I had a great conversation recently with Headshift's Penny Edwards and Jon Mell. We were talking about social software adoption patterns in law firms--a topic over which a lot of digital ink has been spilled lately. Our conversation helped me connect some dots. I've blogged them here, and I also encourage you to check out the musings of Penny and Jon, both of whom are active on Twitter and their own blogs.
So here's my perspective on social software in law firms: Most law firms take exactly the wrong approach to social software rollout. They try to "chip away" at social software implementation by starting with "easy" use cases like know-how. In my experience, however, firms are most successful when they introduce social software right into the heart of their business: Client-specific collaboration.
Social software can deliver 3 main patterns of use and value to firms:
- At the most abstract level, there is general legal know-how: how to be an effective lawyer, how to serve clients, etc.
- At a mid-level of abstraction, there is practice-specific legal know-how: deal templates, legal opinions and perspectives, standard processes for due diligence, strategic perspectives on client industries and/or functional topics
- At the most concrete level, there is client-specific collaboration: collaborating within legal teams (internally, with clients, or with co-counsel) on specific projects and deliverables.
Most law firms introduce social software beginning with general legal know-how. The first decision-makers in a firm to "get religion" on social software are usually in firm-wide knowledge roles: CKOs, directors of know-how. They pursue general legal know-how because that's their organizational jurisdiction. It's the aspect of the firm's activity for which they are responsible. The more enterprising among them will partner with a specific practice or two, usually by tapping an obliging Professional Support Lawyers (PSL), to launch a social software pilot within a specific practice or two.
From an adoption standpoint, however, general know-how is usually a bad place to start. Lawyers are incredibly busy, and general know-how lies squarely above-the-flow of their daily work. Because lawyers lack incentives to contribute their knowledge to the rest of the firm, invitations to participate in social software implementations are often greeted with a polite "Thanks but no thanks."
A more effective place to introduce social software into law firms is at the most concrete level, with client-specific collaboration. We've seen this take a number of forms. One firm we've worked with is collaborating with co-counsel on a major piece of anti-trust litigation. Another is using social software to create information hubs for their largest and most strategic corporate clients. Still another is using social software to power lightweight virtual deal rooms which are more user-friendly than the virtual deal rooms retrofitted on top of their document management system.
These client-specific use cases are generating real, sustained adoption from the same busy lawyers who won't share know-how on blogs or wikis. What explains the difference? Collaboration use cases appeal to the self-interest of the firm's partners. Partners are inundated with emails containing document iterations. Reconstructing a document's history from email threads is much more difficult than going to a single place where the history is laid it for you. Once partners see the value, associates and paralegals are easy converts as well. We're even starting to see clients getting in on the act by asking counsel to deliver documents via secure extranets.
Successful law firms will ultimately realize all three patterns of value: general legal know-how, practice-specific know-how, and client-specific collaboration. But it's client-specific collaboration, not know-how sharing, that is the lead "bowling pin" on adoption. When a firm starts using social software for its client-specific collaboration, its lawyers become comfortable with a new set of processes and behavioral norms: distributed publishing, linking, tagging, blogging, etc. These new behaviors open the door for these same lawyers to share their know-how at both the general and practice-specific level.
If you're a legal CIO or Director of Know-How, I'm advocating an approach that's probably different from the one you've been pursuing. To introduce social software in a way that will stick, you need to start by convincing your most daunting audience: the partnership. It doesn't need to be the entire partnership. What you need are a few partners willing to try social software because they recognize the personal value of streamlining client-specific collaboration. Recruiting those partners may cost you time in the short term, but it's the surest way to transform your firm.