|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2008|
The problem with networking sites that limit their membership to lawyers is that lawyers are their only members. Compared with sites that are open to all comers, these restricted sites sometimes seem like the proverbial parties to which no one came.
In the first half of this two-part column, I looked at generic social and professional networking sites, ones designed for cross-sections of users. I promised in this second part to follow-up with a survey of sites designed specifically for legal professionals.
But as I looked at these lawyers-only sites, I was struck by how little networking went on within them. Whether online or off, networking anticipates a community, one defined by its members’ mutual interests. Call it symbiosis, call it the profit motive, but networking carries the expectation of mutual benefit. When a networking site is open broadly to lawyers of all ilks, that benefit may be far too attenuated to justify the effort.
That is not to condemn all lawyer-networking sites, particularly not those that are built around this theme of mutual benefit. That benefit is readily apparent in a site whose members are divided between general counsel looking to hire outside firms and outside lawyers looking their flirtatious best.
Such is the idea behind Legal OnRamp, www.legalonramp.com. Its members are inhouse lawyers at large companies and outside lawyers mostly at larger firms. The latter get multiple opportunities to strut their stuff and, with any luck, establish or strengthen relationships with those on the inside.
Of the lawyers-only networking sites I looked at, this one seemed to offer the most promise for productive networking. With its three-fold focus on connections, community and content, it struck me as a next-generation iteration of a site that’s been defunct for a decade, Counsel Connect, arguably the first networking site for lawyers.
The similarity may not be accidental, given that Legal OnRamp’s advisory board includes David R. Johnson, the former Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering partner who was CC’s chairman. But Legal OnRamp’s more direct lineage is to the general counsel of nine blue chip companies, led by Cisco GC Mark Chandler.
They sought a tool by which to automate collaboration and content-sharing among inhouse and outside counsel. It had to allow sharing among broad communities of lawyers while also maintaining secure areas for privacy.
The end result is a multi-purpose platform that cherry-picks the best parts from multiple platforms: extranets, Facebook, news aggregators, research libraries, document-management systems and the proverbial water cooler.
CEO Paul Lippe, himself a former GC, calls it a dynamic social system. It is also a selective, invitation-only system. Only about half of private-firm lawyers who request entrée will be allowed in, and then only if they agree to pony up — not cash, but substantive articles or FAQs to be shared with other members.
Once inside, Legal OnRamp looks like other networking sites, revolving around connections among users. Unlike other sites, it puts as much emphasis on content as on connections. Up front are various news and blog feeds. Deeper in are libraries of FAQs, law firm bulletins, research materials and legal forms.
Within this networking superstructure, users can create private areas, called "ramps." Most ramps are created by companies. Cisco has one, for example. These closed-access ramps have their own, secure layers of networking tools, content libraries and collaboration tools. Cisco’s, for example, includes a database of its contracts and another of its patents, among other items.
The beauty-pageant aspect of Legal OnRamp is a strong allure for private-firm lawyers. By posting content, contributing FAQs, and participating in discussion groups, they get to show their stuff in front of an elite group of potential clientele. There is even a Marketplace where GC can post RFPs.
"We’re starting at the high end," said Lippe. "It’s easy to move from elite to non-elite. It’s not so easy to move from non-elite to elite."
Legal OnRamp may soon have some weighty competition. Later this year, Martindale-Hubbell will roll out a networking site, Martindale-Hubbell Connected, www.martindale.com/connected. Like Legal OnRamp, a key focus will be on networking and knowledge-sharing between inhouse and outside counsel. For now, the service is in early beta testing with limited functionality and membership. A more in-depth review will follow in a subsequent column.
On Life Support
While the symbiosis between inhouse and outside counsel provides Legal OnRamp its fuel, the absence of immediate benefit may explain why sites that lack focus seem to falter. An example is one of the first of the current generation of lawyers-only networking sites, LawLink, www.lawlink.com. A key measure of a networking site is its vitality — and this one was nearly comatose.
LawLink’s structure parallels that of LinkedIn. Users build networks of "trusted colleagues," with networks extending through three degrees of relationships. The concept works well on LinkedIn, but not at all here.
Searching for lawyers from my state of Massachusetts, I found 107. Of those, fewer than a quarter had made even a single connection. Of those, only six had more than one and the most anyone had was five. These are some of the same people who are on LinkedIn and have hundreds of connections there.
LawLink hosts discussion forums around various topics, but these, too, are largely dormant. An umbrella "open forum" had a total of three posts, the most recent from November 2007.
Without more reason for its members to engage with one another, LawLink holds little promise for taking off. At least it still has a heartbeat.
A similar site, Lawyer-Link, www.lawyer-link.com, appears to be comatose. The site’s front page remains, but my repeated attempts to register failed. Attempts to contact the site’s administrators by e-mail and phone did bring a voicemail from someone who said the site remains in operation. I’ll have to take his word for it, given that I was never able to get in.
Communities of Interest
If the success of a networking site is tied to its support for a community of interest, then a recent launch that holds promise is PivotalDiscovery.com, www.pivotaldiscovery.com. Still in beta, its target is a subset of the legal community: e-discovery and litigation professionals. The mission, according to company president Isaac Cooper, is to provide a platform where users can connect with each other individually and in common-interest groups.
Key features of the site include individual profiles and connections among members, group connections, forums organized by case phase, individual blogs, instructional and promotional videos uploaded by members, an industry events calendar, industry news headlines and job postings.
Another promising group of networking sites are those designed for lawyers within a single state. The Minnesota State Bar Association, for example, is piloting a site for lawyers there called MyPractice, www.mypracticelaw.org. Still in testing, it was built using Ning, www.ning.com, the make-it-yourself networking platform backed by Netscape cofounder Marc Andreesen.
For professional networking with an international flavor, sample Lawyrs.net, www.lawyrs.net. Launched in September 2007 by a German company, its membership is distinctly international, with members from more than 100 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam.
One unique feature is an international directory of law firms. Each firm’s listing includes its practice areas and international offices, along with news and updates about the firm added by members of the Lawyrs.net community. Click on a particular office location and get contact information and maps specific to that office.
If retro is your thing, ESQChat.com, www.esqchat.com, may be your site. It describes itself as a private meeting place for attorneys to ask questions, learn more about the law, and make new acquaintances.
It seeks to accomplish this by taking a giant step backwards to an age of chat rooms and message forums. Legal message boards rarely take off and these prove the point. The bulk of the forums devoted to legal topics had no posts. The chat rooms, likewise, were empty. So much for networking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Ambrogi, who practices law in Rockport, Mass., is the former editor of National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly USA. He is internationally known for his writing about the Internet and technology.
© 2008 Robert Ambrogi