Social Networks and Legal Practice

September 27, 2012

I joined Facebook at the second attempt last month, prompted by one of my relatives. I now at least have some 10 friends whereas in my previous attempt a few years ago I never got any! It is a pretty impressive medium and what you can store and post on it about yourself is quite amazing as long as you remember to limit access to your friends. I have posted what I consider to be a reasonable picture of me and a cool picture of our dog with a bone in his mouth just after he had consumed a cartridge of printer ink turning his muzzle blue! And it’s great for things like pictures of new babies and posting your experiences at the Olympics. What I find difficult rather like Twitter is finding the time to spend properly populating my pages after my initial bout of enthusiasm. Others seem to do it but between work and family life I must confess I am struggling to devote time to my site and my friends.

But the experience prompted me again to ponder again the role of business social networks for communication and knowledge sharing. I am thinking here  not just about networks like  LinkedIn where, I suspect like most of you, I collect contacts, aiming for the mythical number  when it just says you have “500 + contacts”, but internal social networks within organisations. I have tried several times and in different ways to use some form of social networking within my own organisation. In its more basic form we set up a knowledge base using the wiki functionality of SharePoint called Contract Wiki. This encourages contributions from all of our lawyers to our knowledge base. The database works well with contributions from a few people. However despite the ease with which material can be added it is like getting the proverbial blood out of a stone to attract new material from all but this handful of our lawyers.  Some may want to place material on the site but either do not have the time or are not comfortable with learning the technical side of adding the material. We can of course use external knowledge databases like PLC and Lexis Nexis which are very good, but this internal database enables us to collect not only general legal  knowledge on cases etc but also our specific and unique knowledge of our own practice.

I then went one step further and with a colleague created another site which not only captures processes and knowledge but allows our experience on specific contracts etc. to be added in a lessons learned space. This time a lot of users like and use the site but again there are relatively  few contributors. So not discouraged I then set up a proper internal social networking site but this time for a narrower pilot group of lawyers who I knew to be (a) technically savvy and (b) champions of developing and sharing internal knowledge thus excluding any Luddites or sceptics. There was this time some initial take up and posts but then a gradual waning of interest. To be fair there are others areas within my company where social networking seems to be more successful, but it seems to be harder to apply to lawyers.

So why does Facebook and for that matter LinkedIn work so well whereas businesses and especially law practices can struggle to use the same technology for internal social networks and for the gathering of common knowledge. I have come to the conclusion that it is really an issue of “what’s in it for you”. In other words Facebook allows you to give expression to your personal interests and to share those with friends and family and in turn to see the equivalent information about them. LinkedIn enables us to keep in contact with current and past colleagues and even to find new jobs. Twitter acts as a social feed of information and is an immediate way of sharing.

Hence for business or professional internal  networks to function effectively they must provide some particular benefit for users over and above that which they can obtain from other sources. Some USP which encourages participation. I do not incidentally think that compulsion works, particularly with professional people. You cannot just tell somebody to use the corporate or firm social media and expect that to work. One simple thing might be finding information that you cannot otherwise obtain , for example a blog by the Chief Executive or Senior Partner or General Counsel recording some of their day to day activities.

As always I welcome comments with other views on this fascinating topic which is really about the application of IT to legal and business practice.