By Michael Rappaport
At the dawn of the world wide web in the early '90s - when the Internet was just a means of sending e-mails and posting crude HTML pages - tech gurus rhapsodized about the promise of this newborn medium, with grandiose words like "cyberspace," which evoked vast unexplored realms only limited by the imagination. Now that the next generation of web applications such as Facebook, Wikipedia and Youtube are rapidly transforming the web, all the techies can come up with to christen these phenomena is the stupefyingly banal term "Web 2.0." What's next, Web 3.0? Or perhaps a service patch? Whatever.
With the advent of Web 2.0, we are witnessing the expansion of the web as a platform for social networking, online collaboration and user generated content. Fundamentally, these developments will shake up the legal landscape: how lawyers get work, the way they work and where they work from. For evidence, turn to these three recent ventures which embody the essence of Web 2.0: (1) Legal OnRamp (www.LegalOnRamp.com); (2) Avvo (www.Avvo.com); and, (3) Legalwise (www.legalwise.ca).
Is it possible to dramatically slash the costs of corporate legal services and cut the time taken without hurting quality? Paul Lippe, the CEO of Qulas Automated Legal Systems and Mark Chandler, general counsel for Cisco Systems think so. That was their motivation for launching Legal OnRamp, a site which facilitates collaboration, content sharing and community development.
On an exclusive online guided tour of this members' only site, Lippe gave The Lawyers Weekly a glimpse of this burgeoning network and resource for in-house and outside counsel. Similar to Facebook, members can create profiles, link to other members and post comments on other members' pages. Forums allow members to start conversation threads, post questions and answers and search and rate answers. A rapidly growing resource, similar to Wikipedia, enables members to post publications, precedents and best practices. A legal marketplace lets companies solicit bids for legal work. Privacy controls permit companies and law firms to protect confidentiality while collaborating online.
Although membership in Legal OnRamp is by invitation only, already the site boasts 680 leading companies and financial institutions as members, and about 500 law firms. A few of the prominent Canadian law firms, companies and institutions spotted while taking the tour include Gowlings LLP, Stikeman Elliott LLP, Fasken Martineau LLP, Bell Canada Enterprises and the Royal Bank of Canada.
While big law firms are not in the habit of dispensing legal advice to companies and banks for free, not to participate would be folly. Your clients and your competitors are either already members or clamouring for an invite. As Lippe said during the online demo, "If you play you win, if you don't you'll lose."
In June 2007, Seattle-based Avvo, Inc. launched www.avvo.com with an ambitious goal - to rate every attorney in America to help consumers find the right lawyer. Although its numerical ranking system isn't revolutionary - its based on factors such as years in practice, disciplinary history, professional achievement and peer review - what makes the site radical is that it empowers clients by allowing them to post comments about their personal experience with a given lawyer. Although critics were quick to scoff at Avvo for early glitches, such as ranking dead lawyers, the true testament to its groundbreaking nature is that it was promptly the target of a lawsuit by a disgruntled lawyer, who was displeased by his ranking. Fortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed and consumers came out victorious.
In keeping with the spirit of Web 2.0, in December of 2007, Avvo added a free legal questions-and-answers forum to its site. Consumers can post legal questions on the site, which lawyers can answer. In turn, consumers can assess the quality of the answers by casting votes. Although lawyers are providing answers on a pro bono basis, it can help lawyers raise their profile and potentially build their client base. Ideally, the Avvo forum will lead consumers who are pleased by a lawyer's answers to either retain or recommend that lawyer.
Launched in 2006, Legalwise Inc. bills itself as the first firm in Canada to outsource legal work to India. Headquartered in Toronto, the firm has a team of over 400 lawyers based in Mumbai. Currently, work being outsourced includes drafting agreements, document review, legal research and drafting. In early 2008, LexEdge, another firm which outsources legal work to India opened a Canadian branch.
Salaries for lawyers in India are significantly lower than what their North American counterparts earn - about one-fifth - which can translate into substantial savings for clients. Legalwise estimates that clients will shave 30 to 70 per cent off their legal bill by outsourcing work to India. Furthermore, Legalwise has Canadian lawyers review all legal work to ensure quality control.
Outsourcing legal work is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1995 in the U.S., a 34-lawyer Dallas-based litigation firm was the first trailblazer to begin outsourcing some of its legal work. What Web 2.0 will do is accelerate and expand this trend. Already many major companies have jumped on the legal outsourcing bandwagon, including Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems. Forrester Research, a consultancy group, projects that by 2015, 79,000 U.S. legal services jobs will be outsourced to India.
Strategies for Web 2.0
Web 2.0 offers both promises and perils for the legal profession. Many jobs will disappear. Others will be displaced offshore. New skill sets will have to be acquired. Nobody should fear this brave new world wide web. To adapt to this new environment, consider these pointers: First, if legal work can be outsourced for significantly less money without lowering quality or raising legal concerns, it probably will be. Potential cost savings are just too great to ignore. Second, be prepared to share basic, generic legal advice in order to attract and retain clients who will pay for tailored legal advice. Bottom line: give a little, get a little. Third, the rewards of Web 2.0 will most likely be reaped by lawyers and law firms that master the art of working together while working apart.