importance of collaboration for associates at law firmsMeet Charles Newbie. Charles is a first year associate at an Am Law 100 law firm.

Charles has been given the task of researching whether or not a client violated Section 19(b)(1) and Section 19(g)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act as well as Section 17(a) and Rule 17a-1 when it failed to promptly provide information requested by the SEC.

Charles has spent endless hours undertaking legal research.  He has found two no-action letters that indicate the client may have violated the law but is unsure of all the facts surrounding the case and is not quite sure he is following the correct Firm procedure when it comes to this type of SEC research.

Charles is afraid to email Joe Blow, the partner in charge of the matter, because last time he did Blow blasted him and told him to spend more time doing research before coming to him with a preliminary view.  Charles quickly searches the Firm’s intranet to see if there are other associates who may be familiar with the type of work he is doing and may be able to provide him with some guidance. He finds nothing. He searches the Firm’s document management system to see if he can find memos or other SEC research summaries that might give him useful models or help identify best practices. The search yields thousands of documents and Charles knows it will take him all night to dig through the result set in the hope of making headway on his research.

It’s already 11 pm.  Sitting alone in his office, depressed and frustrated, Charles is starting to wonder if he made the right choice by joining this law firm, wondering if he would feel quite so isolated if he had joined a smaller firm instead.  Indeed, he had received several offers from firms that had impressed him with their use of an internal social network, where his late-night questions could have been very quickly addressed while sitting in his apartment.

Any attorney who has gone through the grind as a first year associate for a Big Law firm surely remembers the drill — the fourteen hour work days, the car service home at midnight, thousands of billable hours spent researching abstruse questions or on document review.  Many of these junior associates – often even mid-level associates – inevitably end up feeling isolated and frustrated by work, handling their assigned task, whether in research or document review, without the benefit of understanding the full picture, usually excluded from most of the activities undertaken by the rest of the team. They are well paid, over-worked and expected to stay in their silos. It seems ingrained in Big Firm culture and practice that junior associates are left to fend for themselves, with inadequate support, cut off from the colleagues with the knowledge or experience who could quickly provide them with assistance.

What makes matters worse for young associates today is that they know full well that this is not the way things have to be.  Since their earliest days online and at school, these young attorneys have been sharing and connecting with friends and colleagues on social networks.   Their first instinct is to find information and solve a problem through posting a question on a social network where their friends or classmates will be on constant call.  Having grown up accustomed to using collaborative technologies, the late-night isolation in the office runs counter to their basic assumptions and expectations – how technology provides inclusion in a community, with ready access to support and guidance on a 24/7 basis.

This is one way an enterprise social network or ESN can provide an enormous benefit for a law firm. ESN’s and other social collaboration platforms connect lawyers in a firm in a seamless fashion.  The silos come down. Knowledge and information about best practices can be shared in a simple, almost effortless fashion.  Junior associates no longer need to feel isolated.  Even while conducting late-night research on a narrow question of law, they can stay connected, with quick access to other members of their practice group or team, able to find guidance and support or simply feel more included.

ESN’s and social collaboration tools bring colleagues closer together.  Everyone working on a particular transaction or case shares a virtual space, which may be accessed from anywhere at any time, where all of the information, documents and conversations regarding that matter are centrally located.  This shared virtual space enables information to be shared and retrieved much more efficiently than with email or massive document management systems.  It provides context; supports completely private communication; enables team leaders to efficiently direct workflow and manage scheduling.  There are myriad benefits and none of it requires a major overhaul of a Firm’s existing technology infrastructure.

Our research indicates that very few law firms are using or have even begun to investigate the use of ESN’s or social collaboration platforms today.   These are technologies that have already been embraced by leading corporations – by recent estimates more than 60% of the Fortune 100 have implemented social technology.  This is the next great wave of innovation that is transforming the way business is being done – enabling teams to work together in a smarter and faster fashion.  The impact in the legal industry is going to be enormous too because the very nature of legal practice depends on sharing knowledge efficiently – with partners and clients, whether they are in a conference room downstairs or several time zones removed.

In addition, the added benefit with associate retention and recruitment should not be overlooked.  The young lawyers joining your firm today come already trained in the use of these collaborative technologies.   Now it’s time for law firms to invest in these kinds of tools that will enhance the productivity of their young workforce while at the same time providing them with a richer more meaningful work experience.

Is your firm using social technologies to enhance collaboration and communication amongst attorneys and other legal professionals? If so, please let us know by commenting below. We are very interested in finding out how law firms across the globe are using social technologies to enhance their current business processes.

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