Collaboration is the mantra of our new economy. Yet in the legal market, computer-based collaboration is limited. Here are some possible reasons. . . 

At a recent meeting of large law firm knowledge management professionals, Michael Mills, Director of Professional Services & Systems at Davis Polk & Wardwell, co-led a discussion about digital collaboration. He posed two lawyer-team situations – reviewing e-mail messages in discovery and a working overnight to write a temporary restraining order – and observed that he could not identify collaborative tools that would obviously facilitate their work, that it was best for them to work together in-person.

I suggested that the need is less for collaboration than for adopting best practices that would guide the work. Michael re-framed the issue, suggesting that collaboration consists of
1. Coordination
2. Communication
3. Co-creation of work product
I found that a very helpful way of thinking about the issue.

Coordination encompasses at least the possibility of specifying, in advance, a set of best practices that would guide both the work and how and when to collaborate. The tools for this could include checklists, workflow, spreadsheets, project management, and guideline documents.

For communication, lawyers still benefit from in-person interaction. One participant observed that the stakes are often high enough that the perceived benefit of in-person communication (relative to virtual participation) outweighs the cost of assembling the team in-person. Unanswered was the question of more effective collaboration when the economics do not support assembling a team in one place.

Co-creation of work product still relies heavily on e-mail and document comparison (redlining) software. Extranets come into play occasionally. None of the participating firms use more sophisticated joint-authoring software. It seems to me there is more room for such tools.

Overall, my take-away is that there is more value in pushing to create best practices and causing lawyers to comply with these than in pushing a new (or old) generation of collaboration tools.