09/11/2006

Public Law 2.0

Nick Holmes has a very interesting post at Binary Law on the future of Law publishing in a world of social software.

I’ve been wondering about similar things recently, both in general and in particular, following an examination of my server logs, and Nick Holmes’ post crystallised a few thoughts.

I’m not going to go into detail on the possible market and access shifting changes that could be involved, as these are set out with great clarity in Nick’s post. Suffice it to say that a move to a primarily open (if not necessarily free), user produced, and distributed (in the sense of cross source/site/contributor) model is envisaged.

Legal material and commentary can be aggregated across wikis, blogs, public sources etc.. As Nick observes, tagging, search, networking and rss become key here. The challenge to conventional legal publishing and information management is clear, and the potential for opening access to legal information immense.

But, I have a few doubts and comments, some born of living through internet utopianism 0.9b. back in what, I am reliably told, is no longer referred to by yoof as ‘the day’ (the day in question being say 1994-6).

The first doubt is how long the ‘free’ and widespread provision of information and commentary will remain such once its prospective monetisation (beyond google ads) becomes clear. The fusion of old media money and the bloggerati is already becoming clear in some fields (blog to newspaper comment column, blog to book) and, as a hierarchy of posters and commentators in law becomes clear, I would expect something of the same to happen – I can see hirings by big firms based on blog reputation being relatively commonplace a few years down the line, for instance (OK, perhaps quite a few years down the line).

Of course, there will always be the newcomers and the holdouts, enought to keep the elite on their toes, but this then plays into the second doubt.

Who is the audience for this legal aggregate? Two options – not necessarily mutually exclusive. First, it is by and for lawyers. Second, it is for and open to the public. This second will be the interesting one. As long as the distributed legal web is part of the open web, then the public at large will be searching, reading and perhaps commenting on it. This much is clear even from the search term log for this ‘umble site. So, do we ignore this and speak lawyer unto lawyer or consider it seriously.

Clearly, for the great swathes of corporate lawyers, this isn’t an issue, but for anyone involved in anything from ‘small’ commercial law, through much private client work to the whole range of civil and criminal legal aid work, it should be. The searching audience (and potential respondents) from the public will be there.

Simply treating this as a marketing opportunity (‘call me to discuss this’) won’t be a long term approach, although providing clear helpful information and comment could well bring in the punters. Longer term, it will likely mean that relying on professional knowledge alone will not be enough, instead skill and client service will come to the fore.

Naturally, providing up to date and clear information in a manner that is useful to the audience will be essential, and this, I suspect, will be a stumbling block. Partly because lawyers aren’t very good at this and partly because we like the professional mystique and the effect of the measured advice delivered in oracular terms.

Oh, yes, we also like getting paid for it. It is hard to see lawyers en masse engaging with a ‘law 2.0’ world unless there is a prospect of a direct and fairly immediate return. Where this is hard to quantify, and it largely will be (apart from maybe savings on lexis subscriptions), a distributed law model will likely be seen as either naive or a threat.

But it is probable that the threat lies in doing nothing, as it is not likely that an online publicity blurb on cases won and services performed will be enough for the public much longer. As legal sources open up, lawyers will have to function less as gatekeepers and more as information workers, deploying skill in using information rather than in controlling it. In that scenario, both making information clearly available and demonstrating skill in its understanding and use will be the prime marketing tools. This will be one hell of a leap for the profession.

And this is where I peter out, apart from making a passing observation on the limited social distribution of access to the technology. I am, I think, with Nick Holmes on the way things could go and that this would be a good thing, but I am not wholly sure that they will go that way. I suspect it will be a bumpy ride in any case.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

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