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THE MAGAZINE      May/June 2002
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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

NOTHING.BUT.NET WITH RICK KLAU

A Blog in Every Law Firm?

Networking, research, knowledge management—there’s great potential in this nifty kind of Web site.

In my previous nothing.but.net (April 2002), I wrote about the phenomenon of weblogs, also called blogs. As I explained in that column, blogs are a variation on the personal Web page, somewhat akin to a site owner’s journal. More specifically, "Blogs are focused on writing—often brief, informal comments with helpful links to other sites (most often other blogs or news sites). And the technology behind blogs makes them easy to update and maintain."

This ease of use has certainly played a part in the growing popularity of weblogs. (In the past three months, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report and MSNBC have all reported on the craze.) It has also led to considerable momentum for the "law blog" community.

What’s in It for Lawyers? Marketing, Referrals and Much More

Denise Howell, a lawyer with Crosby Heafey Roach & May, has a weblog called "Bag and Baggage" (http://bgbg.blogspot.com). As of this writing, she maintains the most exhaustive list of law blogs, which she calls "blawgs." It includes the blogs of more than 35 judges, lawyers, law students and law professors.

From Howell’s vantage point, blogs are the "killer app" when it comes to members of the legal profession interacting with each other and the public. She says, "The biggest hurdles attorneys face in letting the world know who they are and what they’re good at are (1) the print marketing materials available to them are dry, expensive and slow to obtain, (2) sending out unsolicited marketing materials of any kind is ineffective and annoying, and (3) people—including other lawyers—are predisposed to distrust and look for the ulterior motive behind most anything a lawyer says." Howell found that her own blog "cut through all that." It is a "fast, easy and cheap" mechanism for publishing valuable information that interests not just her, but potential clients and fellow lawyers as well. After less than six months of blogging, she is hooked.

Howell is not unique in finding that blogs aren’t just for personal edification. One lawyer reported to me that as a direct result of his blog, he obtained substantial business that could help his firm develop a more national practice. (It came from an out-of-state client whose attorney was familiar with this lawyer’s blog and called when a need arose.) And this won’t be the last blog-based referral. Blogs help establish their authors as authorities on their subjects. As people use the Web to identify a lawyer with a given expertise, their search results will increasingly point to lawyers with blogs—aided in no small part by Google’s preference for new content, which is exactly what blogs provide.

Ernest Svenson is a litigator, with 40-lawyer Gordon Arata McCollam Duplantis & Eagan, who maintains a personal site titled "Ernie the Attorney" (http://radio.weblogs.com/0104634). The head of his firm’s technology committee, Svenson is always looking for ways to improve the practice of law through use of technology. He was drawn to blogging, and particularly the high-end weblogging software Radio, because of its potential as a knowledge management tool. Svenson is convinced that blogs can help the firm distribute and consolidate its internal knowledge. "Certain people within the firm are always being consulted with procedural questions," he explains. "Unfortunately, their responses to these questions—many of which come up repeatedly —are not captured in any searchable database." Weblogs, Svenson believes, can eliminate the bottleneck and ensure that much of this institutional information can be captured and easily distributed. (The marketing benefits aren’t bad either: In March, Svenson was highlighted in an MSNBC article about professional blogs.)

The idea of blogs as KM tools has hit elsewhere, as I learned when one senior technologist at a large New York law firm e-mailed me after my last blog column. Intrigued by the concept, he indicated that his firm is also considering weblogs as it explores a variety of KM initiatives. While two firms do not a trend make, it’s very possible that these two firms are onto something potentially big: a move toward a simplified, decentralized approach to collecting and distributing information through KM-oriented weblogs.

What’s Around the Next Bend?

Driving home one day in January, I heard an NPR report about researchers who are trying to identify genetic causes for various forms of cancer and other diseases. According to Michael Myerson, the researcher being interviewed for the story, "The human gene sequence database contained a lot of things that weren’t gene sequences." Myerson and the other researchers used that database to help find new microbes that cause diseases. They looked at a total of 7,000 sequences and found 22 that didn’t match known human gene sequences, then narrowed the list to two that matched the human papilloma virus. With that, they were able to identify the microbial causes for cervical cancer.

What especially interests me about this report is the notion that the breakthrough was a completely unanticipated result of the collection of information in the human genome database. While the purpose of collecting the gene sequences in the database was to map the human genome, the information that became the core of the cancer research was an afterthought of that goal. It’s a great example of the premise that you just don’t know what you’ll want to know down the road.

Because there’s no way to predict what pieces of information will be useful to a firm in a year from now, any knowledge initiative must ensure that it captures as much information as possible. If you collect the information, you just may be able to use it. If you don’t collect it, well, you can’t use it.

This, it seems, is where a number of KM initiatives in law firms fall short: They are too structured and require too much effort by the individual to contribute useful information. They almost discourage participation. But blogs, at their core, are simple, user-friendly tools. The architecture behind the scenes is explicitly built to encourage linking, publication of posts and sharing of relevant information. And the collected information is easily distributed throughout an organization.

K-logs: Tools to Create a Community

There is a term for KM-oriented weblogs: k-logs (pronounced kay-logs). K-logs are communities of blogs, typically within a single organization. The blogs handle the collection of the content. Then other systems kick in to help distribute that content. John Robb, president of Userland (which makes the weblog application Radio), is the originator of the k-log concept. He explains that k-logs need several items in addition to the core, browser-based blog interface—they should contain "subscriptions for knowledge streams, categorization of posts and community tools for finding related content."

Here’s how it might work: If you find that someone in your office regularly posts items of interest to you, you can subscribe to that person’s blog and its content will be automatically delivered to your desktop. This process could spread across the firm. Robb believes this automated delivery helps "unlock hidden knowledge resources within the company." Automating information distribution reduces the need for individuals to remember to visit sites of value to them—and it ensures that relevant data finds its way to people who need it.

Community tools track things such as which weblogs point to other sites, in an effort to measure the popularity of individual sites. These referral logs—typically kept by individual site owners—become powerful tools when aggregated across an organization. If you are interested in Alice’s content and her blog regularly points to Bob’s blob, the system can learn that you may very likely be interested in Bob’s content as well.

To see this concept in action, visit MIT’s Blogdex at http://blogdex.media.mit.edu. It’s an experimental service that routinely extracts links from thousands of sites. By sifting through the links, it’s able to identify the most popular destination sites, and the most popular weblogs. By using a similar concept internally, you could quickly identify whose contributions are most popular (and presumably most useful).

In finding the right content, an effective search interface is critical. Google is a great answer for public content. Part of the reason that blogs fit so nicely with Google is that it favors content that has been linked to previously—so the blog metaphor of linking to content that is interesting or relevant to the author helps Google evaluate the relative merit of that page (which is what makes up Google’s proprietary PageRank technology). Whether you choose to implement Google on your internal network (which carries a $20,000 price tag) or to use a similar search engine for Web sites (see PicoSearch at picosearch.com and Atomz at atomz.com), you’ll be able to provide tools to mine the deep content collected in your firm’s k-log.

Simplified Institutional Memory

You don’t know today what you’ll want to know next year. Rather than trying to solve that problem, focus on providing simple tools to users that create valuable content across the firm. Individual contributions will be more visible, and you will have a searchable archive of your institutional memory and a simplified process for ensuring everyone is up to speed. Whether you embrace weblogs for their individual or institutional benefits, one thing is certain: They will become powerful tools for those who seek ways to more effficiently and intelligently manage information.

RICK KLAU (rklau@interfacesoftware.com) is Vice President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc., and co-author of the upcoming ABA book The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd edition).

LINKS

Interested in hosting a weblog? Check these sites for details on three popular options: