Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2010
New and Gnarly:
Will Lawyers Catch Google’s Wave?
By Robert J. Ambrogi

Here is my prediction about Google Wave: It will be slow to catch on among legal professionals. But it will catch on.

The reason Google Wave will be slow to catch on is that it lacks a good elevator speech. By that I mean that it is difficult to explain in short, simple terms just what it is all about.

Google’s explanation is that Wave is what e-mail would look like if it were invented today. If that were true, lawyers would be using e-mail far less than they do, because Wave — at least in its pre-release version — lacks some of the controls lawyers would require.

Google also describes Wave as a “hosted conversation.” That is closer to the mark. Wave combines elements of e-mail, instant messaging, chat, listservs, document-sharing, wikis and social networking into a real-time communication and collaboration tool that is perfect for … for … for?

That is the question: What would a lawyer use it for? I have some ideas about that, which I discuss below. But Wave is so unlike any of the other technology tools lawyers use that they may be slow to see its potential as an aid to law practice.

A parody website, easiertounderstandthanwave.com, makes fun of Google Wave’s obtuseness, asserting that neoclassical economics, radiocarbon dating, osmotic pressure and vector calculus are all easier to understand than Google Wave.

Trust me, it is not that bad. Right now, the hardest part about getting started with Wave is getting an invitation. Because it is still in a closed preview, only those who receive an invitation can try it. You can request an invitation on the sign-up page (www.googlewave.com) and then keep your fingers crossed.

How Does Wave Work?
Like all Google products, Wave operates within your browser. Google says it works best in the company’s own browser, Chrome, and in Firefox.

Log in and you arrive at a three-panel screen. The left panel has a navigation box on the top that looks much like an e-mail folder list. On the bottom of the left panel is a list of your contacts. Only contacts who also have access to Wave show up here.

The center panel is a list of your active discussion threads, which Google calls waves. Again, this looks much like the central panel of an e-mail client. From here, you can view, archive, tag and delete your waves.

Select an existing wave or start a new one and the wave appears in the right-hand panel. A wave looks much like a threaded discussion, except that it can also include documents, maps and multimedia.

Each wave can contain multiple conversation threads, called wavelets. Each message within a wavelet is called a blip.

Unlike a threaded conversation, new entries do not necessarily appear chronologically. You can select any message within a wave and attach a reply directly to that message.

More importantly, any participant in a wave can edit any part of a wave, even someone else’s post. Thus, you can post text within a wave and any other participant in the wave can directly add to or edit it.

If someone edits content within a wave, the edited content will be highlighted when others open the wave, so they can see exactly what was changed. Each blip also shows who posted or edited it.

A unique feature of Wave is playback. This allows you to replay a wave from start to finish, letting you see each new message as it was added, each edit as it was made, and by whom.

How Lawyers Might Use Wave
Wave’s ability to weave together conversations, documents and multimedia make it a potentially powerful tool for collaboration. Two other unique features also enhance its usefulness for collaboration:

It is shared. As noted, any participant in a wave can reply at any point in the wave, edit the contents of the wave, and bring in other participants.

It is live. As a participant types a message, the characters appear on the screen in real time. At the same time, the entire wave can be played back, like a video.

Its unique approach to collaboration is why Wave is likely to catch on among lawyers. How might lawyers use it? Some possibilities would be to:

Work with opposing counsel to negotiate and draft transactional documents or settlement agreements.

Work with clients to coordinate discovery and to prepare responses to interrogatories

Work with clients in the drafting of contracts, wills, estate plans or other legal documents

Collaborate with colleagues in other offices or at other firms

Coordinate projects within an office among lawyers, paralegals and support staff

Create and maintain a master trial notebook for sharing among co-counsel in a case

Share information with expert witnesses relating to preparation of the expert’s report

Share documents and conversations related to online dispute resolution

Record notes of a meeting or event, with multiple participants adding their notes in real time.

A Work in Progress
Wave’s functionality promises to be further enhanced through third-party extensions. So far, only a handful of extensions are available. One allows you to add audio conferencing to a wave. Another adds video chat.

Still, Wave remains a work in progress and lacks some features lawyers will want. One I would hope to see is the ability to post messages as read-only, so that others cannot edit or alter them.

Ironically, Google’s own messages on Wave are posted as read-only. Users, however, are not able to protect their own posts in this way. Wave’s help section suggests that feature is in the works, saying, “We look forward to offering this functionality in the future.”

A related shortcoming that lawyers will miss is the inability to set permissions and controls within a wave for different users. Just as it would be desirable to be able to post a message as read-only, it would be equally desirable to grant only certain users full editing privileges and other users fewer privileges.

Wave’s biggest drawback right now is lack of critical user mass. It is a communication and collaboration tool available to only a limited universe of people. For now, that means that you probably cannot use it to communicate with the people you want to reach.

Another drawback is that it is largely a closed system. There is no way to be notified of new messages other than by logging in. There is no way to integrate Wave with other social media tools or networks. There is no RSS feed by which to follow a wave.

Will lawyers catch the Wave? First they will need to dive in and get acclimated to the water. Once they do, however, I predict they will not only catch the Wave but also have one heck of a ride with it.

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. He is the author of three blogs, which can be read at www.legaline.com.

© 2010 Robert Ambrogi

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