At PLC we like to be at the cutting edge of technology in the law, sometimes a difficult place to be. However, social software (blogs, wikis and the like) seemed one of our easier challenges.

We already work collaboratively with our users. Our materials are often co-authored with lawyers in practice, we participate in industry groups and we have lots of dialogue with our users. In short, we think of ourselves as being at the fulcrum of practice, as a professional support lawyer to the profession. At its heart social software is about user participation, so it seemed a natural fit. Not only that, but social software is cheap to buy and easy to implement; no need for the years of investment we have put into document automation.

Of course, with such an encouraging set of circumstances, our first attempt at an external wiki wasn’t an unqualified success. The wiki was in the commercial property area (wiki.practicallaw.com). We already host and maintain the industry standard Commercial Property Standard Enquiries, which requires taking comments from those across the industry. So when the Code for Leasing Business Premises in England and Wales 2007 was introduced, launching a wiki that was free to everyone to take feedback and discussion seemed an excellent idea.

As we expected, we received lots of comment, and feedback on a code compliant lease that we had drafted, but it was all by email or telephone. Despite cajoling, most lawyers were not comfortable committing themselves to a comment online – even those who were more than willing to ask questions or give answers in face to face seminars.

We allowed them to participate on an anonymous basis, but that just attracted spam. The wiki remained stubbornly barren of content, apart from a businessperson who left a confused and slightly helpless question about a lease problem he or she was suffering, and was answered, helpfully and civilly, by an anonymous lawyer.

The issues we faced are likely to be faced by anyone trying to take advantage of the promises of social software. Whilst it is seductively cheap and simple to implement, the golden rule is the same as that which applies to any technology project: it isn’t about the technology, it’s about the users. The good thing is that with social software you won’t have spent a million pounds to find out that this rule doesn’t change.

Suitably chastened, our next social software projects will be more cautious. Both will use restricted groups to build up user confidence.

The first will be an annotation facility, allowing subscribers to annotate our materials. The annotations will only be visible to other members of the annotators’ organisation. Thus a professional support lawyer in a firm can make a comment on one of our notes, or link to more detailed expertise that the organisation has.

The second will be a pilot in relation to the new Companies Act. A large number of organisations rely on the materials we are publishing on this important change in the law, and we already partly act as a clearing house for opinions on it. Most of this interchange happens by email, telephone or face to face; we receive around 12 emails a day on the topic. Many opinions or debates that would be very valuable to other practitioners are currently sitting in the email threads of our editors’ in-boxes.

Early next year we will try to move this debate online. The aim will be to create a forum in which lawyers will be able to ask questions of or to debate the difficult issues raised by the Act with like-minded counterparts. Initially, membership of the forum will be by invitation only, and will be limited to a small group of interested legal professionals. The quid pro quo of joining will be contributing to the discussion.

By doing this we don’t want to hide knowledge from the profession; in fact we want to move it out of email inboxes so that it is more visible. Nor do we want to create an elite inner circle; we will try to make sure that the discussion reflects views from different parts of the profession. But in order to encourage people to voice their opinions we think that it is best to start with a small and personal club so people become comfortable engaging in the type of dialogue they currently use emails for.

We hope this more cautious approach will succeed. However, the ultimate question is whether lawyers are genuinely willing to share knowledge; if not, social software in the law will remain more wish than reality.

Robert Dow is Chairman of Practical Law Company Limited.

Email robert.dow@practicallaw.com.

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