Like a child with a new toy, some lawyers' eyes still light up when people talk to them about Web 2.0. They should be asking themselves: will this make our clients' lives easier or our own business more efficient? They don't. Instead, they get excited by the opportunity to look innovative and to win a trinket at the next awards dinner.
For example, the potential of the legal wiki excites some private practice lawyers. Wikipedia is cited as the model of the future. But a law firm cannot replicate the altruistic enthusiasm of thousands that made Wikipedia such a huge success. Most public-facing wikis fail and the mortality rate of legal wikis is higher than most because lawyers are not collaborative by nature. Clients receive nothing of value.
The problem is that law firms all too often embrace Web 2.0 for the sake of it. This strategy prompts RSS feeds that deliver nothing but law firm press releases that clients don't need and podcasts that waste the listener's time with absolute drivel. There are so many bad podcasts out there that they're damaging the medium for the good ones.
Law firms are also prone to launching terrible blogs that die the lonely death they deserve. They're badly-structured, badly-written websites under a different name, devoid of the regular, pithy opinion that makes a blog worth following. That is partly because it is difficult for a law firm (unless it's a small firm) to take sides publicly without upsetting at least one client. It's also partly because most lawyers write in legalese, not English.
With OUT-LAW we are focusing on providing useful legal information online, in plain English, because clients and potential clients tell us they want that. We have a paucity of bells and whistles. We demand nothing in return for the information that we offer but we hope that users will gain a good impression of Pinsent Masons and therefore come to us when they need legal advice.
OUT-LAW News covers legal events more or less when they happen (not six weeks later). Our writing style is business journalism, not legalese. And our legal guides are kept up to date by a team of around 100 technology lawyers in the firm. We see Google as the first port of call for most legal research, so we make sure that our pages are easy to find via Google, rather than hiding them behind login barriers.
This approach is not rocket science, but it seems to be a rare one within our profession. We have added some new features over the years (like RSS and podcasts) but only when we think they add value. We're working on video, too, but that will launch only when it meets our own expectations.
Some law firms balk at the idea of giving away lots of legal information. But large law firms don't really make their money from the sale of legal information; they make it from strategic advice and project management. Law firms also resent sharing their knowhow with rivals; but that approach has worked well for us. OUT-LAW encourages some firms to refer work our way, it encourages law students to apply to Pinsent Masons and it encourages lawyers in other firms to join us.
OUT-LAW turned nine years' old this week. We have many ideas for taking the service forward, but some of these ideas are more Web 1.0 than 2.0. We think they'll make life easier for clients and potential clients and we think that will help us to win work and make our own business more efficient. We recognise, though, that these ideas may not win us any trinkets.
By Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM. Struan is sounding out the bell and whistle of the moment at twitter.com/struan99.