Will general counsel and the ACC demand for more value from law firms drive firms to consider offering online legal services? 

Bob Ambrogi’s Crowdsourcing the Law (Law Technology News, 1 Aug 2010) describes some interesting new web services – OpenRegs and Spindle Law – that got me thinking about online legal services.

OpenRegs.com, according to the website, “is an easy-to-navigate regulatory portal. Every day, federal agencies issue dozens of rules that affect you, your business, and your family. We make it easy to keep track of proposed and final regulations and to submit comments to the agencies.” In the old days, clients used to pay DC-based law firms to deliver this type of information.

Spindle Law is “is a new kind of legal research and writing system”. It presents a taxonomy of law through which a user can drill down to find authority for points of law. It is a ‘social media’ or ‘crowd sourcing’ approach. Ambrogi writes

“Spindle Law resembles a treatise, in that it assembles rules of law together with the authorities to back up those rules. Structurally, it organizes the law into a tree, with each branch leading to ever-narrowing branches. Thus, the broad branch “courts” leads to narrower branches for “evidence” and “civil procedure,” and each of those branches leads to increasingly narrower branches.”

I can see how Spindle Law’s graphic approach, coupled with community contributions, could lead to a valuable legal research tool. While not an immediate threat to law firms, a system like this could evolve to be an important resource for in-house counsel. Why pay even associate rates if a quick consultation of Spindle Law were to yield a reasonably reliable answer?

With all the talk about law firms providing value, I don’t see much evidence of law firms finding ways to deliver their collective know-how to clients. In fact, many large law firms barely have functioning knowledge management resources for their own lawyers, much less ways of delivering know-how outside the firm.

It seems to me that law firms could kill two birds with one stone. They could, by marshaling their deep know in practices in which they specialize, develop resources / systems that both support their own lawyers (especially for alternative fee arrangements) and that they could deliver to clients as ‘added value.’ Both OpenRegs and Spindle Law should serve as inspiration for forward thinking firms that want to add value.

The last 18 months in the legal market look very different than the last two decades: firms are actually differentiating their offerings. So perhaps we will see innovative online legal services that deliver firm know-how directly to clients.