CanLII Connects Breaks New Ground

Canlii_connectsI’m pleased to announce the launch of a great new project we’ve been working on here at Stem. It’s called CanLII Connects and it opened to the public a few hours ago.

Simply put, CanLII Connects was developed to improve access to legal commentary on Canadian court decisions. Both as a jumping off point from decisions reported on CanLII.org, and as a searchable collection of authoritative sources on Canadian legal issues.

For me, there are two things about this site that will eventually make it a winner:

1) Authority Control — Anyone can access these materials, but not everyone can contribute. The focus is squarely on the legal community — upvoting, comments, and publishing of new materials — are all restricted. That doesn’t mean ‘lawyers only’, but it does mean prospective members must demonstrate their ability to create viable legal analysis. Closed communities, in my view, play an important role on today’s web; and the end product becomes far more valuable when quality controls are put in place early.

2) Publisher and Author Administration — Lawyers are mobile these days, and I don’t just mean in a technical sense. Over a ten year period, a lawyer can easily work for a number of firms, contribute to numerous publications, and work as faculty at an academic institution. With this type of website, there is a definite need to capture the varying relationships between authoring lawyers and the respective publications (a “one-to-many” relationship). Publishers in turn, need to be able to control who claims affiliation (and displays their logo). Though I suspect there will be some bugs to be worked out, CanLII Connects has created a pretty solid foundation for structuring the author and publisher ownership of content.

The initial group of founding contributors have seeded the site with close to 30,000 documents; and include a variety of sources: regional and national firms, academics, leading practitioners and research specialists, bloggers, commercial publishers and law societies.

For those interested in becoming involved, I would encourage you to visit the website and review the FAQ/help section for detailed instructions. CanLII Connects will also maintain a blog and a newly launched twitter account @CanLIIConnects.

I’m genuinely excited about the future for CanLII Connects. It has the potential to become an important tool for monitoring Canadian legal commentary.  Is it there today? No; and no one should expect perfection on “Day 1″. Quite frankly, the only way you create a community-driven website is to … get it into the community.

But what about in 3-years? 5 or 10-years? I believe we can expect a lot more. The CanLII name is gold here in Canada, especially for primary source research. The trend towards shorter, public-facing digital commentaries is certainly a growing aspect of secondary source research; and it’s possible with today’s launch (and the first-mover advantage) that CanLII will position themselves right in the middle of that trend. As I said, exciting times!

Both Jordan Furlong and I would like to offer our congratulations to CanLII, Colin Lachance, and Sarah Sutherland. Also, a kindly shout-out to the project’s designers Objective Subject and developers Functional Imperative, who were both excellent on the project.

Now, go take a look! And consider how you might get involved.

Stem Client Roundup for March 2014

The year seems to be flying by!  It is already the end of March and our clients, as usual, have been busy and productive this month.

Thank you for reading this month’s edition of the Stem Client Roundup.  We look forward to you joining us next month as well!

Breaking Down The Barriers To Blogging

I’ll choose “Things That I Know Are Good For Me But I Keep Putting Off Anyway” for $500, Alex. In a category that includes “Walking 20 Minutes A Day,” “Cutting Down On Aspartame,” and “Never Watching CNN Again,” many lawyers might also find “Writing A New Blog Post.” In law firms large and small, I often hear managing partners and marketing directors lament the difficulties involved in extracting a blog post from colleagues who always find a reason why they can’t meet their promised deadline.

In most such cases, we’re not talking about the recalcitrant partner who needs to have explained to him again what the internet is and why he should care. More often, the lawyer in question is a senior associate or mid-level partner who gets the idea and who really does want to contribute content to the firm’s blog — but when it comes to the crunch, sends you nothing but her regrets, along with (perfectly valid) reasons why she can’t get a post done this month. The spirit is willing, but the flesh has to meet its billable targets.

Leadership has been aptly defined as the art of removing barriers to accomplishment. Accordingly, here are some suggestions for lifting the barriers that block the path between your blog and the colleagues who are willing, but often seem unable, to help write it.

1. Priority Enhancement: You’ll never convince a lawyer to drop a pressing client matter or put off a senior partner’s request in order to write a blog post, nor should you try. But you can remove from the lawyer’s mind this idea that writing a blog post is “something nice to do if a spare moment opens up.” Spare moments never open up in law firms. The barrier here is the belief that blogging isn’t all that important: you need to help establish that it is important, that it’s a priority that deserves and requires the lawyer’s time and attention. The best way to do that is to embed blog contributions into the lawyer’s business development plan, and to make fulfilment of that plan a factor in the lawyer’s performance assessment.

2. Topic Warehouse: The first thing many lawyers do, when they finally sit down to blog, is to ask themselves “So …. what should I write about?” Fifteen minutes later, they’re still noodling around trying to decide among three or four ideas they’ve scribbled on a notepad, and the writing momentum is lost. The barrier here is a failure to prepare subjects in advance. Remove it by designating the lawyer’s first blogging session as nothing more than idea generation: spend the entire time hammering out 10 or 15 topic sentences for future posts (alone or with colleagues), then rank them in order of interest. Then, in the next scheduled session, grab the first topic sentence and start writing from there. Lay the groundwork first.

3. Interruption Defence: It always happens: the lawyer is three sentences into a blog post, and the phone rings, or an email notice pops up, or a colleague taps on the door to seek advice or just chat about something. The post is suspended, then eventually abandoned. The barrier here is the lawyer’s vulnerability to outside intervention. Remove it by helping the lawyer safeguard her time, attention, and privacy.  Block off 45 minutes in the lawyer’s calendar one month in advance. Shut off email  for that period and tell the assistant to leave the lawyer alone unless something is bleeding or on fire. Shut the door and hang a “Meeting in Progress” sign on the doorknob. Treat this time as if the lawyer was conferring with a key client.

4. Introduction Eradication: I’ve also seen this: Unsure of how she should begin her post, the lawyer indulges her innate perfectionism by writing and rewriting the first few sentences, never satisfied with the phrasing. The barrier here is the opening paragraph; so, remove it altogether. Tell the lawyer to skip the introduction, or pretend it’s already been written, and dive right into the nuts and bolts of the post. Encourage the lawyer to write her way to the end, and then to add a paragraph summarizing everything she’s just said. Take that closing paragraph, stick it at the start of the post, and tell the lawyer, “That’s your intro; lead with that.” Many closing paragraphs are really just introductions deferred. 

5. Keyboard Workaround: Finally, for some lawyers, the real struggle begins when they raise their fingers over the keyboard to start their blog post, then freeze up. The barrier here is the disconnect between the keyboard and the lawyer’s brain. The lawyer is used to hammering out motions and contracts with (legal)ease; but when it comes time to speak in the personal voice and with the individual perspective that blogging requires, they can’t make the transition. The barrier here can actually be the keyboard itself; so take it away. Install voice recognition software on the lawyer’s computer and encourage her to “talk out” her post, revising and editing it later. You’ll find the tone of her eventual post is more active, engaging, and personal, because she spoke it in her voice rather than pounding it into a keyboard.

It can be frustrating when you’re trying to sustain a blog and your colleagues seem to be failing you. But it’s better to recognize that they mean well and would like to help, but that they’re encountering understandable resistance. Reduce that resistance by lowering these barriers and removing the most common obstacles to blogging; you could be amazed at how much creativity and productivity you’ll help to unleash.

Stem Client Roundup for February 2014

February and winter are winding to a close and spring is right around the corner.  Last month, as our clients waited for winter to end, they were all busy with various activities.  These activities include:

That is all for this month!  We’ll be back at the end of next month with more client round-up!

Law Firm Brands In An Online Legal Market

Last month, I taught a new course called “21st-Century Lawyering” to upper-year students at Suffolk University Law School in Boston (where I hold the marvellous title of “Legal Innovation Strategist in Residence”). The course included a session on marketing a law practice, which in turn contained a section on branding and what it means in the legal context.

“Your brand,” I told the students, “is what you’re like to deal with.” This obviously includes your area of practice and expertise — why clients seek you out and what they get when they do. But it also includes your differentiating personal and professional factors (both good and bad) — what sets you apart, for better or worse, from the mass of lawyer competition. Everyone has a brand, whether or not they’re aware of it, created it, or would approve of it. “Branding” is the intentional act of making and keeping that promise of what it’s like to deal with you.

In the consumer context, “brand” still retains much of its popular meaning of “image,” a shorthand signal of what one should expect of a product or service. Brands used to be incredibly powerful and are still considered highly valuable (Apple’s brand is worth more than $100 billion, almost as much as the next two brands, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, combined). But as James Surowiecki writes in a recent New Yorker column, “Twilight of the Brands,” consumer brands also “have never been more fragile”:

“Consumers are supremely well-informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. … When consumers had to rely on advertising or past experience with a company, brands served as a proxy for quality … Today, consumers can read reams of research about whatever they want to buy…. [The internet] has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data. … Each product now has to prove itself on its own…. This has made customer loyalty pretty much a thing of the past. Only 25% of American respondents in a recent Ernst & Young survey said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped. For established brands, this is a nightmare.”

Legal services are not the same as soft drinks and software — yet. But the downward spiral of many legal services towards commoditization and the increasingly active and sophisticated purchasing strategies of legal clients both point us in the same direction as the consumer market. No amount of traditional advertising or marketing is going to reverse those trends.

That’s why I think an authentic public presence for your law firm, expressed principally through its online profile and activity, will continue to grow in importance. A website that states clearly and prominently what you do, how you do it, and who you do it for; blog posts written in your own voice with your own perspective; real testimonials from actual clients about working with you — these are now some of the most significant components of your law practice’s brand. Boilerplate practice descriptions and overblown advertising copy just won’t cut it (unless your practice really is boilerplate and overblown, in which case branding isn’t your biggest problem). There cannot be any daylight between your self-promotion and your real-life brand: the market will find that daylight and drive a truck through it.

If you’re running a law practice, then you already have a brand — whether you know what it is or not. That brand might be “commonplace, generalist, overpriced, hard to reach”; or it could be “distinctive, specialized, fixed-fee, responsive.” It doesn’t matter what you say you are; it matters what you actually are. You can’t manufacture a brand through advertising or PR, or at least, not for long; the truth will out, and your clients will be the ones to out it.

Figure out who you are, what you do, how you do it, who are the people you do it for, and what it’s like for them to deal with you; that’s your actual brand. Then build an online presence that clarifies, amplifies, and supports that brand. That’s how you’ll promote a successful law practice from now on.

Latest Additions to Lawblogs.ca

Jetpack Publicize is a Worthy Addition to Law Firm Websites

Almost every website we build these days includes social media connectivity. Whether we’re adding ‘sharing’ buttons to content pages, or posting links and headlines to the firm accounts,  social media connections are expected to happen (or encouraged) whenever new content published. Two years ago, firms would have considered this to be a choice, waffling back and forth. But that seems to have ended.  This kind of connectivity can now be considered “part of the plumbing”.

Our company has been designing sites for WordPress since we started back in ’07, and to say we’ve “tested” a few plugins in that time would be an understatement. When it comes to social media integrations, I think we’ve tried it all — from the vendor’s standard widget buttons, to external sharing services, to custom coding the functionality ourselves. On the automated publishing side, we’ve tried several RSS feeding services to route new content out to social media, and published directly to these same accounts via installed plugins. Most of these tools worked, to varying degrees; and a few were bombs from the outset, and were quickly discarded.

Integrating a website’s publishing with social media is, of course, more difficult than it needs to be. The major networks like Google and Facebook don’t always play nice with each other, and some have released functionality at an incredibly slow rate. (Lookin’ at you, G+.) There also seems to be an ongoing feature competition between providers. Just as you think you have the right tool in place, another company comes along with a new ‘must have’ problem solver.

As an example, Hootesuite was one of the first external tools that allowed you to push content via an RSS feed into a Google Plus (“G+”) brand page. There were a lot of developers out there grabbing accounts, solely to take the burden off manually publishing to G+.

The makers of WordPress, Automattic, were also early to figure out G+ publishing within their Jetpack plugin, which led me about a year ago to give it a try. We had a client who was on WordPress.com and wanted to switch over to a hosted version of WordPress. The two issues we wanted to address were:  1) the client liked WP.com statistics and was looking to keep those numbers, and 2) direct publishing to a G+; we wanted to experiment with Jetpack’s new G+ publishing capabilities.

I had always heard that Jetpack slowed websites down (truth is, it probably does), but the performance wasn’t all that bad, especially if you could utilize Jetpack to consolidate functionality, removing a few duplicate plugins along the way.

The results on the statistics side were as expected. The stats module did a great job of mimicking the numbers shown on WP.com, and offered a nice supplement measure to Google Analytics.

The surprise, however, was on the social media side.  Jetpack’s Publicize seems to do it all. Clean looking share buttons — that just work — out of the box. Plus, you can route your latest blog post or news items out to Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus (business pages AND personal profiles), and LinkedIn automatically. You can also show a link to your G+ profile right on your posts, and integrate email alerts.

Jetpack might not be for everyone, but for a lot of you reading this post, installing this plugin will be a solid addition to your WordPress website.  Automattic seems to be keeping up with the latest changes from the big social networks, and introducing that functionality quickly into their product. It’s also very modular, making it easy to customize.

WordPress Plugins come and go, but this one is leaving me with a good feeling. It’s one of the most trustworthy plugins we’ve used to date.

Lock Down Your iPhone Notifications

Have you noticed how many screen alerts on your iPhone show a “summary snippet”? It’s a default setting for a number of apps. The arrival of a new text message gets displayed on the screen, or an alert from your calendar displays a portion of the event’s description.

Probably the most frustrating part of these alerts is that they can happen when your phone is idle. Even while locked, there’s a good chance you’ve unwittingly authorized a number of apps to display the private information contained within these alerts.

So why not lock it down? The newly redesigned Yahoo Tech has posted a short set of instructions on how to limit the summaries of your Text messages. This same technique can be applied by going into your notification center and culling ALL of your alerts that publish snippets to the home screen.

For most lawyers, conducting this kind of ‘alert shutdown’ for client communication makes sense. When your phone is off-line and locked, nothing should be displayed. Not from calendars, email, texts or private app communications. Nothing. Right?

Simple fix.

Stem Client Roundup for December 2013

The holiday season is almost over and it is very nearly 2014, but we have one last client roundup for 2013!  Despite the usual slowdown for the holiday season, our clients have been busy this month.

We’ll be back in 2014 to let you know what our clients have been doing in January.  Until then, Happy New Year!

Testimonials In The Amazon Age

One way I sometimes describe marketing is “opening the door through which business will walk.” At a minimum, marketing in the legal context means making current and potential clients constantly aware of who you are and what kind of legal work you do. That’s “opening the door.” But by itself, that’s not necessarily going to motivate anyone to walk though it.

Marketing has to do more: it has to describe the kind of people or companies that you serve, the kind of solutions and assistance you give them, and how you do these things in a noticeably different and better way than others. That’s the kind of information that might persuade a client to walk through that open door and see what’s on the other side.

This is one reason I still find testimonials to be a highly effective form of marketing. A genuine testimonial from someone whom a potential client recognizes (a well-known company) or with whom they identify (“a single mother like me”) can be powerful: it details the kind of solutions you deliver and the people to whom you deliver it — ideally, with some distinguishing features of your personality or process.

At the same time, the testimonial has also become a critical feature of the buying process in every part of the consumer sector, thanks to the ubiquity of online reviews. Buyers are asking what other people think of a product or service before they buy it themselves:

  • Amazon reviews are now so voluminous that they virtually constitute a massive content database and opinion clearinghouse all on their own.
  • Mobile-friendly sites like Yelp provide potential customers with instantaneous access to reviews (good and bad) posted by previous customers.
  • Simply by searching for a business on Google, you can read all the reviews and assessments of everyone who has used that business before.

As online tools continue to improve, and the ability to rate and review any kind of business continues to develop, lawyers will find themselves subject to the assessments of clients they’ve served before — for better or for worse. These reviews will be available online, to everyone, pretty much forever. As time goes on, they will keep building up until they create a reasonably accurate profile of the lawyer through a critical mass of client feedback, for all the world to see.

Given this reality, you might want to consider putting this phenomenon to work for your benefit. At the end of each client retainer, ask the client to assess you — first, personally and privately: how did we do? Did we satisfy you, did we meet or surpass your expectations, or did we fall short?  One British law firm texts its clients every two weeks and asks to be graded (A, B, or C) on how it’s doing so far. While this is a great idea — asking for constant, real-time client feedback — you can at least start with one inquiry at the end of the matter.

Some of these client responses (hopefully, many of them) will be positive. If so, ask the client to share his or her positive assessment with the world — through Google Places, or Yelp, or whatever online review service seems most appropriate. The client can, of course, supply this feedback in the form of a traditional testimonial, to be posted on the law firm’s website or through a LinkedIn connection.

But considering how great client testimonials can be, and considering how widely read online review services are becoming, think about combining these two trends to promote how well your law practice served this particular client with this particular matter.

Stem Client Round-Up for November 2013

It is already the end of November and we are hurrying into the holiday season.  Our clients have been very active this month, as you can see by the following:

This was an exceptional month for client news, with some exceptional happenings! Join us next month for our year-end round-up.

Crowdsourcing Your Lawyer Biography

Two things can consistently be said about lawyers’ online biographies: they are among the most important pages on a law firm’s website, and they are among the least engaging and distinctive items on that site. This can be a frustrating disconnect: the lawyers I meet invariably are interesting, insightful, and well-rounded, yet their online bios are often stiff, stilted, and one-dimensional, providing readers with trivia such as year of call and source of law degree rather than information that clients can really use.

Chief among the reasons for this problem, I think, is lawyers’ natural inclination to downplay our own personalities. We’re trained in law school to distance ourselves personally from our work and our clients, and we inherit in practice the longstanding professional tendency to regard self-promotion as vaguely unseemly. We believe that our work and qualifications should speak for themselves, sparing us the necessity of stepping up to the microphone to share a few words about us. But clients hire and forge relationships with people, not qualifications. This reticence may be understandable, but it still hurts your chances of being noticed online and retained.

If you’d like your biography to better reflect who you really are, but you don’t know how to say anything about yourself that doesn’t feel facile or self-regarding, you might try this: ask other people to do it for you. Specifically, identify up to three clients, three colleagues, and three friends who’d be willing to help you out with this project by saying something about you.

  • Ask your clients: How would you introduce me to a new client? What am I like to work with? How do you feel after talking with me?
  • Ask your colleagues: How would you introduce me to a new lawyer? How am I perceived around the office (or the legal community)?
  • Ask your friends: How would you introduce me at a social gathering? What one personal characteristic stands out about me?

You don’t have to insert all the responses in your biography or publish them verbatim, and you certainly shouldn’t publish anyone’s name (unless a client insists on providing a testimonial). If the feedback you receive is less complimentary than you were expecting, you should probably put this project on the backburner and start attending to that issue instead.

But if this initiative can help you add something to your web biography that’s real and engaging (without being embarrassing or over the top), then you’ll have provided online visitors with a meaningful glimpse of who you are as a person and as a professional — something that will help them decide if you’re someone they’d like to do business with. You’ve got a good story to tell about yourself — if you can’t bring yourself to tell it, try asking other people if they’ll take the microphone for you.

Stem Client Roundup for October 2013

October is quickly drawing to a close. It has been a busy and productive month for our clients, as you can see:

We’ll be back again at the end of November with more client accolades and accomplishments.

Drafting a Practice Description For Your Website Using Only The 1,000 Most Common English Words

Thus setting a personal record for longest blog post title….

Donald Johnston has published a great post at Slaw with the self-explanatory title, “Drafting a EULA Using Only the 1000 Most Common Words in American English.” Don references a terrific online tool, “The Up-goer Five Text Editor,” which allows you to use only the one thousand most frequently appearing words in the English language.

Using this site, Don wrote an end-user software licence agreement — normally, one of the most opaque and mystifying legal documents the world has ever seen. The Up-goer version of the EULA takes a little getting used to, and sometimes suffers from the clunky structure inherited from the original document. But as a means of communicating what you actually want to say, in order that your intent is understood and your rules for using your software are followed, it is far more effective than the standard version.

So here’s an exercise for you: try to write a practice description for your website using only the 1,000 most common words in English. Your practice description is arguably the most important page on your site — it’s where potential clients come to find out whether you can help them. But many such descriptions are written in long-winded, jargony, off-putting legalese. Trying to sound sophisticated, many lawyers instead come across as boring, pompous, or unintelligible. It’s worth trying something different.

Here’s an example for your consideration: I’ve drafted a generic four-paragraph description for a family law practice. This turned out to be a lot more challenging than I had anticipated. For instance, you can’t use the words “marriage,” “divorce,” “wife,” “husband,” “support,” “custody,” “court,” “judge,” “government,” or even “legal” or “law!”

How are you supposed to describe a law practice without these words, let alone terms like “division of property” or “pension valuation”? That’s the whole point: the exercise forces you to find simpler, plainer ways of saying what you need to say. Here’s my attempt (and okay, I cheated a little — I had to use “marriage”):

I help people fix things that have gone wrong in their lives. Most often, I help people who used to be married but who aren’t anymore. This is almost always hard for these people and their children, and I try to help them feel a little better. But my most important job is to help them with all the stuff that they have to go through because they’re not married anymore.

When a marriage is over, each person who was in the marriage has to do some things. They have to fill out a lot of papers, so that everyone knows the marriage is over. Each person who was in the marriage will take half of all the things the two people owned together — either the things themselves, or money to pay for the things. One person might have to give the other person money every month to help that person live his or her life.

If there are children of the marriage, one person may live with the children, and the other person will give that person money to help the children live their lives. The person who does not live with the children may be able to visit the children every two weeks or every month, or to have the children live with them at those times.

All of these things, and many more, can be hard to do and can take up a lot of time. My job is to help people do all these things, so that they don’t have to do it all themselves. If you think I could help you, please call me, so that we can plan to meet and talk about what’s going on with you. You don’t have to pay any money to speak with me for the first half an hour.

Not exactly Tolstoy, is it? And at times, it does come across as patronizing, as if you’re speaking to a child — your clients’ vocabulary will certainly contain more than 1,000 words. I doubt I would paste this directly into my firm’s practice description page.

But nonetheless, there’s an appealing directness about this draft, both in terms of the content of the message as well as its emotional connection. Please call me, so that I can help you  many clients are seeking exactly that level of forthright personal engagement from their legal adviser. If the text editor makes you draft something like this, don’t be afraid of it.

I think you should try writing a simple, 1,000-most-common-words version of your practice description, and use it as a template for your final version. Strive to add as few “illegal” words as possible — only those really necessary to communicate your meaning. And try to keep those elements that make you seem accessible, approachable, and responsive. Lawyers often use words to shield themselves from others — this exercise can help you reverse that process.

Facebook Timeline Moderation for Lawyers

I was recently trying to explain the idea of Facebook timeline moderation to a friend. That is, not letting someone “tag” you in an uploaded picture or text entry, and having that (potentially embarrassing) item automatically show up on your profile page.

While  it’s odd that this setting isn’t activated by default [insert Facebook privacy 'eye roll' here], the fix for pre-moderating your timeline takes about 30 seconds.

Below is a quick set of instructions to get this working:

Step one. Log into Facebook, and hit the Privacy drop down menu in the top-right corner of the screen:

facebook-privacy-dropdown

Step 2. Click on See More Settings at the bottom of that menu.

Step 3. Click on the “Timeline and Tagging Settings” tab in the left-sidebar navigation menu:

facebook-timeline-moderation

Step 4:  Turn “On” the setting that asks you to “Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline?

You can (optionally) stop other people from posting anything to your timeline by changing your answer to “Who can post to your timeline?” to “Only Me“.  But unless you’re being tagged into other people’s sharing constantly or an outside party is abusing this feature… that solution is likely overkill.

Adding a simple moderation queue should be more than adequate to protect most professionals.