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Law 2.0: New Web 2.0 tools help in-house counsel collaborate, but they aren't perfect

Read about the potential risks Web 2.0 carries for in-house attorneys.

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A common stereotype classifies all lawyers as technophobes. Alongside their ever-growing exasperation with electronic discovery, stereotypical attorneys also fear common Web-based technology such as Twitter or Facebook.

Well, it's not necessarily true. Judging by recent statistics, more and more of the legal world is quickly joining the techno-savvy ranks. According to LexisNexis' 2008 Networks for Counsel Survey, 48 percent of corporate counsel were part of some sort of social network in 2008. In the 2009 survey, for which full results aren't yet available, the number jumped to 71 percent. Young attorneys weren't the only ones bringing up the numbers. The 2008 survey reported 49 percent of all attorneys 36 to 45 years old and 36 percent of attorneys 46 to 55-plus years old had joined social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn. And experts believe those numbers will keep rising.

"There is a growing sense of acceptance of [Web 2.0], even among the older generations," says Joe Rosenbaum, a partner at Reed Smith. He specializes in media and technology issues. "There's no question it comes with risk. But that being said, like any other technology or innovation, it has enormous benefits when used properly."

With the right tools and preparation, Web 2.0 can help in-house counsel much more than just Facebook-stalking law school classmates or "tweeting" where they ate lunch.


Wicked Wikis

Some attorneys say wikis--Web sites that multiple authorized people can easily access and edit--offer the most helpful Web 2.0 technology for in-house counsel by increasing efficiency and making it easier to collaborate with other attorneys.

"Not only can you make changes, but who made those changes [and the context of the changes] is recorded," says Chris Yeh, the vice president for enterprise marketing at PBWorks, which makes wiki software.

FMC Technologies GC Jeffrey Carr, who has used wikis, says his legal department plans to transform its "cookbook"--450 documents that detail everything his law department does--into a collection of wikis. It ranges from how to pay bills to what to do if the police show up and want to see an employee.

"The collaborative aspect and the accessibility of information on a real-time basis really free things up," Carr says. "You can quickly address people who have dealt with the same issue that you've dealt with."

Wikis can help internally--streamlining communications and answering recurring questions in a department--but they also can help in-house lawyers interact more effectively with their law firms.

For example, Yeh points out that traditional contract drafting with outside counsel can be daunting. "You call [your lawyer], send an e-mail," he says. "Then you follow up and ask, 'Is it done yet?' He sends you an e-mail attachment. You redline it and say, 'Make these changes.'"

With wikis, in-house attorneys can create a space for an individual project, which can work as a status sheet that multiple people can modify simultaneously. In the wiki, both in-house and outside attorneys can link to documents as they are updated, instead of digging through e-mails.

Working the Network

In addition to wikis, online social networking of various flavors has permeated the legal industry. Legal OnRamp has been around since 2007 and boasts roughly 9,000 members. LexisNexis launched Martindale-Hubbell Connected in March, and it had grown to more than 9,000 attorney members by late June. Approximately a third of Connected's members work in-house. Forty-six percent of Connected members are in their 40s and 50s, and Legal OnRamp CEO Paul Lippe says his site does not skew younger either.

Laxmi Wordham, vice president of Martindale-Hubbell Large Law at LexisNexis, says Connected not only lets in-house counsel connect with outside counsel but allows specialized communities to connect as well.

"The Minority Corporate Counsel Association wants to use it as part of its mentoring program," she says, adding that pro bono associations also are hoping to arrange activities through the site.

With about half of its members in-house, Legal OnRamp focuses more on allowing in-house attorneys to collaborate with each other. The invitation-only site hosts message boards, blogs and wikis as well as profiles. (Connected also offers some similar features.)

"We've got to find ways to make [managing law] cheaper, more efficient and higher quality," Lippe says about the continuing advancement of Web 2.0. "We're not doing it because it's fun or clever."

Not all attorneys find online social networking useful in its current form. Rosenbaum suggests trade associations or localized networks may provide better support than big-picture sites such as Connected or Legal OnRamp. And others feel looking for outside counsel isn't well suited to the social networking format.

"Sites out there right now are like eHarmony meets Facebook for lawyers," Carr says, although he appreciates the broad spectrum of tools available on Legal OnRamp. "Most of us already have our panel of counsel in place."

He says this happens because users don't want to pay for access to the sites. So to stay afloat financially, they "become essentially ... advertising and/or matchmaking media for service providers."


Paradigm Shift

Accepting Web 2.0 necessitates a paradigm shift in the way most lawyers think. Change might be difficult, but in the long run, it can make in-house counsel's work easier and more efficient.

For example, Rosenbaum cites global legal departments, where lawyers spread throughout different countries don't get much face time with each other.

"You're likely to see a higher use of digital collaborative tools [to maintain communication]," he says.

However counsel use Web 2.0, whether wikis, social networking or merely legal blogs, the focus should not be on the label but instead on discovering how technology solves problems more efficiently than before.

"People talk about Web 2.0 as a thing in-and-of itself, but whatever we call it, it really comes down to tools that enable us to do our jobs better," Carr says. "The big change is it's an open model based on collaboration, as opposed to a closed model based on information hoarding."

Web 2.0 is no magic bullet, either--especially if legal departments don't proactively think about what they are trying to achieve by implementing the tools. Different companies have different Web 2.0 needs, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Simply creating a Facebook page or a Twitter feed is often not the best answer.

"You have to have a good understanding of the problem," Yeh says. "Too often the way people look at social media and Web 2.0 is, 'Hey, I'm going to magically add it to my company, and everything is going to be good.' That just doesn't work."

But if in-house counsel can find ways to leverage Web 2.0 to suit a company's specific needs, the technology can make legal work flow more smoothly. In a profession too often built on inefficiency and competition, it's a welcome change.

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