Online communities will revolutionize the law. Many lawyers are understandably skeptical about the role that they might play. But, if law firms are going to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the pitfalls, they will need to have a strategy to engage with them.
Ditching the Old Image
Many lawyers will bristle at the thought of “online communities.” They conjure images of Reddit or Quora; free-for-all platforms where legal amateurs and hobbyists ladle out bad free legal advice to members of public. Or, perhaps, a nightmare future full of online marketplaces where lawyers compete for project work for rapidly shrinking budgets.
But professional legal platforms—ones that connect together potential clients and legal experts—don’t need to be like this, and many of them aren’t. New types of platforms are now emerging: walled gardens that provide gathering points for qualified individuals within certain industry sectors, such as compliance officers in pharmaceutical companies; risk officers in financial services firms, or project managers in infrastructure companies. Sophisticated, qualified, and well-maintained networks.
These communities are more like online digital conference spaces, where decision-makers in different industry segments share best practice, know-how, and discuss news. These may have started as closed LinkedIn groups, WhatsApp chats, or even email chains, but have now grown into fully-fledged online platforms. The CFA, for example, moderates a closed online space for its qualified investment professionals.
These smaller, closed communities of industry professionals, who may well manage large legal budgets, are in need of expert, independent advice—and that’s precisely where the opportunities lie for lawyers.
Building Deep Relationships
Legal firms need to join these online communities. They need to go outside their own digital walled gardens—like PLC—and engage directly with potential customers on their own emerging industry platforms. While many of these new platform communities are in their nascent stages, they provide an opportunity for savvy legal firms to get ahead, and the earliest adopters will almost certainly benefit the most.
They provide lawyers and law firms with a unique opportunity to build up relationships with (and demonstrate their expertise to) new potential clients. At their simplest, these platforms provide lawyers with the opportunity to become part of an existing discussion taking place between industry professionals, providing additional overlooked legal insights.
Admittedly, the economics are not yet totally clear. It may be that lawyers will increasingly volunteer a small proportion of their working time on these platforms to build up new business relationships and reputational capital.
This is how, for example, many law firms already justify their investment in research and know-how content for platforms like PLC and LexisNexis. Although this content does not generate any direct income, by showcasing their expertise, skills, and knowledge, they set themselves apart in the market. It means they will be front of mind in the future when potential clients are making purchasing decisions.
Delivering a Better Client Experience
These digital communities will also help many lawyers deliver a better customer service, and bridge the growing disconnect between law firms and clients. A recent survey by LexisNexis and the University of Cambridge found “unambiguous evidence of a significant and persistent disconnect between law firms and their clients,” with 25% of clients saying that they were thinking of bringing more of the business in-house.
Many of the clients surveyed quoted concerns about flexibility, visibility, and responsiveness. But as online communities transition from discussion forums to fully-fledged platforms to exchange best practices, discuss and annotate legislation, and engage with clients in real-time, they will provide clients with just these things.
For example, in cases where businesses need quick, or even immediate, responses to basic or easy queries, rather than gold-plated legal advice, these platforms will provide clients with a home for these questions.
At the same time, this will free up legal firms to focus on providing their clients with the higher-quality, top-tier, and more profitable strategic legal advice that cannot be provided on these platforms, such as niche inquiries or where a client is trying to do something for the first time and there is no precedent or know-how.
It Seems Like the Way the Economy Is Going
But the key reason for legal firms to engage now is that it looks like the way their clients are going. And the last thing law firms need is to be playing catch-up later down the line.
In many different industries, professionals in industry segments—from regulation to employment—are starting to form digital platforms to share their IP and knowledge with their competitors; put aside competition temporarily, so they can increase their speed collectively and lower costs. In fact, by 2018, IDC predicts that more than 50% of large enterprises will create or partner with industry platforms.
In the legal technology sector much of our time has been spent discussing new technology to automate processes—but, perhaps, the more powerful transformation will be through the introduction of new technology that connects people and stakeholders in new ways; creating a platform economy for different industries that lawyers and law firms will need to join.
Online communities and platforms are already starting to evolve. Law firms need to make sure they have a strategy that clarifies how they will interact with them and ensure they’re ready to make the most of all the opportunities they offer.