Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2009
Barefoot, with Bricks:
ABA Launches Lackluster Networking Site
By Robert J. Ambrogi

The American Bar Association has jumped on the social-networking bandwagon with a networking site of its own, LegallyMinded, http://legallyminded.com. The ABA hopes to separate its site from the professional-networking pack by combining the best features of the top social networking sites with substantive legal information from the ABA’s library.

Ambitious though the ABA’s effort is, it falls short on execution. The site jettisons features that should be central to a networking site and weighs itself down with others that are useless or redundant. It is as if the ABA came late to a crowded race, barefoot and with bricks in its backpack.

"We set out to do something different," Fred Faulkner, the ABA’s manager of interactive services in Chicago, told the ABA Journal. "We looked at a lot of the professional and social networks, and the gap we found was that there truly wasn’t a good site that was a cross between professional and personal networking."

The goal, Faulkner said, was to combine the best features of sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook with high-quality content from the ABA and other sources.

Given this, it is unfathomable why the ABA chose not to include the one feature that most defines social networking sites — connections. Users have no way to link with each other. Instead, a user’s only option is to add other members to a private "contacts" list that only the user can see.

The site’s FAQ spells this out in black-and-white: "Contacts do not work like other social networking sites. Contacts in LegallyMinded are for you and you only. Consider them bookmarks to individual profiles in LegallyMinded."

That takes the "social" right out of this supposed social-networking site. What would be the point of Facebook without friends or of LinkedIn without connections?

Asked about the lack of linking, Faulkner said it had to be sacrificed in favor of retaining another core feature, single sign-on, which allows users to access all features without having to sign in multiple times. The vendor that built the site is working on developing a workaround, he said.

Member Matching
LegallyMinded tries to make up for this lack of standard networking by "automatically" matching members to others whose professional interests are similar. The concept sounds more like what one might expect from an online dating service than a professional networking tool.

Even then, it does not really work. Looking at the automatically generated list of members who supposedly matched my interests, the top listing was a first-year law student who couldn’t have less in common with me.

The central "gimmick," if you will, of LegallyMinded is its People Map. This places you in the center of a set of concentric circles with other members arrayed outward from the center according to how closely they match your interests.

As best as I can guess, matches are linguistic, based on shared words within profiles. My closest match on the People Map had little in common with me save for an interest in technology.

Even if this gimmick worked and showed me someone of interest, then what? As I’ve noted, I am not able to connect with this person in the way that I would on LinkedIn or Facebook. Instead, I am given three options: send a message, request a meeting or add to my private contacts.

Thanks, but I already have a program for sending e-mail and managing contacts. That leaves the mysterious "request a meeting," which differs from "send a message" only in that it has a calendar under the message box. What is it for? Faulkner told me it is intended to be used by members who want to schedule meetings without exposing their personal contact information.

Unnecessary Features
Perhaps in an effort to appeal to a broad range of legal professionals, LegallyMinded offers a variety of bells and whistles related to social networking. But it does so without regard to their usefulness or redundancy.

For example, LegallyMinded allows members to create blogs. Why? I cannot think of a single reason why a lawyer would want to launch a blog within the confines of LegallyMinded. That would be like erecting a billboard behind a brick wall.

The better route would be for LegallyMinded to allow members to import the feeds from their external blogs.

Another useless option is its chat room. Does anyone use these anymore? While an occasional lone voice in the room calls out, "Is anyone here?" the real conversation is taking place elsewhere online, primarily on Twitter and Facebook. Again, the better option for LegallyMinded would be to allow members to import their Twitter feeds.

Other Bugs
Members are shown by their user names rather than their real names. This can make it downright impossible to figure out whether you know someone. If you know this in advance, you can register under an identifiable user name, such as "bobambrogi." Even full profiles do not necessarily reveal a member’s name.

Registration can be grueling. I was unable to do it on my own. It simply would not accept me and kept cycling my browser to the same dead end. I eventually had to recruit Faulkner’s assistance just to register. Even some who have no technical problems complain that the registration process is cumbersome.

More Like a Portal
Where LegallyMinded falls short as a networking platform, it succeeds as a portal. It has sections dedicated to news, education, careers, jobs, resources and community. Within these, it collects and organizes links to relevant news stories, blogs and resources.

In the education section, for one, law students will find current news articles about legal education, guides to financing a legal education and passing the bar, and links to useful websites and blogs.

The resources section, as another, includes subsections on technology, practice management, marketing, diversity, pro bono, work/life balance, lifestyle and finance. Like the education section, each of these subsections collects links to related news stories, websites and blogs.

The site also offers a job board and career center, groups organized around special interests, and wikis — where participants can add, remove and edit content.

But these features beg the question: Do we need another legal portal? The legal market is already well served by any number of sites that organize links to websites and blogs. Including these features as secondary to a strong networking site makes sense. Here, however, the networking ends up secondary to the portal.

ABA membership is not required to join LegallyMinded and registration is free. Unlike some lawyer-networking sites such as Legal OnRamp and Martindale-Hubbell Connected, LegallyMinded membership is not limited to lawyers. Paralegals, law librarians and law students are welcome.

The ABA is coming late to a crowded race. So far, this beta site is not in competitive shape. If it wants to become a front runner, t needs to beef up its networking features and lose some of it superfluous fat.

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.

© 2009 Robert Ambrogi

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