the outside world.

Communications: By establishing a dynamic knowledge environment, making conversations, not just documents, the central element of knowledge sharing.

Content: By filtering data through networks, giving access to relevant information, whether it is within or outside the firm. This dramatically frees up the time spend looking for information which can be used instead on billable time for clients.

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