Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cowsourcing: let's share nicely children

Anyone with responsibility for looking after small children in either a personal or professional capacity will know that life becomes easier for both the carer and the child once they learn how to share, in particular how to "share nicely" out of choice rather than compulsion.  Eventually this develops into a desire to swap as well as share.  I currently observe this with my own childrens' obsession in trading Match Attax cards (other brands of football cards or stickers are available).
And heading straight into the lazy, simplistic but true analogy, life is easier for lawyers too when we share with each other.
I know a law firm partner who told me he'd moved firms because in part he was fed up with the "eat what you kill" mentality of his old firm.  Or, in schoolboy terms, his partners were not sharing nicely.  Which is a shame, because an advantage that Big Law has over in-house is the ability to share knowledge on a large scale.  Big Law has: professional support lawyers; vertical industry specialists of all flavours; online precedent banks covering all areas one can imagine; hundreds of years of combined legal experience on the shop floor; and the best firms even have on-site shirt dry cleaning pick-up and return services.
In-house has: thinly stretched transactional and contract lawyers who have to professionally support themselves; precedents that support the company’s core business but probably do not cater for much outside of the core franchise requirements; and for everything else there is a tendency to turn to PLC.  We can't afford to dry clean our shirts in-house (cue sympathy) so the lack of that service isn't a problem.
The FT subscribes to PLC and I think it’s a pretty decent resource otherwise we wouldn’t pay for it.  And I’m not the only one.  A few months ago, Melanie Hatton, General Counsel at Latitude (aka @in_house_lawyer), conducted an ad hoc survey via LinkedIn regarding the online tools used by in-house counsel, and the survey respondents gave PLC  a resounding thumbs up.
But there is a resource that’s even better than PLC.  It’s called talking to people; networking; sharing; or - to use a buzz word - crowdsourcing.
I’m not a frequent participant on the legal conference circuit, but I will generally go along to one or two a year which focus on in-house lawyers.  I go because these give me what day-to-day in-house lawyering cannot.  The opportunity to speak to lawyers working across different sectors.  The chance to stress-test ideas with peers.  To hear what issues others are facing.  To understand how they are dealing with those issues.  For reassurance.  For a nudge that maybe there’s something I haven’t focussed on which someone else has and which I ought to. 
In-housers are generally good at sharing.  There is no competitive background to our conversations (at least when we’re talking across sectors) and at the same time there is an unspoken trust.  It has the potential to be a very powerful network.  Maybe this is underplaying it, perhaps it already is powerful.  But it certainly has the potential to be far more powerful.  I believe that in-house lawyers can leverage the power of crowdsourcing to a far greater degree than we currently do, even to the extent of being able to completely change the legal landscape in information and knowledge management if we want to and can get ourselves organised.
As a lawyer working in the media sector, I make no apology for drawing an analogy from the media to make my point and recommend this article by the Guardian highlighting the power of crowdsourcing.  The article highlights how the media, not least The Guardian, has used crowdsourcing with its readership to help reveal police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson and also in the investigation of MP’s expenses.  Very impressive stuff.
I believe that there is scope for large,scaleable and technology driven crowdsourcing within the in-house community to help us move beyond the conference networking circuit and staple in-office diet of PLC.  Indeed, the first formulaic signs of legal crowdsourcing are visible even now.  Here are three examples:
1.  Quora describes itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited and organized by everyone who uses it.  [It aims] to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.  Quroa is not a service designed for lawyers, but don't worry, we're quite capable of spoiling the party and bending it to our own uses.  There are many legal questions being asked on Quora and I’ve saved some of them which you can see at http://www.quora.com/Tim-Bratton if you are interested to see how people are using it.
2. Spindle is a service for lawyers and describes itself as “[organizing] the law into a tree.  Each branch is an area of law that grows narrower branches for topics and rules.  You can browse through topics, rules and cross-references.”  It’s a US creation and so the focus is US law and contribution appears open to anyone, like a Wiki.  This is one to kee an eye on, however, although I’m reluctant to criticise what looks like a great idea, the user interface and search capability clearly was not designed by an Apple or Google alumnus.
3. Twitter/LinkedIn, well we know what these are and they can work well as a quick crowdsource piece of the “Does anyone know?" variety.  Laurie Anstis from Boyes Turner (who Tweets as @ljanstis) was kind enough when I mentioned to him I was writing this blog post to send me a couple of links (click here and here) illustrating how David Morgan from Burness (who Tweets as @davidmorganllb) has used  crowdsourcing to research the approach being taken by employment lawyers when advising clients on the new default retirement age.  Interestingly, both Laurie and David are private practitioners, so perhaps it’s wrong of me to have focussed this blog post on the benefits to in-house lawyers of crowdsourcing.
That reference to private practice is a nice if clumsy segue way into the inspiration for the title of this blog post to which I must attribute all rights (at least as between me and them, go after them for any third party claims please) to Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) partner, Simon Briskman and senior associate, Huw Beverley-Smith.
Simon and Huw were kind enough to visit the FT’s Legal Team a few weeks ago to demonstrate a legal wiki they are developing internally.  Their presentation included an introduction to the theory of crowdsourcing, that is the illustration of the wisdom of crowds by reference to the crowd at acounty fair accurately guessing the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged.  Simon and Huw’s example referred to the weight of a cow rather than an ox, hence their coining of the phrase cowsourcing – very clever, I thought (and certainly cleverer than the averaged guesses of the FT’s lawyers which managed to disprove the whole wisdom of crowds theory, but therein lies another story about a certain Australian lawyer who thinks that cows weigh the same as people, you know who you are if you’ve tuned in.....).
What I particularly liked about FFW's wiki is the equality of voice which the firm has encouraged.  Simon and Huw showed us examples of how the wiki has grown using contributions ranging from newly qualified solicitors to senior partners, each building on the last contribution.  Commentary on, for example, the use of indemnities in practice, gives the wiki potential to be far more than just another intranet resource which might only define "what is an indemnity".  The idea of allowing all lawyers to contribute on an equal basis will result in a far better resource than the traditional doling out of annual objectives to create firm precedents.  Encouraging the less senior lawyers to publish in this way will improve them as lawyers by forcing them to practice their own quality assurance before publishing something with their name on it.  The wiki looked like it will be far more than just a precedent bank, and includes intelligent commentary on issues and specific client hubs focussing, for example, on the issues pertinent to particular clients and how they like their advice delivered.
I had a discussion wih Simon and Huw on the pros and cons of FFW making the wiki available to clients.  To me (the FT is not a client, although other companies within the Pearson group are) it is a no-brainer.  Make it available to clients, ask clients to contribute, and the product will improve.  To the firm, whilst it sounded like this has not been ruled out, it is not such a no-brainer.  FFW are (understandably) questioning the potential optics around quality.  The downside of the egalitarian approach the firm has taken to internal contribution, means that the accuracy and quality of material on the wiki may not always be to the same standard the firm would put on its own letterhead.  FFW are considering whether a publicly available sub-perfect product, however innovative, could result in collateral brand damage.  This is a fair concern and wherever FFW end up with their wiki I applaud them for undertaking some innovative product development.
Those concerns highlight the difference between law firms and, say, Google.  Google Labs is the place on Google where it makes its not-quite-ready-for-market products available for testing by the geeks.  This is product beta land, where Google actively seek feedback from the user community, allowing them to finesse their services before formal launch.  Although no doubt Google Labs services go through an internal QA prior to launch in the lab, the whole point of the lab is that the services available within it are not perfect and have scope for improvement.
The Google approach is not for everyone (contrast it with the Apple approach to perfectdom before any product release).  But why couldn't it work for certain law firm services?
In-housers: put your hand up if you would like to access an innovative law firm service, such as FFW's wiki, even if it is not perfect.  Put your other hand up if you'd be prepared to use that service even without the usual law firm guaranteee of quality.  Both hands up?  Thought so.  I do not for one second want to give the message that sub-standard law services are okay, they are not, but less than perfect "beta" services are.  If I instruct FFW (or any law firm for that matter) formally, then I want top drawer advice that I can bet the farm on, nothing else.  But if I can use their wiki for free, I'm going to treat that as just another resource and not place disproportionate reliance on it.  So I encourage law firms to adopt a Google Labs mentality to this kind of thing.  Devise, launch, refine, collaborate, improve.  As long as it's clear that it is is a law firm labs project, so to speak, I think the risk of brand damage is minimal and far outweighed by the brand kudos likely to be generated by such innovations.
Back to my idea of in-house crowdsourcing.  Yes, there are sticky points to the idea to overcome, most obviously issues of confidentiality, privilege and ensuring there is no risk of transgressing competition laws.  But with the right piece of technology sitting in the middle, allowing contributions to be anonymised etc., then I imagine these objections could be overcome.  That does leave the issues of quality assurance and accuracy to navigate, but a combination of peer review and potentially a central "editor" could nail those concerns.  And yes the technology would need to be pretty funky, intuitive, search-clever and user-friendly.  But it's just another platform.  The content, dear reader, would be up to us.  And the rules?  In order to share, you have to share.  That's it.  A kind of creative commons licence if you will.  To use precedents, commentary, war stories, whatever.  A grown-up business social media tool for lawyers, but which allows a greater degree of sharing than currently available platforms.
So if any technology providers are reading and want to discuss more, let me know.  And even better if you are a VC with some spare seed capital sloshing around, then I'm sure we can cut a deal (I've seen Dragons’ Den, I know how it works) and then sell for at least a ten x multiple in a couple of years.  But most importantly, lawyers, what do you think?  Is this all naive optimistic theory, or could we make it work?  Let me know.  As a profession we never underestimate the wisdom of lawyers.  And the theory of the wisdom of crowds is proven.  So let's exploit the wisdom of lawyers in crowds and see what happens.  Right, I'm off to cancel my PLC subscription.

5 comments:

  1. Tim, you may be interested in this wiki, which has been going for several years: http://itlaw.wikia.com/wiki/The_IT_Law_Wiki The platforms have existed for some time now, what is normally missing is interest in contributing (the rule of thumb is that of a 100 people who use a wiki, 90 people just read it, 9 make some contribution and 1 is a proactive creator). Interestingly, this wiki is overwhelmingly the work of Michael Scott, a US professor of IT law at South Western Law School (http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeldscott), who has made over 60k edits.

    Alex Hamilton
    radiant.law

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  2. Tim, whilst it may not seem fully square with your blog, you may be interested in http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/01/are_you_wasting_money_on_usele.html# which sets out the types of knowledge inherent in an organisation. There are certainly types of knowledge that firms would seem to want to hold on to when there is little use in doing so. That would certainly be fair game for some type of wiki.

    @HLphilwebb

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  3. Great post Tim - I definitely think the collaborative nature of in-house counsel is not fully exploited. It can work wonders, particularly if it can be spread to a panel of advisors!

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  4. Fascinating post, Tim. I think a resource like that has real potential, possibly as much for the practical aspects of in-house advising as black letter law (eg, comparing different practical approaches to the e-communications directive or bribery act compliance etc.) And quality concerns could be lessened by using it to exchange / research initial ideas, then following up through another source before making any important decisions. As Alex says above, the challenging thing might be to build a community of contributors willing to invest time in posting thoughtful, useful, content.

    @stephengodsell

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  5. Tim - Nice post, thanks. Take a look at my own legal wiki: http://florianfeder.org/?q=node/4 The posted agreements are as good as they come and it's absolutely free and accessible to anyone. So far contributors have only added high-quality changes.

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