In his groundbreaking book The End of Lawyers?, law professor and futurist Richard Susskind discusses ten types of “disruptive legal technologies” that will shred the existing business models of most law practices. One of those forces is “closed client communities” that draw upon their members’ collective wisdom in legal matters to produce a knowledge database of documents, experiences, conversations and conclusions. This sort of community would help clients anticipate the nature, cost and likely outcome of a legal matter. But it would also provide ready-made resources and customisable templates that could replace part or even all of the services that make up lawyers’ traditional stock in trade. You’d imagine that lawyers would be deeply worried about the possibility that such communities could emerge. In fact, one already has – and many lawyers are eager to join it.

Legal OnRamp describes itself as “a collaboration system for in-house counsel and invited outside lawyers and third-party service providers.” Launched more than two years ago by former Silicon Valley GC Paul Lippe, in conjunction with Cisco Systems GC Mark Chandler and other far-seeing corporate counsel, OnRamp is free of charge but admits members by invitation only.

When you log in to Legal OnRamp, a dazzling array of information leaps to your attention. You can tune in to one of several conversations in progress in which members respond to requests for information or assistance, or talk about a developing trend in the provision and purchase of legal services. Several high-profile blogs are streamed into the site, along with news updates from law.com and Inside Counsel magazine. Job openings, OnRamp Group updates, and new documents uploaded by members are among the other resources promoted on the front page.

But digging deeper into the site reveals another layer of resources. FAQs and wikis are provided on a wide range of topics, while legal updates are available from nearly two dozen major law firms, including DLA Piper, White & Case, Cooley Godward, Patton Boggs, Morgan Lewis and more. In addition, exclusive content from Allen & Overy, Eversheds, and a host of Lex Mundi firms worldwide is available at a premium. By virtually any measure, OnRamp is a formidable knowledge resource for in-house counsel, and its ranks are growing accordingly.

OnRamp now counts more than 8,300 members worldwide – 60 per cent in the US, 10 per cent in each of the UK, Germany and Canada. (UK users stand out for their sophistication in knowledge management and legal know-how and have reportedly found OnRamp a useful platform with which to collaborate.) Around 62 per cent of all users are in-house lawyers, many of whom are GCs or CLOs with large or even global corporations. They represent a tremendous amount of both buying power in the legal marketplace and influence power as thought leaders in their areas.

That alone might help explain why more than 2,000 private law practitioners around the world have joined OnRamp and are eager to display their knowledge and expertise for this potentially powerful audience. Even in the online world, corporate counsel remain an attractive audience for law firm lawyers seeking to increase their profile with these key decision makers.

But there’s more going on here than just business development. Smart law firm lawyers are happy to get involved in the conversations at OnRamp because they recognise these conversations have the potential to change the structure of the legal services marketplace.

Writing new rules of the game

Legal OnRamp intends to be far more than an online legal network – more than just LinkedIn for lawyers. It aims to host conversations and to direct activities that will alter the fundamental rules by which outside legal services are processed, delivered and priced. OnRamp is the brainchild of high-tech lawyers who fully believe in Web 2.0’s power to change the nature of underlying paradigms. Its targeted paradigm is nothing less than the traditional legal services business model.

Web 2.0 for lawyers is to a great extent about productivity – getting the best value in the right timeframe for the most appropriate price by using all the tools and options that Web 2.0 makes available. That means making optimal use of automation, unbundling, offshoring, insourcing, and other modern means by which any given task is routed efficiently to the most affordable level of expertise that can complete it. That is almost a textbook definition of how most law firms do not do business.

Productivity is a concept near and dear to the hearts of corporate counsel but a virtual stranger to most law firms, which consistently assign work to the highest level of expertise and cost and take as long as possible to complete it. Law firm lawyers are accustomed to measuring their productivity in terms of hours billed and to being compensated and promoted for maximizing the time and effort that goes into the completion of a client’s task.

Most clients find this perverse. High billable-hour totals represent productivity for the firm’s benefit, not the client’s. In fact, high billable-hour totals are by definition in opposition to clients’ interests, which lie in getting the best result in the fastest time for the most reasonably affordable price. Clients have had enough of this misalignment of goals, and thanks to Web 2.0, they now have the means to rectify it.

Clients want to ensure their lawyers are on the same page and are prioritizing the same things as they are. They want their legal services suppliers to deal with them the same way their other suppliers do – by understanding the business pressures under which their companies operate and restructuring their processes to meet their clients’ needs. They want their lawyers to know what “value” means to them and to align their practices and procedures to achieve that value.

That’s the conversation that inside counsel are having with each other, and that they want outside counsel to join. They’re having it in many different locations and disparate contexts, but Legal OnRamp is becoming the place where the conversation is the loudest and most influential. Lawyers who cling to the old ways of doing things should be deeply alarmed that thousands of the world’s leading corporate counsel are actively working out processes for dismantling those old ways. Innovative lawyers who are open to new ways of working should be beating a path to join the OnRamp conversation.

The remarkable characteristic of the current debate over how legal services are delivered is that there are no defenders of the status quo – no one is standing up for billable hour targets, overpriced associates and work-hoarding partners. That should be considered the surest sign that radical change is on our doorstep.

If you want to be a part of that change process, visit OnRamp to see for yourself what it’s all about. You might just find yourself on the leading edge of a wave that’s transforming the legal profession.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer and legal journalist based in Ottawa, Canada, who publishes the blog Law21, an information hub for the extraordinary changes underway within the legal profession. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Bar Association’s National magazine and as Chair of the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards.

Email jordan@law21.ca.

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