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A recent survey found that lawyers were still sceptical of the value of online networking. James Harley looks at what can be done to change attitudes

As the business world becomes increasingly reliant on technology for communication, the legal profession is also noticing a shift. This has been seen not only in document transfer and communication, such as email or efiling, but also with knowledge sharing and networking.

The 2008 Networks for Counsel Survey, commissioned by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell, has revealed that almost 50% of lawyers are members of online social networks, and more than 40% believe professional networking has the potential to change the business and practice of law over the next five years.

But what does this mean? With less than 10% of respondents saying they can rely on their current network to help them work more efficiently and cost-effectively, how important is having a professional networking tool?

Lawyers typically use traditional methods of networking; referrals or recommendations from clients and peers are generally considered to be the most effective means. Relationship-based methods, such as in-person networking events and alumni groups, are also considered powerful. However, given the geographical challenges presented by globalisation, as well as time and budgetary constraints, these traditional activities are becoming increasingly difficult for lawyers to engage in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 52% of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that it is harder to stay connected with colleagues and peers. In addition, more than 60% agreed or strongly agreed that it is hard to connect at conferences, while 61% said that networking internationally is both difficult and prohibitively expensive.

These results suggest that the profession would benefit from a more efficient and effective environment through which they can network and collaborate. New online technologies provide a solution through networking websites that can help lawyers connect with each other quickly and easily, regardless of location. However, while there is a clear market for online networking, some specific issues remain that challenge its potential to win true acceptance.

Firstly, there is a clear generation gap in attitudes towards online networking. According to the survey, legal professionals are increasingly using online social networking for personal and professional purposes, however, the majority of lawyers using such sites are between the ages of 25 and 35. Sixty-seven percent of 25-35 year olds, 49% of 36-45 year olds, and 36% of 46+ year olds reported membership of an online social network.

While it is promising that younger members of the legal profession are relatively accustomed to online networking, a large portion of senior lawyers are not currently participating.

Secondly, the findings suggest that a network specifically designed for the needs of lawyers should be considered. More than 40% of all corporate counsel and private practice lawyers report an interest in joining an online professional network designed exclusively for lawyers, and 54% of corporate counsel and 41% of private practice lawyers view linking to other lawyers as the most important feature an online professional network could provide.

A network specifically tailored to the legal profession could, for example, operate using heightened privacy levels, an area which many within the profession have expressed concerns about.

Forty-three percent of corporate counsel and 53% of private practice lawyers report that current versions of professional networks and online communities do not help them work more efficiently and cost effectively. This is clearly a concern that needs addressing. So, what features and content might tempt corporate counsel to join a professional legal network?

According to the Networks for Counsel survey, the top five attributes identified were:

1) access to information not found anywhere else (46%);

2) ease of exchanging information/experiences (45%);

3) ability to identify, evaluate and select private practice lawyers quickly (29%);

4) finding the ‘right’ lawyer directly (26%); and

5) speed of collaboration (21%).

Additionally, the survey found that lawyers would look to well-established brands within the legal industry to deliver these services. The American Bar Association, the Association of Corporate Counsel and Martindale-Hubbell were all identified as examples as such brands.

Martindale-Hubbell and LinkedIn – one of the leading global professional networks which is far more ‘professionally’ oriented than many rival ‘social’ networking websites – recently announced a tie-up which results in LinkedIn relationship intelligence now being displayed against lawyers and law firms listed at Martindale-Hubbell’s flagship website, martindale.com.

The findings from the 2008 Networks for Counsel Survey begin to challenge the widely-held perception of the legal profession as being slow to adopt new technologies. The fact that lawyers would appear to be ready and willing to embrace online networking tools in itself represents a significant shift in behaviour.

Future developments in this area will likely see the introduction of online networks that categorise according to specific lawyer preferences and practices Sites will become easier to use and will cater to lawyers’ needs for connecting, communicating and exchanging information between verified and trusted individuals and groups – all within a secure environment.

But that is unlikely to be enough. Quality networks for lawyers will need to go beyond ‘connecting’; they will have to offer the tools, content and capabilities lawyers need to help them solve real business issues.

James Harley is international marketing director at LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell.

2008 Networks for counsel survery – 2008

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