Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Social networking sites target legal profession

originally published in The Lawyers Weekly

Many lawyers already partake in Facebook, LinkedIn or one of their digital cousins. Chances are that many of those lawyers have yet to hear of social networks geared to the legal profession.

Yes, Virginia, there are such things. And some of them, like LawLink.com and LegalOnRamp.com, go beyond listings for your favourite bands and cherished pets. In fact, both purport to help lawyers achieve their business objectives more efficiently than ever.

To help spread the word, Legal OnRamp’s cofounder and CEO Paul Lippe visited Toronto in late June to contribute to a talk hosted by Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, one of the site’s biggest boosters north of the border. (Note: LawLink should be open to Canadians by the time you read this, according to founder and CEO Steven Choi.)

Hugh Christie, Partner and Head of the Employment and Labour National Practice Group at Gowlings, shows faith in this fledging phenomenon. He said the firm will benefit “by having our message broadcast much more widely than it is without Legal OnRamp. It will put us in touch with a group of clients and potential clients that we would otherwise not reach.”

That faith doesn’t seem misplaced, especially in light of the current trend of trade-based online networking. Sermo.com, for instance, is an online medical community. Reuters Space caters to stock market professionals. Wireless industry magnates hobnob at InMobile.org.

Like their “real-world” counterparts, people need to register for membership in these communities. “Legal OnRamp is first and foremost a place for in-house lawyers to collaborate,” said Lippe, “and so managing who can be in that community and maintaining an appropriate sense of privacy is an important part of what we do.”

Full disclosure: “Our policy has been to limit membership to in-house counsel and law firm folks they invite, together with select third parties who add value to the community,” said Lippe.

Once “inside” Legal OnRamp, lawyers find a range of Web 2.0 tools at their disposal. They can read or answer questions, scan legal blogs, contribute their own, read and contribute to wikis, join or create groups (public or private) with specific interests and objectives, share legal information in FAQ sections that they write, and so forth.

That last activity – sharing legal information – may make online legal communities the latest channel where law firm lawyers can demonstrate subject matter expertise (and attract new clients), in addition to publications, seminars, personal blogs and other common conduits of knowledge that lawyers use today.

For in-house lawyers, the real value of the community may be in the sheer diversity of knowledge that might accumulate in one place. Lippe claims more than 18,000 questions have been answered in Legal OnRamp since its 2007 inception. All of this knowledge is searchable within the site.

Christie foresees more traffic visiting www.gowlings.com via postings in Legal OnRamp created by Gowlings staff. Other major Canadian law firms have also contributed answers to the site.

However, several doubts remain about “Law 2.0.” Even Choi, despite his rational exuberance for (and vested interest in) online legal communities, admits to the failure of his late 90s venture PowerClient.com. Caught in the tsunami that wiped out untold numbers of web-based businesses, Choi insisted it was the right idea at the wrong time.

Has the right time arrived? Choi isn’t sure. He presumes that if the sector were promising, major legal media publishers would either unleash legal communities of their own or buy nascent ones like Legal OnRamp or LawLink.

Choi, a long-time litigator himself, perceives one major drag on the sector’s growth. “For attorneys, I believe that the major block to it growing like wildfire like Facebook did for college students is that attorneys are so busy offline,” he said. “They don’t have as much time to spend on a new social networking site.”

Gaming online communities could prove tempting given the increased status (and business) one might win. “That’s always a possibility,” admitted Ming Kwan, an analyst with nGenera Corporation Canada, “but on the Web, it’s almost impossible to get away with that in the long term. The risk is usually sufficient deterrent against gaming a system.”

One particular concern to Canadian lawyers is where their information is actually located. Both communities “live” on servers in the United States, which places any information on them under the auspices of the Patriot Act. It’s a risk that many Canadian firms have thus far accepted as they dip their toes into Legal OnRamp’s collaboration pool.

That’s because the potential rewards might add up. For instance, could small firms made of former big-firm lawyers team up to vie for work traditionally assigned to large firms? While Christie admits this is theoretically possible, he has his doubts. “The degree of collaboration would have to be quite remarkable to replace the integration of a full-service firm,” he said.

Despite the success stories, the future of online communities remains unpredictable. Much hinges on imagination and the leap of faith that lawyers and their firms must take to embark on this promising yet uncertain road.

In true Web 2.0 fashion, the founders of both communities let them evolve according to the imagination of lawyers who use them.

“We don’t have a master road map,” said Lippe. “If we wake up next week and 50 percent of our members are in Saskatoon, we’d say ‘Well, that’s not quite what we expected, but that’s interesting – there must be something going on in Saskatoon.’”

“If you asked me 8 months ago what our strategy was for Canada, I would have said ‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it,’” Lippe continued. And since he suspects the US may be “too big,” he reckons that Canada may be the first place to achieve the nebulous distinction known as “critical mass” on Legal OnRamp. “It’s a small enough community that it can quickly embrace this sort of thing,” Lippe said.

His suspicion, of course, depends on whether enough lawyers north of the 49th make the effort to visit and participate in this community – and whether their expectations are realistic. “It takes time, careful planning and implementation to figure out how to make it work within your organization,” said Kwan. “It’s not a magic pill that works right away.”

To read the published article as a PDF, click Social_networking_for_business.

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