September/October 2019

The Digital Toolkit

Building an Online Legal Technology Community

Tom Mighell

Recently a discussion arose among the legal technology crowd on Twitter about the challenges of communicating online with each other, as well as with other lawyers interested in making the best use of technology in their practice. The problem, it seems, is that the groups interested in legal technology tend to hang out in very balkanized groups—big firms, solo and small firms, legal technology vendors, academics and those interested in access to justice, to name a few.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are some great groups in each of these areas that provide excellent information to their constituents, and the communication and collaboration tend to be significant. The ABA’s SoloSez is one example, as is TechnoLawyer. But is it possible that the big-firm groups could learn something from the solo and small firms? Or that the vendors could learn something from the academics? The idea of creating a single, centralized community where everyone interested in legal technology could participate is very appealing to me, so I thought I would use this issue’s column as something of an op-ed on how such a community might be constructed.

Is an Online Legal Community Possible?

Recently, Dennis Kennedy and I devoted an episode of our podcast, The Kennedy-Mighell Report (on the Legal Talk Network), to this very topic. We posed the question: Would it be possible to create an online legal tech community that could serve lawyers in all areas—and meet all their needs?

First, let’s determine what those needs might be. In my opinion, at a high level the community should:

  • Accommodate all levels of legal tech knowledge. To be successful the community must welcome those whose technology competence is lacking. It must also provide a place for tech experts to share cutting-edge ideas and further innovate in the legal tech field.
  • Be platform-agnostic and mobile-forward. Members of the community should be able to access it from any type of device (desktop, laptop, tablet and phone), on any operating system (Windows, Mac, iOS or Android). It must offer a robust mobile alternative; more and more lawyers are using their phones as their go-to daily communication device, and a phone is most likely to be the way community members stay in touch.
  • Express clear goals for the community. Most current legal tech enclaves are siloed because they each embrace different goals. Surely these goals can be harmonized so that they can form a common vision for legal technology.
  • Provide a secure venue for communication and collaboration. Any online community should have appropriate security to make sure its member information is kept safe, that any confidential or sensitive discussions are protected and that vendors provide respectful, nonspam communications in marketing their legal technology tools.
  • It must be easy to use. Just because you build it doesn’t mean people will come. It must be simple enough for the least tech-comfortable lawyer to understand it, although you can always have areas where more sophisticated users can congregate.

There are surely other requirements, but to me this is a good start. Next: What should the community do? In other words, how would users best benefit from such an online tool? Again, in my opinion, the ideal legal tech community would allow users to:

  • Discuss any legal tech topic. There are hundreds of legal tech topics, and the community should accommodate those who want to discuss any of them. This would have the feel of a chat room, where people could check into and out of a conversation and come back to it and search it for past knowledge.
  • Access legal tech resources. Such a community would serve as a terrific repository for resources that educate the legal profession on the basics of legal tech—and more advanced topics as well.
  • Conduct legal tech projects. Let’s say a couple of community members want to develop a new app for access to justice or to develop a new way of managing workflow in the e-discovery process. The community should provide a way for users to create a project where anyone interested could participate.
  • Participate in live, in-person meetings. Why not have an “auditorium” where weekly briefings, webinars or even “unconferences” could occur. Lawyers could participate by audio and video and have access to previously recorded meetings.

Sounds pretty ambitious, huh? But, believe it or not, there are tools currently available that will accommodate all these activities.

Weighing Different Existing Platforms

Unfortunately, in my thinking the current major social media players don’t have the capabilities to host this kind of online community. Twitter is really just for one-off conversations, and it’s very hard to organize discussions on the platform. LinkedIn is a more professional venue, but the most it can offer is a single stream of posts or discussions. Facebook groups may be slightly more advanced, but it would also be very difficult to hold conversations on multiple legal tech topics. Others have suggested blogs for hosting a community; again, the single-stream concept of a blog makes it inappropriate for varied discussion topics.

So, what will work? To succeed, a tool with more collaboration features is necessary. Today there are three tools that could conceivably host the type of online community I’d like to see:

  • Slack. Slack is already being used as a community for lawyers in a more general sense. 
  • LawyerSmack is an online community that any lawyer can join and participate in a wide range of conversations. Right now, the community is primarily used for networking and discussions, but Slack does have the capabilities to include the other features I mention above.
  • Microsoft Teams is my current existing preference for a community-building tool. Just like Slack, you can create “teams” on any topic. I think Microsoft has an advantage because it plugs directly into SharePoint and Microsoft applications for easy creation, sharing and storage of documents. It also has the ability to host live meetings for large numbers of attendees.
  • Mighty Networks is another interesting option that allows you to create communities and groupsand to provide exclusive content, online courses, events and more. One big selling point for Mighty Networks is that it is designed to be mobile, which is one of the most important requirements for this type of community.

Closing Thoughts

It may be that none of these tools would work and that the perfect platform for the community I envision has yet to be invented. But put a bunch of smart legal tech people together for a design-thinking exercise and I think the platform for this community could prove to be a reality.

I admit my ideas for an online community sound a bit grandiose when I write them down. What do you think? Would you participate in an online legal community centered on legal technology? If so, do you have suggestions for making it an engaging, substantive experience? Let’s continue the conversation online. Send me a tweet @TomMighell or an email at tmighell+dt@gmail.com. I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog (lawtechnologytoday.org).

And if you’re actually interested in helping to build such an online community, definitely get in touch with me.

Tom Mighell is vice president of Delivery Services at Contoural and has served as chair of both the ABA Law Practice Division and ABA TECHSHOW.