When the law is an ask

Law firms are putting the web on trial with mixed but potentially precedent-setting outcomes for anyone in search of legal advice, says David Bowen.

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I was talking the other week at a presentation arranged by salterbaxter for web managers at big law firms. They are an interesting bunch, as salterbaxter pointed out, because on the one hand they are keen to be seen as innovative and on the other they find it hard to differentiate themselves.
I’m not quite sure why lawyers want to be innovative, but that’s their concern: mine is to see how they are using the web to achieve their aims, because they are shared by companies in many sectors.
The news so far is mixed and generally not brilliant. Two examples (both lifted from salterbaxter) show the dangers of trying too hard.
First, Slaughter and May has a home page that featured in a recent BC Tip. Well, it isn’t a home page, it’s 15 of them. Drag your cursor across the screen and you pull another one in: maybe a woman in Wall Street to promote secondment stories, a couple of kids to tell us about the firm’s community work or a picture of a gas ring to introduce a case study. But why? How would we know to do all this dragging, why should we be bothered and what is it supposed to lead us to?
Second, Withers. This starts badly with a news headline ‘Test’, leading to an empty page. I thought these lawyers were supposed to be devils for detail. But the real problem comes with the ‘Customise this page’ link further down. Click ‘Add Content’, and you can display newsfeeds from the likes of the BBC and CNN or you can add your own RSS feed. This then appears on the home page. Fantastic – but what’s the point? If I want newsfeeds, I can get them through my web browser or mail reader. Why on earth would I use a law firm’s website?
The problem with both these is that they are indeed innovative and different, but they are not – to use our favourite word –appropriate. They are gizmos for the sake of it, which may make sense for a technology company but does not for a law firm, however innovative.

No hassle no fee

So, what can they do to make themselves stand out? I was listening on the radio to Richard Susskind, who does many things but is at his grandest when he is IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England. He has published a book called The End of Lawyers (Oxford University Press), which argues that law firms should be using technology to offload mundane tasks, so that human beings can be used to sort out the really tricky bits that require real judgement.
Asking lawyers to forgo fees might seem to be the work of an advanced optimist. But it is happening.
Click Conveyancing is the “online conveyancing division” of Barnetts Solicitors, a law firm in the north of England that specialises in helping people move house. It starts with providing an online quote, and then allows you to do what you need through a secure area. The work is still carried out by lawyers, but you can submit documents and monitor progress online. No great move forward by some standards, perhaps, but a minor earthquake in lawland.
Some firms have gone down the ‘portal’ route. Mills & Reeve has created divorce.co.uk, “the UK’s premier resource on divorce & separation”. This has a mass of practical and clearly written information, though the clear message is that after you have read it, you should think to contact the firm: its telephone number is prominent on every page.

Expert testimony

But lawyers who want to see where the real opportunity (or threat) lies should look at FindLaw. They probably already have as it is “the world’s leading provider of online legal information and internet market solutions for law firms”. It is not run by a law firm, but is a publishing venture by Thomson Reuters. It makes its money from advertising, I presume, and has even won a Webby, which is quite prestigious.
It has a huge amount of information and also lets you find a lawyer by location (in the US) and subject. But the really cool bit is FindLaw Answers, because here you may be able to save dollars by never having to use the lawyer locator. Instead, you get lawyers to give you advice for free online.
“Is it legal for retailers in Prince George’s County, Maryland, to have concealed cameras in dressing rooms?” someone asks. Two people responded, saying probably not. Another question, from someone asking whether a landlord was allowed to alter a cheque, led to a discussion between the questioner and an expert calling him or herself ‘Tax Counsel’. I would guess the person who posted the question came away with a clear idea of the legal situation, without paying a cent and within two days.
This does raise the question of why Tax Counsel gave advice for free; the answer may be that it is in the spirit of the internet to do so or there may be some other way he or she can benefit. Whichever, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people prepared to help, judging by the 76,763 messages posted by Tuesday [9 December 2008].
FindLaw must certainly be making law firms scratch their heads. Is it a threat or an opportunity? If you follow Mr Susskind’s line – and it makes sense to me – it is an opportunity and one that shows how lawyers can be quite different as well as very innovative. Not just lawyers, either: any organisation that makes its money selling knowledge should be looking at FindLaw, and pondering.

First published 10 December, 2008
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