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With internet innovation happening so fast these days, some will argue that predicting the future is a questionable exercise. I disagree, and point to our collective “web” history for my reasoning.
Looking back five years, we can see that most of the major online services and web tools that we use today were already in existence. Adoption rates for the legal industry were far from substantial, but the major technology platforms that so many firms are now struggling to adopt – content management systems (WordPress), search engine integrations (Google Places, Analytics), and social media networks (Facebook, LinkedIn) – were indeed available, and more importantly, setting a foundation for what the web looks like today.
Looking forward then, we can rationalise that some of what exists today will be magnified in its importance tomorrow. In some cases, this situation is caused by law firms being slow adopters. Just as there were fewer firms writing blogs or sharing materials on social media five years ago, there will be firms adopting some of today’s technology tomorrow.
Here are three current “web trends” which I feel are important, but are not currently receiving widespread adoption by lawyers:
(1) Cloud service adoption – Beyond the biggest sub-market here – cloud-based practice management systems like Clio – law firms have still been slow at adopting cloud technology. Only 31% reported use of the cloud in this year’s ABA legal technology survey. As other markets adopt more rapidly, it’s likely that law firms are going to play catch-up in this area over the next five years.
(2) Social Media – A handful of LinkedIn accounts doesn’t translate into law firm engagement on social media. Most firms have no clue about participating in social media, and are clearly in their infancy period of using this technology. What should happen over the next few years is a change in focus. Firms will begin to take a closer look at their client base, getting to know the groups that matter to them. This transition will take time, but once firms take the spotlight off themselves and start contributing to their core communities, we can then expect social media participation to mean something to law firms.
(3) Law firm self-publishing – The biggest online trend today is the absorption of social web participation into larger web platforms – Facebook and Google being the largest. What so many firms are missing is the importance of their role as a publisher outside of these ecosystems. Just as The New York Times, or The Onion for that matter, utilize social media channels to drive critical exposure, law firms must leverage their knowledge and expertise to generate their own virtual assets. Highly specialised services have the advantage of creating a differentiated offering, and coupled with a proper publishing strategy, they allow firms to project a trustworthy brand. In the future, taking full advantage of the Internet will mean digitizing one’s existence, and firms will embrace their role as an online publisher.
In addition to these three current trends, I’ve identified three more potential opportunities below. I believe these ideas are now in their infancy, but we can expect more offerings in these areas directed at the legal market in coming years:
(1) Integrations with commercial product-oriented platforms – Two of the biggest commercial ecosystems out there are Amazon and Apple, and neither focuses all that much on the legal industry. Whether it’s lawyers writing e-books to the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing program, or mobile app initiatives within Apple’s iTunes, it’s hard to believe that law firms won’t be pushing to leverage these platforms more than they do today. Both of these product platforms have limitless potential if they do decide to integrate professional services into their wares. As an example, imagine a lawyer rating service with the Amazon brand affixed, and how that service might compete against some of the current providers. There’s a lot of untapped potential.
(2) Easy widgets for web-delivered legal services – Virtual lawyering hasn’t traditionally been an easy or inexpensive proposition for most small firms. Looking at some of the virtual law platforms and legal practice management tools on the market, along with new Application Programming Interface (API) languages being launched to support integrations between vendors, we are on the cusp of simplifying the tech knowledge required to support virtual practices. When you consider the R&D investment by LPM cloud vendors these days, you should expect more widget-type tools that will seamlessly blend into law firm websites.
(3) Collaborative web communities – While big platforms currently dominate group activities online, don’t be surprised to see smaller community websites making a comeback. Hand-picked groups of niche topic writers have always done well online, and have a way of capturing people’s interests. For law firms, the groundwork for these initiatives will come from seeking partnerships with other professionals, and perhaps with other lawyers. Building communities takes a gathering of like minds, often with a narrow subject focus. These groups may be grounded in academia (almost like virtual study groups), or groups serving a common purpose, such as collaborative annotation of topical legislation. The key is that these groups gather with common interest, on a level footing, and end up carving out an exceptionally focused “hub” for a particular subject or industry. Partnering online has had a successful track record, and we should fully expect its reappearance in the near future.
Two factors come into play when trying to envision how the law and the Internet will interplay in the future. First, the web has always run in cycles, so we need to identify the tools and tactics that have always been successful. Chances are that success will see another run of popularity.
The second factor is that there has always been an unpredictable element – things we just can’t have foreseen. That portion is smaller than we might think, but we still need to account for the unexpected.
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