In the last issue of this newsletter, Steve Butler explained his disillusionment with Wikis – Why Wikis Won’t Work (for The Law). I agree that a website that can be edited by members of the public may not be the best way of compiling “… a multi media encyclopaedia of English law”. However, a Wiki remains an excellent tool for collating and presenting a law firm’s collective wisdom.
In an earlier article What is a Wiki Part 1 from January/February 2004 (this article is essentially part 2!), I explained that our firm had been looking for a way to bring together our in-house “know how”, particularly as it relates to our specialist area, the liability of local authorities. The solution was to customise an open source Wiki programme (originally OpenWiki, see now OpenwikiNG.com. The NG stands for Next Generation).
Over four years our Wiki has grown to a 250 page, encyclopaedic resource which has greatly improved our practice. It includes such things as;
(a) Relevant cases, mostly unreported with a summary, the correct citation and a hyperlink to a high quality scanned copy of the case;
(b) Themed “pages” summarising principles of law such as limitation of actions, contribution and so on with particular relevance to our practice areas;
(c) Links to scanned copies of technical documents;
(d) Examples of pleadings and affirmative defences;
(e) Procedural points;
(f) Summaries of in-house procedures such as how we resolve claims and interact with our clients.
Prospects for public law wikis
Richard Susskind was impressed with the success of Wikipedia, and suggested that a Wiki focussed on English law could and should be attempted. His enthusiasm overlooked the fact that a Wiki is no more than a piece of software. It is initially blank, and relies upon the input of one or many contributors for its content. The original Wiki was written by Ward Cunningham to enable programmers working collaboratively on large software projects to document the projects. A Wiki works well where you have a group of dedicated people collaborating on a project. Such contributors will be knowledgeable, will respect each other’s views and will be motivated to contribute.
There is no guarantee of such comity when you open a Wiki to public access. The contributors may not be knowledgeable and may even be malevolent. The operators of a public Wiki need to consider whether everyone should be allowed to make entries, the extent to which contributors should be entitled to change or delete the contributions of others, and how to protect the Wiki against vandalism.
Wikipedia succeeds because of the enthusiasm of a core of contributors and, more recently, because of limitations placed upon the ability of members of the public to add content or remove or amend it. (See the Slashdot.org news item and discussion from February 14th, 2007, ”˜Is Wikipedia Failing’ at slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/02/14/1314235 for a heated debate on this). As identified by Steve Butler, members of the public will rely upon the accuracy of a legal Wiki and such accuracy can only be ensured where the contributors are knowledgeable and the content is up to date. He is probably right in saying that the task is too big for a voluntary exercise. A Wiki where the core content is written by professionals would have a better prospect of success. What can be done to encourage professionals to donate their time? As with Wikipedia, a core of dedicated people is needed, committed to the ideal of a freely available digest of the law. If it becomes necessary to pay for contributions, who will pay?
Back in the office
An in-house Wiki has its own problems. It can be difficult to encourage solicitors to devote valuable chargeable time to making a contribution. Budgetary allowances may be necessary to encourage such selfless behaviour. There is also a natural reluctance to present ones own opinions to peers. Care is needed to prevent content being added that duplicates other resources within the firm, e.g. there are already extensive electronic databases covering civil procedure and the rules of evidence. It is also important to warn authors not to rely upon propositions or information on a Wiki without thinking it through themselves.
In terms of the software, OpenWiki has been very reliable. Solicitors have found it easy to use. However some computer knowledge is necessary to set up and customise the software. For an ‘off the shelf’ product, Microsoft has added Wiki features to the latest version of Sharepoint.
Paul Robertson is a litigator at Heaney & Co, a niche insurance law practice in Auckland, New Zealand. Paul enjoys using IT to make the practice of law more rewarding. He is a contributor to OpenWikiNG.