Cisco Systems Inc. began plotting out an online collaborative space for its in-house lawyers about three years ago. However, the company ran into a slight problem. Law firms weren't that interested in helping populate the site and the legal department couldn't find someone willing to design it.
That's when Cisco decided to alter its original plan. Instead of creating an internal collaborative space, it decided to design a space accessible to all legal departments. Soon after Cisco spread the word in 2005, a number of big-name companies--including DuPont, Altria, Clorox, Citigroup, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and FMC Technologies Inc.--signed on to the project.
With a consortium of companies in tow, the project quickly became more alluring. It was at this time that Paul Lippe, CEO of Quality Automated Legal Systems--a legal technology provider--and the former GC of software provider Synopsys Inc., signed on to create the site, which the consortium named Legal OnRamp.
Although the site is still in development, it already boasts more than 500 members from roughly 15 companies and 80 law firms. What began as a completely proprietary effort on Cisco's part has now set the foundation for a legal revolution.
"If all goes according to plan, legal departments will be able to freely leverage information and share best practices thereby reducing costs," says Van Dang, vice president, legal and general deputy counsel at Cisco.
Legal OnRamp, which is available at www.legalonramp.com, is open to law firm and corporate attorneys. To learn more about registering, prospective users can e-mail email@example.com.
The site is partially modeled on popular social networking sites, such as MySpace. Users have public profiles to which they can add biographical information, contact information and pictures. The site provides a fully searchable member directory of all members' profiles.
This feature is especially useful for establishing "connections." By clicking the "request connection" button on an individual's profile, users can add the person to their "online team."
Adding people to your team expands your online social network. Team members who are logged in are visible in a box on the side of the screen. By dragging the mouse over a person's name, users can initiate instant messaging, send e-mail, view the teammate's profile or send a private message to the person's Legal OnRamp inbox. All these features are free to registered users.
"I think of it as a general counsel chat room," says Marty Collins, senior VP and general counsel of San Jose, Calif.-based Novellus Systems Inc. "By chatting online with other participants, I don't have to communicate with every GC in the valley one e-mail at a time."
In the future, the site will offer a wiki for users to collaboratively share information, links and attachments as well as a document repository where counsel can upload and share generic policies and contracts.
By enabling attorneys to collaborate, the creators of Legal OnRamp hope legal departments can leverage each other's knowledge to reduce costs. For example, Cisco has already considered the possibility of collaborating with other legal departments to create online training modules at a fraction of the price.
"Let's say it costs Cisco $50,000 to produce an online training module by itself," Dang says. "If I can get five companies to collaborate, I can get my costs down to $10,000. Even with a few thousand thrown in for customization, that's a lot of savings."
Aside from allowing GCs to collaborate with their peers, Legal OnRamp offers features that will help in-house counsel leverage the services and knowledge of outside law firms.
For instance, the site has an entire section devoted to aggregating law firm updates and white papers in an easily searchable format. So far, 11 law firms--including DLA Piper; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and Littler Mendelson--have contributed a total of more than 1,000 publications to the site.
"When you typically receive client alerts, there's no searchable database," says Matt Haltom, associate general counsel and assistant corporate secretary of Sally Beauty Holdings Inc. "I can never find what I'm looking for. Legal OnRamp is the only place I know of that indexes them and makes them easily available."
The site also boasts a section called "Ask an Expert," where law firm attorneys answer frequently asked questions on a variety of topics. Like the database of legal updates, this content also is separated into searchable categories and subcategories, including "employment," "investigations," "product liability" and "commercial contracts and finance."
"Instead of breaking things down into practice groups, the site is organized by areas of information I need to know," Haltom says. "This structure definitely reflects the way in-house counsel think, rather than the way law firm attorneys think."
One of the most innovative resources Legal OnRamp provides is the marketplace section where, for a fee, legal departments can post various matters and seek bids from law firms. Legal OnRamp's creators hope this online RFP process, which departments can choose to participate in anonymously, will boost competition among law firms, lowering costs for clients.
"We recently posted a job with respect to privacy law research, and we're still waiting for responses," says Craig Glidden, general counsel of Chevron Phillips Chemical. Glidden is part of the consortium behind the site. "We're interested in this as a potential way to bundle work that might be more susceptible to online bidding."
Despite the many resources available on Legal OnRamp, most of which are free, the site has a long way to go before it "revolutionizes" the legal field.
"Obviously the site has to grow its list of law firms and specialty areas to keep the databases useful and current, and that's a challenge," Haltom says. The site's creators also have to convince in-house lawyers to use the technology. That will be a challenge, Glidden admits.
"But we definitely want to encourage people to use it and learn to collaborate. If my kids are doing it, why can't my colleagues?" he asks.
However, Legal OnRamp's creators are confident that this foray is the beginning of something big.
"When you look at it, the power of 'us' is greater than the power of 'one,'" Dang says. "So there's a lot of resources and great minds out there, and there are a lot of problems that we're all dealing with that someone has probably solved. So why not leverage that?"