Web 2.0 Won’t Eat Your Mouse
Law firms must learn to utilize new Internet technologies or risk losing market share
By Susan L. Ward
New Jersey Law Journal
August 20, 2007
“All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses — the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?” Dr. Vannevar Bush, The Atlantic Monthly (1945).
Most lawyers pride themselves on their ability to think, analyze and craft solutions to problems. Traditional methods shouldn’t deter you from exploring or mastering the applications available today, regardless of the technological jargon or buzzwords surrounding computers and the Internet. These technologies have been in progress since 1945, when scientist Vannevar Bush first envisioned the device he called “the memex”: it was not unlike today’s computer, with its translucent screen, keyboard and buttons that could be operated at a distance, in which data and communications could be stored and retrieved with great speed. Bush envisioned lawyers with a bank of authorities, opinions and decisions at their fingertips; he even described a system whereby patent attorneys could bring up any issued patents, including links to those that met their client’s interests.
Twenty years later, another pioneer of Internet technology, Ted Nelson, coined the term hypertext. Nelson believed that all documents could be connected via computers in a structure called the docuverse. Today, the World Wide Web has more than 10 billion pages in an ever-morphing universe of connectivity. In 2002, Google gave us the speed and relevance that Vannevar Bush could only imagine, and page rank became the leverage of competitive intelligence. When asked what the perfect search engine would be, Sergey Brin, founder of Google, said, “It would be like the mind of God.” Human intelligence is leveraged with artificial intelligence and the concept of the “Semantic Web” is attainable. The evolution from thinker to linker is underway.
The Internet revolution itself is not about hypertext, but the culture of participation and the sharing of knowledge. Today, successful law firms recognize the need for expedient knowledge management. For example, Morrison & Foerster developed AnswerBase to leverage the firm’s resources and collective knowledge. The firm’s 1,000 lawyers can do more than simply access relevant documents; they can retrieve information about the context in which documents were created, identify the matter, client, practice area, the office that handled the matter and the attorneys who worked on it. They can even collaborate. The technologies that make this possible are integral to Web 2.0 applications.
Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, came up with the concept Web 2.0 to define the platform of new applications available to harness competitive intelligence. Web 2.0 is not about software, but about improving deliverable services the more people use dynamic applications.
Hyperlinking is the foundation of the Web. As users add new content and new sites, other users discovering the content and linking to it bind it to the structure of the Web. Much as synapses form in the brain, with associations becoming stronger through repetition or intensity, the Web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all Web users.
Blogs. Blogs or Weblogs evolved from online journals and newsgroup forums. Jorn Barger coined the term weblog to describe the process of “logging the Web.” Blogs can target a niche clientele, share case law and legislative commentary with colleagues and demonstrate expertise in a given practice area. The most effective blog software platforms include MoveableType by SixApart or WordPress. There are even cases that cite legal blogs. A frequent blog source is Sentencing Law and Policy.
RSS. Aggregation and recombination tools help keep blog and news titles in real time. Multiple content sources on a specific topic are delivered in a single application. For example, Bloglines allows you to subscribe and access content as it is posted to the Web. Feeds are grouped together and readily accessible. For a complete list of aggregators see at RSS Compendium — RSS Readers.
Wikis. The first wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1995; the application’s name was derived from the Hawaiian word “wiki-wiki,” meaning quick. While the wiki is similar to a blog in structure, wikis allow anyone who has access to the site the ability to edit, delete or otherwise modify and collaborate on research, projects and group presentations. While Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, is a public platform that anyone can edit, wikis can be private, accessed by invitation-only and password protected. Wikis are Web-based, and firms can utilize them as either intra- or extranets.
Podcasts. Digital media files can be downloaded to computer desktops and MP3 audio files on portable devices, such as iPods. With the new iPhone, these audio webcasts will rival radio programs. Aggregators make it possible to subscribe to legal podcasts automatically via RSS. The Oyez Supreme Court Podcast posts the oral arguments of the U.S. Supreme Court. The American Bar Association offers CLE podcasts.
Video-casts and Screencasts. Streaming video and now online video have made it possible for content sharing of video files. A search for “law firm” on YouTube yields more than 800 video files. For those of you who still think that the FAX ruined the legal business, watch the five-minute clip where senior partners and the office manager at a small Texas firm, Davis & Wilkerson, discuss their choices to standardize their computer platform, increase mobility via laptop and IT support. Beyond the 15 minutes of fame, video advertising is a growing area in Web 2.0. Scan Scout provides contextual video for streaming content. Vidavee allows clients to upload from cell phones, PDAs, PCs and digital camcorders, and manipulate content within a branded environment.
Professional networking. Online communities like MySpace and FaceBook are examples of social networks. While MySpace dominates the market share, LinkedIn, a professional network, is growing rapidly. Founded in 2003, LinkedIn is a business tool directed at the network building process without a huge time investment. Three degrees of separation allow you to introduce yourself directly or through an intermediary to contacts you want to meet.
Remote Backup. Disaster planning notwithstanding, backing up your computers and server files is made simple with Mozy Online Backup. Mozy Unlimited or Carbonite beats backing up your files on tape or CD and storing them in your car or at an undisclosed location. Mozy requires that you download and install software on your computer, then select the files and drives you wish to back up. It provides encryption, automatic or schedule backups and new and changed file detection.
Compliance. Postini, Google’s latest acquisition, provides services including message security, archiving, encryption and policy enforcement in order to protect e-mail, instant messaging and Web-based communications. In the area of compliance, you can archive employee e-mail to facilitate search, retrieval and management of e-discovery requests.
In addition to the above technology currently available, several services are soon to launch.
Documents. Docstoc, which is currently in private beta, has yet to launch; the plans include sharing business, legal and financial templates that attorneys, business professionals and the public can revise for their own purposes. When content is uploaded, users will categorize, tag and describe their document so that it can easily be found by other users. Users will have options to drag and drop files or folders or e-mail their documents into Docstoc.
Powerset. Powerset Natural Language Search hopes to be Google’s competitor by utilizing paraphrasing, compound nouns and hypotheses about the relationships between words. You can sign up now to try it before its release.
As mass communication changes business and the Internet, it impacts our ability to service markets. Law firms must learn to utilize the Web 2.0 technologies or lose market share, valuable time and efficiency. As clients demand instant access to their information and data, law firms will have to provide greater service. It is often stated that lawyers tend to ignore technology until the courts require its use, for example, electronic filing in the federal courts. The critical issue for law firms is understanding how Web 2.0 services can be implemented and revenue-producing. The simplicity and user-friendliness of many of the new tools give small firms and solo practitioners an opportunity to catapult themselves into the forefront of the Internet Olympics, working smarter, faster and, yes, stronger.