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One of the most significant developments of recent years has been the rise of online communities. These community sites – whether social networking like Facebook or LinkedIn, knowledge-sharing communities like Wikipedia or online gaming like Halo – allow individuals to organise and coordinate various activities online.

Some lawyers tend to dismiss new developments like Facebook as shallow and trivial – that is a mistake. The growth of online collaboration promises to be an important development for law because, in many ways, online communities reflect its traditional community model. A legal online community need not adopt the frivolous aspects of Facebook, but could be a place for connecting people, information, best practices and legal automation in ways that strengthen the profession and individual lawyers.

An online community is suited to law for many reasons:

1. Law is a social profession. From barristers’ chambers to one of a thousand professional societies and groups, law is honeycombed by social networks. Long before Facebook, lawyers developed Martindale-Hubbell and Chambers to connect.

2. Legal content and expertise are developed and shared socially. In law and other fields, social endeavours – ranging from the Oxford English Dictionary to Restatements – are used to create intellectually complex work. Before Wikipedia, lawyers developed the Common Law – a linked, multi-authored, ‘emergent’ codification of best practice. Most legal information is already available online and can be made more accessible and valuable via a social platform.

3. A social platform is the easiest way to go global. Most large companies’ revenue growth will be outside their home markets, which means they will be dealing with different legal regimes. A social platform can generate and provide access to multi-jurisdictional information and networks.

4. A social platform can address clients’ demand for greater efficiency, enabling lawyers to minimise time and expense spent ‘re-inventing the wheel’, and instead focus their expertise on developing specific and creative solutions for clients.

5. A social platform can be used to manage privileged work. While the first examples of these systems are informal, open places like Facebook, they can also be deployed in secure, private, single client or single client-firm spaces.

6. A social platform gets lawyers closer to clients. Many of the features of online platforms, such as searchable information, connections, presence detection, ‘status’ or profiles, allow lawyers to be more visible and connected with clients. Today’s most important law firm-client relationships were forged decades ago when lawyers and clients shared the same elevators or frequented the same clubs. While no substitute for physical interaction, online communities can keep lawyers and clients connected.

7. Social platforms will change the competitive dynamics of law. My friend Richard Susskind often talks about the commoditisation of law, but let me offer a different ‘C’ word: consolidation. If Partner Smith from Abu Dhabi has hundreds of connections and recommendations online, then it does not matter if Partner Jones in Abu Dhabi considers himself a better lawyer; Partner Smith will gain the reputation and therefore the business.

8. Participating in the broader community is the best way to energise your own community. The law firm world is replete with technology failures, especially in areas like knowledge management and customer relationship management. While there are many explanations for these failures, the basic cause is clear: law firms are fundamentally client-driven and initiatives that are internally focused or divert energy from engaging with clients do not work. A social platform that pulls together firm resources in a client-forward model is the cheapest, lowest-risk way to organise the firm’s capabilities.

9. An online community could prevent future shock. We all know the world at large has been changing faster than the world of law, leaving general counsel frustrated and law firms worried. Lawyers often describe themselves as risk-averse but inertia is a not a risk management strategy – it is an avoidance of personal responsibility strategy. Failure to think seriously about and appropriately manage change is the opposite of being risk-averse. Any law firm leader that has seen the dislocations occurring in industries ranging from autos to newspapers to airlines could hardly be called prudent or responsible unless they take steps to prepare their institutions for possible changes to the legal profession.

10. Social platforms are not about technology, they are about people. Clients want to connect to trusted experts, not documents. Technology is not a silver bullet, but judicious use of it can better align firms and clients, reducing costs, improving value and enhancing everyone’s satisfaction.

Lawyers have always understood the need to adopt new technologies to serve their clients and Web 2.0 will not be any different. As lawyers start to see the benefits of Web 2.0 for their clients, they will quickly go from worst to first in their adoption of those technologies, just as they did with email.

Paul Lippe is a founder and chief executive officer of Legal OnRamp.

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