7/8/09

Open Source in Law Firms - Unimaginable or Brilliant?

I know, you don't expect to see "open source" and "law firms" in the same sentence unless it is discussing how a law firm is trying to find a way for its clients to claim copyright on something they built upon an open source product. But that's not what we're talking about here. I really wanted to discuss the idea of "how" a law firm could actually introduce open source products into the technology structure of a firm without the anxiety that generally comes along with such a plan.
A few days ago, an academic techie forwarded me an article on how some universities were going to replace their very expensive accounting software with an open source product called Kuali. I read the article in my typical fashion where I'm thinking "wow, what an opportunity" followed quickly by "guess this would never happen in a big law firm environment." But then I read the part of the article that discussed how these universities were collaborating on this effort and would be basically sharing the pain of the implementation of the software. Now, there's a novel concept!
I'm going to toss out any "antitrust" arguments for the moment and pitch the idea that law firm IT departments, along with the "powers-that-be" in the firm's management could team up with their counterparts in other peer firms to work as a consortium in implementing large scale open source projects. Anyone that has worked in the so-called "BigLaw" sector knows that this is an industry that chases each others tails when it comes to technology. Many of us, when pitching a new product here this quote: "What other firms are also using this product?"
The accounting project that the academic institutions are collaborating is a perfect example of bringing in open source software into the institution. This product is something that is a "behind the scenes" product - in that it is used by the administrative staff rather than by the entire institution. So, this would be a much better test project than replacing Microsoft Office Suite with one of the open source alternatives.
So, the next time you have lunch with one of your peers from another firm, float the idea of collaborating on a open source project between your firms. See if you can get a few more firms on board as well. Test something small (for God's sakes don't start off with the accounting overhaul I mentioned above!!) Perhaps something like collaborating on creating an Enterprise 2.0 project , such as the 'Unity' Enterprise 2.0 Project that Lockheed created using open source products, and figuring out a way to manage the project in a way that all of the firms collaborating learn from one another, and share the pain and triumph of deploying a new product without the huge expense of working with one of the major vendors. If you can team up with other firms, then you've already got an answer when a partner asks "what other firms are doing this."

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8 comments:

Greg Lambert said...

Stephanie Kimbro @StephKimbro sent the following tweet to me about this article:
"Would legal software developers be willing to go open source & share so a product could evolve for benefit of profession?"

This is a great question. I believe that there are vendors (especially 'smaller' vendors that may have broken away from their former employers) would be chomping at the bit to get something like this going. And, if you could get a consortium of 2-5 firms to all commit to an open source project (kind of like the universities did when they all put in $25K a piece), then you may even have some larger vendors willing to jump in on an open source project.
The problem is going to be a "chicken or the egg" argument. Vendors won't jump in unless firms are on board, and law firms won't commit unless there is a stable vendor product, and one law firm won't jump in on a consortium unless others are already in the consortium (etc... etc...)
Quite frankly, it is a 'high-risk' approach to software implimentation. But, if handled correctly, 'high-risk' can equal 'high-reward'.
Thanks Stephanie for the question.

Toby Brown said...

I did something similar to this when I worked in the Bar (association) world. At the time large vendors were more than willing to participate since they saw it as an opportunity for some quick sales. I shied away from them since that mind-set would not drive toward a community (a.k.a. 2.0) approach. We found a smaller vendor who participated as a partner in the endeavor. The risk then is the stability of the vendor. It worked out OK.

On the customer side the real issue was managing expectations as a group. As a customer/participant you have to give up in some areas to benefit the whole. Although overall those discussions were quite valuable as we learned so much from each other.

Finally, I think in the Bar world this was more feasible since bar associations are much less direct competitors. That means a lower threat-threshold for joining.

Still I really like this idea. Especially now as large firms struggle with practice management tools not scaling to their needs, I hope this balloon keeps floating.

Jason Mark Anderman said...

I think there's a fundamental internal political obstacle to surmount in encouraging companies (including law firms) to use open source software and other lower cost opportunities. I remember attending a worldwide meeting once for an organization that employed me, and after a presentation by our senior technology expert, he asked for questions. I asked whether we could radically reduce our IT budget by going to lower powered computers exploiting browser based software and open source applications. He brushed off the question. A number of our IT experts came up to me afterward and explained that, while they would love to pursue this approach, the IT department's power base depends on the size of its budget, so IT leaders will oppose an approach that reduces the budget and thereby reduces this power. Since then, I've paid a close eye to the organizational dynamics that can create perverse incentives which prevent efficiency gains.

Shaunna said...

I am happy to report that my firm, Field Law, uses some Open Source technology. We use Joomla! as our intranet content manager. We also push up seachability of our library catalogue to our intranet with some MySQL scripts. I am sure that we are not totally unique in our approach to using Open Source tools.

There are other good examples of wide open source type collaboration in the legal world. AustLII search technology is model code that is shared with other legal information institutes.

As the costs increase and profit margin narrows, opportunities for open source adoption, at least with some apps, will become more common.

Great post as usual!

Jason said...

Greg,

You've actually stumbled on a new career path. Seriously, if the largest firms can agree to become members of a giant self-insured system because it just makes financial sense to do so, then they can also find a way to collaborate on other projects, namely robust open source ones. It just takes a silver tongue to make them realize it.

We're less than 100 folks, but we have spent a mountain of money on accounting packages and programmers over the years. We're happy with where we've landed, but the system we have could still be better. Firms have an advantage here because their businesses are so similar.

Georgie Pie said...

If your serious about free office and business software, you should also look around at freeware websites. There are a lot of upcoming companies creating free software.

You should also try SSuite Office for free office software. They have a whole range of office software and suites that are free for download.

Their software also don't need to run on Java or .NET, so it makes the software very small and efficient.

You can try these links:

http://www.ssuitesoft.com/index.htm
or
http://ssuite5element.webs.com/thefifthelement.htm

Docs4Lawyers said...

If you are interested in open source document management / enterprise content management for law firms, check out Docs4Lawyers - www.docs4lawyers.com. New solution based on Alfresco ECM. Software and documentation available for download.

jacks said...
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