New Rules of Engagement
Communities of shared interest will change the practice of law.
By Stephen P. Gallagher
ONE OF THE key challenges facing every lawyer is how to determine when it is to your advantage to share information openly, and when is it is best to keep information and customer relations private.
In this increasingly-networked world, every law firm is trying to manage knowledge, while extending its reach beyond its existing client base. Clients already have access to free information via the Internet, and are beginning to realize that the value of that information is entirely dependent on how the information is used. In fact, despite the road bumps, the Internet economy still offers unprecedented opportunity for lawyers who can transition to new products and services, to complement their existing practices.
Increasingly, clients are calling the shots. In order to survive in these changing times, firms must put aside "Old World" thinking, and compete according to totally new rules of engagement. Firms that can adapt to this new form of building communities will survive, but those that continue to conduct business as usual should expect to struggle in the coming years.
Access to Information
Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Age of Access, writes that, "We will come to think of our economic life more in terms of access to services and experiences and less in terms of ownership of things, marking the beginning of the Age of Access."
As the Internet becomes more accessible from anywhere, the public will be linked to the 'Net via wireless telephones, personal digital assistants, interactive television, always on DSL, or cable, or laptop computers with wireless connections. In this New World, firms will depend less on individual market exchange of goods and services, and more on establishing long-term client relationships.
According to Rifkin, young people are far more comfortable conducting business and engaging in social activity in the worlds of electronic commerce and cyberspace. "Access is already a way of life, and many of them are already using their newfound senses of relatedness and connectivity to challenge an unbridled commercial ethic and create new communities of shared interest."
As a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York, the Washington, D. C. area, and Pennsylvania, I saw, for the first time, how new communities of shared interest actually work.
Within hours of the first attack, the New York State Bar Association became the central clearinghouse for information related to lawyers affected by the World Trade Center attack. We set up a Web site -- Legal TechAid -- to help match those lawyers who needed assistance with consultants, legal technology product vendors, and other technology support personnel who volunteered to help.
Our community of volunteers was given immediate and open-ended access to colleagues from across the country, so they were able to continually share information, knowledge, and expertise to help colleagues directly affected by the terrorist attacks. Participants began to see very quickly how individuals-in-community could create value -- strong individuals in strong relationships. When there is a greater cause that uses individuals' collective strengths, online communities become an emotional and operational reality.
Many individuals, companies, law firms and non-profit organizations came together to share resources to help serve this electronic community. During the LegalTech New York show, I conferred with Ross Kodner, president of Milwaukee's MicroLaw, Inc.; Rich Hopen, e-Law's vice president of marketing and sales; and Monica Bay, editor-in-chief of Law Technology News (American Lawyer Media Inc.) We each had identified one particular problem affecting the New York Legal community, and agreed to bring resources together from each of our organizations to solve this problem.
Immediately following the attacks, many law firms in lower Manhattan were operating out of numerous locations, and it was extremely difficult for opposing counsel and clients to find them. Because e-Law's sister company, the New York Lawyers Diary and Manual had business addresses for lawyers, we asked Rich Hopen to develop a Web-based system to enable the New York State Bar Association and other local bar associations to centralize attorney contact information. The result was a Web site: lawdiary.com.
Within two weeks after the attacks, the New York Lawyers Diary and Manual reported that:
* Site links had been established to the New York State Bar Association; the Association of the Bar of the City of New York; the New York County Lawyers' Association and the New Jersey State Bar Association.
* A Web-based form had been built to collect information, located at www.law411.com/.
* An "800" toll-free telephone number and e-mail account had been created.
* More than 600 phone calls were made to attorneys in impacted area. Lawyers Diary associates spoke with about 300 and learned that 90 percent returned to their offices, and 10 percent were relocated.
* Nintey-eight law firm addresses were on the site.
* Within days of completing the site, American Lawyer Media Inc.'s metropolitan area newspaper, The New York Law Journal began publishing daily updates from the Lawyers Diary Web site.
The digitization of information combined with a shared vision enabled community members to pool resources, to and from multiple providers and users. Each partner in this new community could not have mustered the resources needed to address this complex problem on their own.
By sharing resources, the community was able to create greater value. When communities of providers and users of information can deal with each other directly, the way law firms utilize their people, market their products, manage their information, and work with partners will have dramatic impact on the way law firms create value.
The magnitude of the tragedy of the World Trade Center created an atmosphere in the New York legal community where bar associations, the business community, and government entities joined forces to form alliance focusing on one thing -- to help individuals and families affected by these terrorist attacks. It quickly became obvious to those of us trying to connect volunteers to victims that no single organization could act alone. The online community became an operational reality, because it enabled all parties to work together, continually sharing information, knowledge, and expertise. Those of us who have participated in the Legal TechAid community felt great pride in the way our profession responded.
I return to the key challenge every lawyer in the country is currently struggling with. In light of the successes of the Legal TechAid community, how can a law firm determine when it is to your advantage to share information openly? When is it still in your best interest to keep information and customer relations private?
During Legal TechAid we began to see a different kind of social relationship between our technology consultants, who made up the bulk of our volunteers. Where these individuals formerly competed for business, they were now going out of their way to help find help for "non-client" community members.
With the shift from geography to cyberspace, law firms have to watch the shift away from the old idea of autonomous, boundaried business enterprises. The notion of multiple partners engaged in both formal and informal reciprocal relationships has its place, but fortunately for our technology consultants, as a result of ongoing business relationships, they were able to keep food on their table as they volunteered their time to enrich the TechAid community.
Stephen P. Gallagher is director of the law office economics and management department of the New York State Bar Association. He currently co-chairs an American Bar Association Law Practice Management committee of practice management advisors.