Can Lawyer-Specific Social Networks Succeed?

Yesterday, Bob Ambrogi reported on the emergence of yet another lawyer-focused social network, this one called Foxwordy, which touts an invitation-only membership and “access to thousands of docs and clauses authored by experts” as two of its unique features. Of course, what’s also potentially unique about Foxworthy is that it may charge for membership (or at least, that’s what Bob reasonably infers from its current three-month free membership).

If precedent is any indicator, Foxwordy has a tough road ahead to succeed in the lawyer-focused social network space.  Sites like Legal OnRamp, the ABA’s now-shuttered LegallyMinded site and Martindale Connect have struggled to gain traction. And it seems like there’s another born every minute, with the launch of Libra Network, Wire Lawyer, Esquire Spot.  As Lisa Solomon commented at Ambrogi’s site:

You know how every town has at least one location that is occupied by a succession of failed restaurants? That’s how I see the “lawyer network” space: same mediocre product that not enough people want to buy, leading to a succession of failed ventures.

Lisa’s observation is accurate – but are all lawyer-only social networks doomed to failure?  Lawyers may be a small population to target, but they’re not inherently anti-social. In fact, I remember back when I started my firm, circa 1993, I longed to join Counsel Connect, a Steve Brill conceived site (described here ), an online community for lawyers to ask each other questions and locate referrals. Trouble was that at $600/month, the service was way above my pay grade. Still, eventually prices came down and the site enjoyed great success (at some point, around 16,000 members) but by then for whatever reason I’d lost interest. Likewise, I enjoy exchanging photos, recipes, rants and other water-cooler talk with lawyer colleagues on Facebook – where many attorneys maintain a healthy and active presence.

One of the problems with attorney social networks is that ultimately, they’re just not all that social. Instead, most lawyer-specific sites’ core selling point focuses on professional goals — a way to generate referrals or share knowledge. And that’s where lawyer social network sites have trouble. Because even though these platforms offer a snappy modern interface, they can’t compete with the technologically-neanderthal list serves run by the ABA (like Solosez), state bars and various specialty bar associations where members answer each other’s questions and share referrals.

For a younger generation of lawyers, the continued domination of the archaic listserve (or perhaps, a message board or forum) must come as a frustration. I may be ancient myself, but I’ve got teens and most of their interaction – even for school projects or complex math problems – largely takes place over Facebook chats, Google docs (or some other collaborative platform) or Skype rather than email. Yet because listserves remain the place to find experienced or “connected” lawyers online, younger lawyers follow along, become dependent on the site and the cycle repeats.

Of course, the other problem with most lawyer networks is that they’re not so much a quid pro quo as a quid pro no. Borrowing a page from the crowdsourcing phenomenon, lawyer-specific social media platforms try to persuade lawyers to share content free in exchange for attracting business. But the sites fail to make good on their end of the bargain, because they rarely deliver the goods — i.e., new clients or bonafide referrals — that lawyers want to see to justify giving away content to competitors. Some of the more successful lawyer-only sites – like JD Supra  ultimately found a niche not because other lawyers were able to “give content, get content” (the JD Supra’s former tagline) but rather, because the site distributes content to the media, getting lawyers exposure far beyond the legal community.

Still, some profession-specific sites do succeed. Sermo, a doctors’ network (that was actually discussed in Susskind’s End of Lawyers? ) has enjoyed robust engagement by doctors who use the site to collaborate on and crowdsource treatment. Perhaps doctor-to-doctor sites work better because there aren’t differing state rules to limit doctors to commenting on problems. After all, a clogged artery is the same in California and New York while the laws on medical malpractice are not – so the advice that a California lawyer can offer a New York lawyer is more restricted. Or perhaps there’s also less competition in the medical community, where physicians are often chosen as much for their participation in a patient health-plan as for skill and reputation. Finally, it may also be that until Sermo arrived on the scene that doctors didn’t have any alternative like the confederation of practice and bar specific list serves available to lawyers.

For now, I’m not so sure whether it matters if there are lawyer-only social networks or not. One of the greatest benefits that I’ve gained from the web and social media is wide exposure to technology, health and business trends and commentary in other industries that inform what I do in my practice. I’m not sure that I want to limit my professional conversations to lawyers. Meanwhile, on the personal side, I’m content to use non-lawyer sites like Facebook or Twitter, where I check in every day anyway, to keep in touch with lawyer friends on a personal basis.

Still, perhaps among the pure social platforms like Facebook and the listserves, there’s still a narrow space for lawyer-only sites to succeed.  What do you think?  The comment section is open for discussion!