New Frontiers

When some people hear about Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world built by its residents, they joke about how those residents should get a first life. But some law firms have been exploring the potential of virtual worlds, social media, and “Web 2.0” technologies — even if they’re not sure what the possibilities are just yet.

Davis LLP is the first Canadian law firm to open a virtual office on Second Life, spearheaded by its video game law group, which focuses on intellectual property, technology, and video game law. Its virtual office includes a library with legal information, a recruiting centre, and a secure boardroom.

Second Life, which started in 2003, has nine million “residents” from around the world, which are represented online by avatars (cartoon-like characters you create and control with a keyboard and mouse). For Davis LLP, which already had a successful blog, Second Life was seen as the next logical step. Multinational firms such as IBM have been replicating themselves in Second Life and using it for many purposes, from marketing to conducting business.

“Lawyers go where their clients are or where they think they can get clients,” says Pablo Guzman, who practises in Davis’ Montreal office. (His impeccably dressed avatar is “PabloGuzman Little.”) “For us, Second Life is a great marketing tool and a recruitment tool. It’s not necessarily somewhere where we can practise law, because we do not practise law in cyberspace.”

But there were some hurdles to overcome along the way. “We had to convince the executives that it was a good idea and that we weren’t just trying to find an excuse to play video games during the day,” says Sarah Dale-Harris, who works in the firm’s Toronto office (and whose more casually dressed avatar is “BarristerSolicitor Underwood”). “It did take a long time for us to be able to have the application on our own computers.” But it shows the firm, which was established in the 1890s, is willing to try cutting-edge technology, she says. “That as much as anything projects an image about the firm.”

Davis has been participating in Second Life for only a few months, and at this point it’s mainly getting inquiries about what the firm is doing. While the avatars don’t provide legal advice, it’s seen as a way to connect with potential real-life clients,  but it’s still too early to say whether it will become a generator of volume work.

The firm is also experimenting with the idea of “locked” virtual offices for private chats and meetings with potential articling students. “It’s almost like a virtual conference room, so it has some practical applications on top of the business development side of it,” says Dale-Harris. This could include offering “webinars” or interactive forums. It may seem odd for a law firm to be there, says Guzman, but in a few years it could become the norm. (Back in the early 1990s, building a web site was viewed as a waste of money.)

“If you’re practising matrimonial law, you may not need it, but if you’re supposed to be at the forefront of high-tech and you don’t have a presence there, it may be queried why you don’t,” says Guzman. If a client asks to meet you in Second Life and you don’t know what Second Life is, it means your client has to educate you, where your client should feel at all times that you are guiding them.

If law firms and sole practitioners are able to use these Web 2.0 and social-networking tools to their advantage, over a period of time it will, just like diet and exercise, come back to reward them, says Steve Matthews, founder of Stem Legal, which works with law firms to increase their online presence.

There’s a lot of innovation going on with Second Life right now, he says. Harvard Law School is offering a class, called “CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion,” which is partially taught in Second Life and involves real-time interaction. Through Harvard Extension School, the general public can view videos, discussions, and lectures “in-world” at Berkman Island. Since avatars can interact with each other, just like in a real university setting, some industry watchers see this as the next wave of distance learning.

And the Law Society of British Columbia is using Second Life as a tool for modeling, says Matthews, where avatars are able to interact in a deposition or cross-examination. These interactions can be recorded as a flash file, embedded on a web site, or shown on a local intranet for education purposes. “So I think that has a lot of promise,” he says.

In fact, some believe virtual worlds will create a whole new market for lawyers. Benjamin Duranske, an intellectual property lawyer who edits and has authored a book on the subject called Virtual Law (due out this spring), is basing his practice on it. Known as “Benjamin Noble” in Second Life, he’s also the founder of the Second Life Bar Association.

European-based Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP is currently the only large law firm in Second Life. What Duranske has seen, though, is the proliferation over the past year of solo practitioners and smaller firms opening up in this space. “Firms are trying to figure out how best to use it, much like firms were trying to figure out how best to use the internet in 1996,” he says. “A few firms are setting up outposts, not with a significant detailed plan in terms of how they’re going to use this, but rather with an eye on exploring the space and becoming acquainted with it, so as it grows they will have practitioners who have knowledge of this area.”

His one-year term as president of the Second Life Bar Association just ended, though he’s still involved as the founder. “We’re running it like a real bar association,” he says. “There’s no certification requirements — we’re just a collection of attorneys with shared interests — but I get a lot of requests from users for referrals to attorneys who can help them with legal problems at a rate of about three or four a week.” While he doesn’t know how many of those have turned into representations, a few of them have. Lawyer Stevan Lieberman (known as “Navets Potato” in Second Life), of Washington, D.C. IP firm Greenberg and Lieberman, for example, is one attorney who has successfully made contact with people in Second Life that later became clients.

If an attorney has high-tech clients, they’re going to be expected, in the very near future, to at least have knowledge of these virtual worlds and to be able to discuss them intelligently. “And I think the only way to do that is to actually show up,” says Duranske. It’s not just high-tech clients either. More mainstream businesses are entering this space — if not on their own, then with a partner who can represent their brand.

Herman Miller, for example, which designs modern office furniture, decided it needed a presence in the virtual world and hired a developer called Rivers Run Red to build virtual Herman Miller chairs and deploy them in Second Life. There were already people in Second Life making Herman Miller chairs, so the company offered avatars with knock-off virtual Herman Miller chairs the opportunity to trade them in for “real” virtual Herman Miller chairs at no cost.

“Those that are paying attention to this space know that there is a huge potential in the future for client development,” says Duranske. “In terms of practice areas, I think that trademark and copyright issues are absolutely at the top of the list. There have been several lawsuits filed over this already.”

Two lawyers opened up a Second Life patent and trademark office for virtual intellectual-property protection. This, according to a blog written by Davis’ Dale-Harris, is quite provocative and has sparked interesting debate, if not opportunity, for its creators. Even a non-profit legal services organization, called the Virtual Intellectual Property Organization, has popped up, providing “accessible legal advice concerning virtual property, trade and commerce, and the use of real-life intellectual property in virtual worlds.”

And there are numerous other Web 2.0 opportunities to be explored. Last year Marc Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape) launched Ning, a tool that allows people to create custom social-networking sites. This is the latest trend — where you can “mash” together videos, photos, discussion forums, and blogs, so that they work together, rather than in isolation. Law firms, however, aren’t quite there yet.

When blogs and podcasts first entered the mainstream a few years ago, they allowed average people to use affordable technologies to publish their thoughts and ideas quickly and broadly. “One of the cultural touchstones of Web 2.0 has been a degree of authenticity and immediacy that has been missing from the mainstream media and from conventional marketing materials put out by large organizations, [which] tend to be very carefully worked on,” says Rob Hyndman, a Toronto-based technology lawyer and blogger, who is also the founder of a Web 2.0 conference called Mesh. “It’s less edited, more off-the-cuff. And while that has led to a lot of criticism of Web 2.0, it’s also one of its charms.”

But you don’t generally see that charm in the way that law firms are using it, says Hyndman, since most see it as an alternate distribution channel for existing marketing material. That’s understandable, he adds, because law firms that have invested a lot of money in their brand want to be careful about how that brand interacts with their audience. “Over time we may see law firms getting more comfortable with the loss of control that you have to be willing to undertake,” he says.

In the U.S. and Canada, there are around 3,000 lawyer blogs, but not even 1,000 of those have a clue what they’re doing, says Kevin O’Keefe, who was a trial lawyer for 17 years and is now president of LexBlog Inc., which builds blogs for lawyers. “So your competition is not that savvy.” Developing an online presence can establish you as a thought leader in a certain area of the law. “That’s pretty powerful,” he says. “That’s not fleeting; that stays. Where it may have taken a decade or two to do that as a young lawyer, you may be able to do that in two to three years online.”

And if you’re not in that conversation with other thought leaders, over time you’re going to be conspicuous by your absence. “And can you afford to be conspicuous because you can rely on the name that you established previously?” he says. “If you don’t have a big name previously, you are going to be left behind.”

There’s a shift happening where networking opportunities that used to happen on the golf course are now going online. Facebook is kind of like playing golf, says O’Keefe. You’re not necessarily talking about the law but you’re socializing with potential clients — although, unlike the golf course, it leaves a permanent trail.

For Toronto-based Hull & Hull LLP, Web 2.0 is more than a marketing tool. “We want to have a presence out there,” says Suzana Popovic-Montag, a partner with the estates and trusts boutique. “It’s about exposure — having your name out there.” The firm has a regular blog, two podcasts every week — one geared toward solicitors, the other toward the general public — as well as Hull & Hull TV (featuring videocasts). “At first there was a lot of resistance from everybody,” she says. “Now it’s become much more the norm, even though a lot of law firms haven’t picked up on it yet.”

Popovic-Montag describes their podcasts as internet radio. “We don’t have a very scripted discussion; it’s just off-the-cuff. It’s more or less an exchange,” she says. “We do no more than 10 to 12 minutes.” This is what’s referred to as “the treadmill factor,” or how long someone can listen to something without getting bored. When it’s too structured, she says, it loses a bit of its personality.

The firm has also been looking into Second Life. “It’s just like blogging and podcasting was two years ago,” she says. “It’s new but you can’t ignore it. And if you do, you do so at your own peril.”

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