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By Mark Tamminga
"When I think of what can happen when the right technology and people come together to create communities, the possibilities are unlimited."
When they need insight on technology and the law, many practitioners head straight to DennisKennedy.com, where they can access a wide range of free resources courtesy of Kennedy, who is among the most widely known experts on the use of technology in the practice of law. He is both a lawyer and a consultant who writes and speaks extensively on the practical applications and the business issues and trends involved in computer and Internet technologies. While these days he is deep into the legal blogosphere, maintaining a popular blog on his own site and contributing regularly to the Corante blog Between Lawyers, his commitment to applying technology in the law stretches back over many years. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was in the vanguard of lawyers who first pushed onto the Web. He also formerly worked as a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department at Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, and as the Director of Legal Technology at NetTech, Inc. Today, in his solo practice, he serves businesses implementing important information technology and e-commerce initiatives, working in areas such as software licensing and Web development agreements, site privacy policies and sale of site content. A regular contributor to the ABA LPM Section's Webzine Law Practice Today, he is also a member of the LPM Section Council. What turns took him from the Wabash College English Department to being a kingfisher in legal tech? We asked and here's what we learned.
DK: The path chooses you as much as you choose the path—maybe even more so. While I understand why people see this as an unusual path, each step seemed very logical to me.
I majored in math until halfway through my junior year in college. I had taken one English course at the time. You have to go where your talents and interests call you, though, so I switched majors and took all the English classes I needed for a major in three semesters. Then I got the chance to go to law school at Georgetown in 1980, and that's where the two different strands in my career started. I took a seminar called "Computers and the Law" with Milt Wessel, one of the first classes of its kind in this country. I also was the production editor of the American Criminal Law Review at Georgetown, where part of my job was to typeset each issue using a computerized process.
I didn't get the chance to practice computer law until 1999, although it's now my focus. But I've always been involved in the use of technology in the practice of law. At my first law firm, I was one of the first lawyers in the firm to have a computer on my desk—after begging to take over an old Wang terminal no longer being used by a secretary when our secretaries started converting to PCs. Around 15 years ago, I also implemented a document assembly application in the firm for drafting estate planning documents.
Then, in 1996, Elaine McArdle at Lawyers Weekly USA gave me the chance to write a monthly legal technology column for a few years. I gradually realized that I had a facility for writing about technology in ways that lawyers understood. Most of what I've become known for in the field of legal technology grew out of that and my presence on the Internet, which began in 1995.
Interestingly, although you use the term "lawyer geek," I'm probably known more for being able to talk about technology in plain language than I am for knowing the underlying technologies.
Looking back, I see that I was both looking for ways to do my work better and find the skills, knowledge and tools I needed to help people. Lately, I've become less patient with lawyers who willfully try not to learn the aspects of technology on which the rest of the world runs. I'm actually surprised that my path is the less-traveled one.
DK: The Internet is one of my biggest passions. It combines so many things that I care about—education, connection, community, continuous learning, self-publishing and helping people, to name but a few.
I'm proud to be part of the first group of lawyers who started Web sites in the mid-1990s. Most people believe that there were eight lawyers and law firms that had Web pages at the end of 1994. The first push by lawyers onto the Web happened throughout 1995. I'm so fortunate to have met many of these pioneers and I appreciate their generosity and willingness to include me as a peer.
Ironically, I definitely do not believe that I jumped on the Internet early, although I know that I read everything I could get my hands on about the Internet for what seemed like years. When I first saw the World Wide Web through a browser, it was like the world changed and doors opened. I had to go there. I researched everything I could about creating my own Web page. Then, after attending the Windows 95 rollout event in St. Louis, I had an epiphany and was convinced, to my horror, that I had missed the whole Internet thing. I learned enough HTML to create and launch my Web site that weekend, feeling that I had already lost my chance to be part of the Web revolution. Fortunately, there was still much evolution to come for the Web.
I actually repeated the same pattern with blogging. My friend and legal Internet guru Jerry Lawson likes to point out that I wrote about blogging and its potential value for lawyers nearly two years before I started my blog. I finally jumped in at a point where, again, I felt that I had missed the whole train. In fact, I got to relive the 1995 experience by being welcomed and considered among the early bloggers by the original bloggers—an incredibly bright and generous group.
To me, being on the Internet is part of what I am and what I do. I'm so often associated with the hardware and software aspects of legal technology, but it's the Internet and Internet applications that truly interest me.
There's a lot of talk about blogs—or blawgs—and you're in the middle of many of those conversations. Put blogging in context and give us a sense of its promise and limitations in legal practice.
DK: My opinions on blogs are based on more than 10 years running a Web site and more than three years doing a blog. Like my blog, my opinions on blogging itself can sometimes be a little unconventional.
I like to describe a blog as an online newspaper or magazine column without the newspaper or magazine. In another sense, blogs are Web sites built on templates using simple content management tools that let you focus on what you are saying rather than on how to program the blog. But essentially blogs involve self-publication, a two-way communication channel and other aspects that we are still exploring. For me, it's the perfect technology. It can be used in the simplest of ways and yet it also seems to be able to expand to do whatever you might want. Blogs are definitely tools that allow you to create a very effective Internet presence.
I have two basic principles about blogging. First, blogging is an alternative channel of communication that makes sense for some people for some purposes for some audiences. Note that I say communication channel and not marketing channel. Second, blogging is really a sideshow—RSS feeds are the main event.
Jerry Lawson once said about blogs that for 80 percent of lawyers, they will have little or no value. For another 19 percent or so, they will have modest value. And for perhaps 1 percent, they will be enormously valuable and probably change the direction of what those lawyers do. I'm convinced that he is correct.
Should every lawyer have a blog? I can't recommend it, and I love blogging and evangelize it all the time. A blog's value will depend on your area of practice, your clients, your likely audience and what you put into it.
Blogging is a writer's medium. It's hard work. A blog has to be fed with regular posts, even when you don't feel much like writing. People tend to focus on how much time they think blogging per se takes (much less than people think) and don't see what the "everydayness" of blogging requires in terms of the actual writing.
It boils down to whether blogs are a good channel for you to send information to the audiences you care about. If your emphasis is on providing regular content to a specific audience and you like to write (or use audio or video), blogs are a great vehicle. As with all technologies, you must decide if it is the right one for you.
How do you run a law practice and a consulting practice without losing control of your life?
DK: I've worked to align my work with the things that interest me most and I've tried to establish priorities. We have a 13-year-old daughter, so family priorities are huge for me. I try to use technology in ways that help, and I've long used David Allen's Getting Things Done approach to time management. It's an area where I can always get better and always try to learn more.
In the past three years or so, I consciously tried to do both the law practice and the consulting (and speaking and writing) in a way that I could not do at a law firm, with the goal of devoting about half of my time to each side. Reaching that goal is extraordinarily difficult and it takes a rare combination of skill and luck that maybe I don't have. There seems to be a need for focus on one thing, rather than splitting attention in several ways. Managing a mixed marketing message is hard enough.
My recent thinking, however, is that it may make sense for me to focus more on one thing and turn the other area into more of a side activity. People may be surprised by the route I end up taking, but my path is always an interesting one.
What's ahead? The "singularity" wherein we all merge with the IP hive mind? Or incremental progress that will have legal practice in 10 years still looking a lot like practice now?
DK: Both. Simultaneously. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed.
The "singularity" refers to the idea that the pace of change and the amount of change are increasing so quickly that we will be unable to keep up with it and, in some visions, technology will, in fact, leapfrog over humans. Even the incremental changes will be huge changes. Ray Kurzweil has written a book on the topic, The Singularity Is Near, but I recommend Joel Garreau's book, Radical Evolution, as an accessible treatment of the concept and its opponents and proponents.
If you buy into this notion of singularity, the difference between now and 10 years from now is that technological change will have forced societal change in ways that will have driven lawyers who fail to adapt out of what then would be left of the legal profession—or that the legal profession would be like the blacksmith profession today. (By the way, there are still blacksmiths today and, with the current gas prices, they might make a comeback.)
However, it's difficult to believe that the legal profession will be the one thing that technology and the Internet has not changed fundamentally.
I'm known both as someone who can write very practically about technology and as a futurist. To be honest, the legal profession largely is not using technology in ways I would have expected us to be using it 10 years ago.
What draws me to the Internet, and to blogging, is the possibility it offers for community and the benefits it can create through networks. It offers us tools that we can use to help more people in better ways—if we can learn to use those tools and are allowed to use them. For example, the network of bloggers is an amazing network. When I think of what can happen when the right technology and people come together to create communities, the possibilities are unlimited. Call me an optimistic realist, or a realistic optimist.