Social software for lawyers

2007 will be the year that many law firms and chambers finally wake up to the need to collaborate and start to use internal social software to achieve this. First, what IS social software exactly?

According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, social software is software which enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities. The key elements of social software are wikis and blogs.

A wiki, which means “quick” in Hawaiian, is a web site that enables users to easily edit and update shared content.

A blog is a user generated website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in reverse chronological order.

Blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries. They usually combine text and images and also provide links to other blogs and web pages related to their topic. The ability for readers to leave comments is an important part of many blogs.

Both wikis and blogs have seen exponential growth in the past few years but using them within an organisation is only just starting to take off now.

Social Software used in the business world

Motorola has 3,200 internal wikis, covering just about every topic with which the company is involved. Of course, the many younger people working for Motorola are deeply embedded in the online culture and find it natural to search for information and documents in this way.

Networking software maker Novell has also taken to wikis in a big way, starting a couple of years ago when an engineer installed a wiki server under the desk of Lee Romero, manager for knowledge and collaboration services at the company. Romero subsequently came up with an enterprise wiki strategy, setting up a corporate wiki for all employees. He has spoken about the impact on the work culture and describes the benefits of wikis as promoting openness and collaboration.

That covers wikis but what about internal blogs? The benefits here lie in the opportunity that they give employees to communicate in a safe environment and also as an effective way to reduce e-mail.

Internal blogs can be an effective venting and ranting platform, pointing out the good and the bad of the internal workings of a business and the competition in a safe, behind-the-firewall, environment.

The media firm, Ziff Davis set up a project to encourage internal blogs amongst employees. The project was so successful that it was finished in three months rather than the projected four and they have experienced a dramatic reduction in email volume as well as costs savings of more than $1 million (computed on an annual basis).

I do not know of any chambers yet using this type of software in a big way (nor do I – please let me know if you know of any! Delia) but with respect to law firms, Allen & Overy LLP are doing some fine work in this area with the assistance of media consultancy, Headshift.

Social Software used at Allen & Overy

According to Ruth Ward, Head of Knowledge Systems & Development at Allen & Overy, the firm has included these elements of social media:

  • Group blogs – these enable users to post information and queries applicable to the purposes of their group. They are not necessarily published to the whole firm;
  • Daily e-mail alerter – people adding information to the site can choose either an immediate alert to be sent, or members will receive a daily aggregated alert;
  • Wikis – they can use these within their group to help work on and plan projects, consultations and events and to produce collaborative knowledge resources;
  • Categorisation and social tagging – the categories set by the editor are complemented by user generated “themes”, both of which can be used to categorise content and make it easier to find archived material.
  • Social bookmarks – the sites include group and personal bookmarks so people can share useful web-links;
  • News feeds – these provide a single point of access for RSS feeds to the site. They can be set on an optional or mandatory basis for the group.

Ruth Ward says that the social media solutions have met real business needs in the firm. She says that they have not been imposed from above but that people have wanted to use them once they have seen how effective they can be.

She says that blogs and wikis complement each other very well. By way of example, wikis are useful for storing information on a permanent basis and blogs are useful for dealing with enquiries.

Three predictions for the way in which social software will affect law firms

  • The use of social software will influence the behaviour of law firms. The nature of the social media which encourages collaborative behaviour is bound to encourage flatter organizations and reduce hierarchy.
  • This collaboration will not only impact on firms internally but may influence the way they view people outside the firm, such as competitors. On some occasions, they will compete with other firms but on others they will collaborate. Such an approach requires the belief that the new business environment is one which no longer requires competition at all costs, but rather relies also on collaboration to gain competitive advantage.
  • A generational gap within law firms will continue to build with younger people who have increasingly been growing up with social media tools being ever more out of step with luddite law firms. The application of social media tools in the organisation will see a benefit for recruitment for genuinely progressive law firms. Your use of social media may well determine if an applicant goes to your law firm or someone else’s.

Justin Patten is a Solicitor and advises law firms on how to introduce blogging, wikis and other so called web 2.0 technologies to maximise productivity and enhance communication. He is writing a book “Blogging and Other Social Media: Technology and Law” for Gower Publishing. His own blog is Human Law.