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Communications - Web 2.0: Law firms are at the cutting edge of internet tools

Alan Cane
Financial Times 17 December 2008

The legal profession is one which worships evolution rather than revolution, yet lawyers – at least younger ones – have embraced the potential of Web 2.0 and its tools for social interaction.

Graham Shear, senior litigation partner of London-based solicitors Teacher Stern Selby, acted for footballer Ashley Cole in a defamation action against two newspapers which had, without naming the Chelsea and England star, implied he had taken part in “debauched romps”.

Mr Shear needed evidence that readers of the two papers had recognised the alleged “romping footballer” as Mr Cole.

So he set up a questionnaire on a dedicated website, which attracted 83,000 hits and produced statements from witnesses claiming to have identified Mr Cole from the articles. The newspapers settled the case and published apologies.

Another law firm, Field Fisher Waterhouse, last year claimed to be the first major law firm to have opened an office in Second Life, the virtual computer world inhabited by avatars. It said the move reflected “the firm’s position advising clients at the cutting edge of online commerce and digital technology”.

Tomas Jones, a consultant in Deloitte’s technology integration practice says this year there has been a marked increase in the number of companies wanting to deploy Web 2.0 tools: “Leading law firms appear to be ahead of the pack and have been quick to experiment with corporate RSS [frequently updated publishing tools] products to ensure the right information reaches the right people in good time.

“The collaborative environment in most law firms has lent itself to the adoption of such tools. And some are attempting to replace their entire intranet with an enterprise wiki [website content that can be edited by users] package to encourage increased collaboration across industry groups.”

Elliot Rose, managing consultant with PA Consulting, believes Web 2.0 tools can be beneficial in disseminating information around an organisation, although he argues there are risks: “The only downside is the issue of formal and informal content. People put their ideas and thoughts out there and people comment on them which can lead to the dilemma, ‘Is that an official line or should I be looking at more formal sources?’.”

He points to the problem of firms who start using Web 2.0 tools internally and then externally: “Some started to roll out wiki-type tools internally but as staff got used to using them, they noticed conversations on the internet about work-related matters. So it is important to make clear what is acceptable and what is not.”

His concern is shared by Mike Lynch, chief executive of search software company Autonomy, who wrote earlier this year: “Enterprises often let the beast out of the cage by introducing Web 2.0 and are faced with the ramifications of clogging the enterprise with unapproved, chaotic information”.

Properly managed, however, wikis can be a powerful source of competitive advantage.

International law firm Latham & Watkins has developed structured wikis, or “twikis”, which allow its lawyers to create applications without involving the IT department: “These applications, in turn, have allowed all of the lawyers to participate in capturing their know-how in one place and work better together. With everyone suddenly able to find documents and information that would otherwise have been inaccessible, a virtuous circle of participation and enthusiasm for the possibilities has sprung up.”

Mr Jones of Deloitte concludes: “The real value of Web 2.0 is cumulative. A social network might enable lawyers to locate subject matter experts within the firm, but this interaction becomes far more valuable if a resulting action can also take place on the same platform – immediate communication with the author through an instant messenger service, for example.”

Richard Leonard, a director and co-founder of Konetica, a technology company specialising in legal systems, says it is important to understand how lawyers work. Web 2.0 tools can improve communication, speed and quality of work, and provide resources for lawyers on the road. “If it is really blended correctly, we will have lawyers out there who are better prepared, with a stronger tool set and more confidence,” he says.

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