[The following column originally appeared in print in August 2008. I am republishing it as part of my continuing effort to maintain an archive of my published columns. Important note: I have not updated this since its original publication. While most of the sites remain as described, some may have changed. All information was current as of the date of original publication.]
As online professional networking gains traction within the legal community, Martindale-Hubbell has been quietly testing its own networking site, Martindale-Hubbell Connected, which it plans to launch publicly late this year or early in 2009.
The company made much ado in July about its partnership with professional networking site LinkedIn. But until recently, it operated in virtual stealth mode with respect to its own networking site.
A beta version of the site with limited functionality is now operating at www.martindale.com/connected. Martindale has invited a small number of lawyers to register for the site as beta testers. While I am not one of them, I was recently given a tour of the live site by John Lipsey, LexisNexis vice president of corporate counsel services. He also showed me slides of additional features to be added prior to launch.
As Lipsey’s title suggests, corporate counsel are a central focus of the company’s plans for developing the site. “One of my primary focuses now is to concentrate on the needs of corporate counsel in developing the relationship, community and tools aspects of this,” he told me.
Those three components – relationships, community and tools – form the three overlapping circles that will come together in the final release version of Martindale-Hubbell Connected (MHC). All three are essential, Lipsey believes, if the site is to attract and retain legal professionals.
“One of the biggest differences in a successful professional networking site is that a social one doesn’t really engage a professional in any meaningful, long-term way,” Lipsey says. “We need to build business tools to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.”
Upon first logging in to MHC, the view is familiar to anyone who has used a networking site such as LinkedIn. For my tour, Lipsey logged in under his account, taking us to his main profile page. This showed his professional profile, his network of connections, his groups, and a running stream of updates from others with whom he is connected.
This provides our first glimpse of the potential power of a networking site built by a company with extended roots in the business of building lawyer directories. MHC includes a feature that suggests people you may know and therefore may want to connect with. In itself, this is not unique; other sites do this.
But MHC’s suggestion tool digs deep, looking for connections not only among MHC registrants but also within Martindale-Hubbell’s full database of more than 1 million lawyers and the LexisNexis database of judicial opinions. That means it will suggest connections not merely from among workplace colleagues or law school classmates, but also from among lawyers you argued with or against in a courtroom.
As a networking tool, this is powerful. It enables a user to quickly build a network beyond one’s obvious connections. “This million-plus database has generated 45 million connections,” Lipsey says. “That is 45 million instances of suggested connections among lawyers we think may want to be connected with each other.”
As you might expect, this is not the only way in which MHC integrates with the directory. Another is in the directory itself. Say a corporate counsel searches the directory for a litigation attorney in Boston. If that counsel belongs to MHC, then the results screen will include a “My Network” tab showing lawyers who both match the search and are within the member’s first- and second-degree network.
As of the late-July date of my tour, MHC had been in beta testing for only a matter of weeks and its functionality remained limited. Other features included an “inmail” system for sending member-to-member messages and a rudimentary legal news page. MHC launched with 20 beta testers and had just over 100 as of my tour.
Communities of Interest
While development so far has focused on the “relationships” circle, the next stages will build out the community and tools aspects of the site, Lipsey said.
The community prong will allow members to create controlled-access interest groups within MHC based on their own criterion. A legal organization, for example, could have its own community, or lawyers in a particular locale might create one.
Other communities will be created automatically. A broad corporate counsel community will include all in-house members. As new members join who work for a particular company, that company will automatically get its own community, accessible only by others who work there.
As Lipsey envisions them, these communities would feature content drawn from a variety of sources, some generated by users, some drawn from LexisNexis, some from members’ law firms, and some from outside sources. They could include discussion groups, forums, blogs, webinars and more, and even house sub-communities with more specialized interests.
Another aspect of MHC’s community prong will be community publishing in the form of a Wikipedia-like legal reference. The wiki will be written and edited by MHC’s members, but Martindale with “pre-seed” it with the content from its Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest.
Another feature will be knowledge centers focused on the areas of law that most interest corporate counsel. These centers will include a variety of content drawn from CLE programs, webinars, published articles and elsewhere.
Tools for Corporate Counsel
The final prong in all this is to create useful tools, with a particular eye to corporate counsel.
One such tool will be client reviews – ratings and reviews of outside counsel to assist in-house lawyers with making hiring decisions. These reviews will be more detailed than Martindale’s standard ratings, providing at-a-glance overviews of a lawyer’s quality of service, value for the money, responsiveness and communications.
The reviews will be compiled from in-house counsel, who will be invited as they use the Martindale directory to rate lawyers with whom they have worked. Reviewers’ identities will be kept anonymous. This feature will be available through both MHC and the public directory.
Another tool in the works is aimed at facilitating legal department management of preferred providers. Each MHC member who works in-house will be able to create a personal preferred-provider list that will become part of the member’s standard MHC dashboard. As other lawyers from within the same company build their own lists, each can get access not only to their own, but also to a “master” list of preferred providers.
This master list will show not only providers’ names, but also who among your colleagues have actually used them. In this way, counsel need not rely solely on a lawyer’s public rating, but also can tap into the institutional knowledge of others within a company.
In conjunction with this, MHC is considering adding the ability to lift the anonymity of client ratings by direct request. This would allow a member to request an introduction to the reviewer of a particular lawyer and allow the reviewer to decide whether to accept.
A final component of MHC will be an RFP builder.
MHC will provide templates for building proposal requests and a tool for aggregating and reviewing responses.
Lipsey believes that Martindale-Hubbell’s established position within the legal community will enable it to build a superior professional networking tool. “We’re putting resources to bear that only an established company can know to produce.”