Will You be My Friend?
California Lawyer

Will You be My Friend?

The promise and pitfalls of lawyer-focused social networks.

September 2014

Illustration by Randy Lyhus

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After six months of incubation, lawyer Monica Zent launched a private social network for attorneys called Foxwordy in February. By June it had attracted 2,200 signups, most starting with a free trial. With anonymous and semianonymous features, the Facebook-like site lets lawyers share documents, ask questions, offer answers, seek referrals - and accumulate reward points.

Many see promise in social networks geared for the profession. Management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said in a November 2012 report, "The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity through Social Technologies," that by increasing their use of social media, professional services providers around the world could create efficiencies worth $243 billion to $360 billion per year. And Avvo, a forum and directory of 175,000 attorneys nationwide, raised $37.5 million in April for hiring and expansion, according to its marketing vice president, Leigh McMillan.

But "unlocking" that value may be complex. Counsel Connect, created by publisher Steven Brill in 1993 and consolidated in 1998 into what eventually became Law.com, was arguably the first social network for lawyers. A series of basic message boards followed; still in existence are AutoAdmit.com, which MIT programmer Jarret Cohen launched in 2004 as "xoxohth," and JD Underground, started in 2007 by someone claiming to be a lawyer at a big Silicon Valley firm. More fleshed-out networks include LawLink, from San Francisco lawyer Steven Choi, and Legal OnRamp, from former Silicon Valley-based general counsel Paul Lippe, both launched in 2007. In 2008 came the American Bar Association's Legally Minded, as well as LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell's Martindale.com Connected. The latter three have closed, changed direction, or dropped their networking aspects, and many of LawLink's 200,000 visits per month are from clients seeking legal help. Still, Choi believes it will outlast all its competitors.

A survey by Greentarget, InsideCounsel, and Zueghauser Group found that 74 percent of in-house counsel use social media only to "listen," not to interact with other people. And McKinsey found that 29 percent of lawyers do not use any form of social media because of their firms' risk policies. The issue isn't just that lawyers are cautious, says Perry L. Segal, a San Francisco lawyer who consults with attorneys on social media and technology compliance. Ethics rules limit what lawyers can say about cases or clients, and there remains the question of whether a "like" on a social network constitutes an endorsement of a stance or an organization. Also, any comments that could be construed as soliciting business are closely regulated, and state rules require lawyers to keep a two-year archive of everything they say on social media, says Segal.

Paul Henderson, deputy chief of staff to San Francisco's mayor and a former prosecutor, warns that opposing counsel may be able to misdirect answers on a network, or learn information they shouldn't. In such cases, he asks, would the network or the lawyers be liable? Henderson does contribute to an online network offering information and resources to new lawyers, but he says it makes him nervous sometimes.

Foxwordy's Zent, founder of ZentLaw, an all-employee law firm in Sunnyvale based on an outsourcing model, says allowing only lawyers to participate in social media forums solves confidentiality problems for them and participants. She says Foxwordy "allows lawyers to engage with each other on a level that is more liberating."

Past experience offers cautionary tales: AutoAdmit.com lost much of its traffic in 2007 after two law students sued other commenters for defamation and harassment. And the Libra Network changed direction this year after founder Val Kleyman, a New York lawyer, realized its offline events were more popular.

Still, entrepreneur Matthew Tollin aims to raise $750,000 to fund wireLawyer, launched in early 2013 as a Facebook-like site. He sees the most promise in a service he added in February, which uses a lawyer's online contact list to match referrals. The service has "in the five digits" of users, Tollin says, and it plans to charge $50 to $100 per month for memberships. By June, it had made 75 matches.

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