The Rise of Client Collaboration
By Jordan Furlong, March 2010
A few months ago, an in-house lawyer with a U.S.-based appliance manufacturer was looking for information on record retention policies, specifically a set of best practices guidelines for directors. She might have tried cobbling together something within her own department, taking up valuable in-house bandwidth. She might have asked for help from her outside law firm, which in turn would likely have created the document from scratch and billed out its time.
Instead, the lawyer posted her request at Legal OnRamp, an invitation-only online legal community with thousands of corporate counsel members and thousands more in law firms and legal organizations (www.legalonramp.com). Within days, she received a report containing not just best practices on records retention, but also several examples of actual practices, provided by a director of the Corporate Executive Board. It was more than she asked for, she got it free, and her law firm never even entered into the picture.
Welcome to the world of client collaboration, where buyers of legal services share information with each other and where lawyers are often not needed on the voyage. The internet has enabled people with legal questions and problems to speak with and learn from each other on a massive scale, far beyond what was possible in the days before email and social networks. As a result, they are turning less frequently to their lawyers and more frequently to each other to acquire the legal information they need.
Sidelined by Web 2.0?
Legal OnRamp, which has been active since 2007, provides many more structured opportunities to acquire this information than simple message boards. Member groups, many of them private, are devoted to sharing data and perspectives among in-house lawyers in various industries. Users can upload files for others to use, while an increasingly large wiki contains documents, forms, and sample letters in subjects ranging from corporate governance to e-discovery to employee dismissal. Private-law lawyers are welcome to join in the effort – but as often as not, their presence isn't really necessary, because clients share their own legal work product they've already purchased from their outside counsel.
If you're feeling a little marginalized by this development, you might want to start getting used to that feeling. Client collaboration is only going to increase in the years to come, as the technology to enable that collaboration continues to improve and as a growing number of formal collaboration communities like Legal OnRamp emerge. The essence of the Web 2.0 movement lies in communicating and sharing knowledge and resources to improve everyone's position – everyone except, perhaps, the people who have always benefited from selling that knowledge and those resources.
Today, client collaboration in a formal sense has only arrived for large corporate and institutional clients. But consumer clients, who comprise the bulk of the client base for the bulk of law practices in North America, have been sharing their legal experiences and anecdotes informally for years with friends and relatives. When they start finding formal mechanisms to collaborate with a wider pool of fellow clients through LinkedIn, Facebook, or other free online applications, they'll naturally have less need to call on their lawyers – and that will have a huge effect on lawyers' business.
A client-centred trend
And the fact is, lawyers can blame themselves for this potentially widespread disintermediation. It has long bothered clients when lawyers, at substantial cost in their ow-n time and clients’ money, constantly reinvent wheels that have been invented thousands of times before. Clients think that the amount of time a given lawyer spends to complete a task should be inversely proportional to that lawyer’s experience and expertise. Lawyers’ failure to implement this marketplace rule, thanks in no small part to the influence of the billable hour, has only served to encourage clients to look elsewhere for more affordable and accessible sources of legal help. And in growing numbers, they're turning to each other.
It's one thing to cite a global corporate platform like Legal OnRamp – it's quite another to bring that same ethic of client collaboration to the consumer level. Imagine hundreds or even thousands of social micro-networks cropping up, each peopled by and devoted to a single specific legal matter — laid-off blue-collar workers in British Columbia, divorcing spouses with children in New Brunswick, small-enterprise startups in Quebec, business immigrants in Newfoundland, and countless more.
Members of these groups could contribute their own stories to wikis, supply both questions and answers to Q-and-A sections, and console or encourage fellow members in forums – at no cost and at no charge, simply because they want to help other people who are going through similar experiences themselves. The end result would be a civilian version of the kind of knowledge management systems many clients wish their law firms would create and make available to them: a database of known facts, creditable experiences, and reasonable extrapolations of what will happen in a typical matter of this type.
Client collaboration will hardly render lawyers irrelevant — there are extremely few areas of law where even the best-informed clients can go it alone. But it will help narrow the range of profitable services lawyers can sell, and not incidentally, will be a big step in practical terms towards greater access to justice for many people. Lawyers might scoff and say that the do-it-yourself lawyer of today is the overwhelmed client needing extrication tomorrow. But will that really be the result for every single client who tries to help her own legal cause? And is that really a proper professional response befitting our calling?
So what should lawyers do in the coming age of client collaboration? In the short term, upgrade the nature and sophistication of your offerings, putting them out of reach of the things clients can provide each other. If you're making money today through the provision of legal information and documents, you're living on borrowed time. This type of product will soon be available almost everywhere for almost nothing. Instead, focus on higher-value services like analysis, advocacy, integration and judgment, customized for each client's own unique services. The most valuable aspects of a lawyer's services are intangibles delivered one-on-one in a trusted relationship – move your practice squarely into that space.
In the long-term, embrace the client collaboration movement and make yourself one of its champions. Turn your own firm into a client collaboration center, enabling clients in similar circumstances to meet, speak with, and learn from each other. Create private pages on your website where your clients (and only your clients) can contribute to lists of experiences, best practices, consumer or industry insights, and so forth. Sponsor client events and workshops where people with similar needs and interests can meet in a facilitated environment and come away better informed and better connected.
If you can show that you understand the power of client collaboration – and if you can demonstrate to the marketplace that one of the best resources you give your clients is access to your other clients – then you'll be several steps ahead of the competition and well on your way to running a 21st-century law practice.
Jordan Furlong is a partner with Edge International who specializes in analyzing the extraordinary changes now underway in the legal profession worldwide. He is also a senior consultant with Stem Legal and head of its Media Strategy Service. He authors the award-winning blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink (http://law21.ca) and can be reached at email@example.com.