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 earlier this month about its partnership with professional networking site LinkedIn. But it has operated in virtual stealth mode with respect to its own networking site. A story yesterday on mentioned it but provided no details. An ABA Journal story this month about Martindale’s online plans said nothing about it. Blogger Heather M. Milligan wrote about it last week at The Legal Watercooler, but declined to share any details. The most complete description so far comes from the project’s lead manager, John Lipsey, LexisNexis vice president of corporate counsel services, writing in the August issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel.

A beta version of the site with limited functionality is, in fact, now operating. 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 Lipsey and shown slides of additional features to be added prior to launch.

As Lipsey’s job 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,” Lipsey 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.”

Familiar Interface

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, which showed his professional profile, his network of connections, his groups, and a running stream of updates from others with whom he is connected.

Here is our first glimpse of the potential power of a networking site built by a company with deep 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 within 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.

Needless to say, as a networking tool, this is powerful. It enables a user to quickly build a network beyond one’s obvious connections. Why does this matter? Because as you create your network, Lipsey explains, there are many people who may not readily come to mind but who would welcome an initiation to connect.

“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 Martindale-Hubbell directory. Another is in the directory itself. Say a corporate counsel searches the directory for a litigation attorney in Boston. If that counsel is an MHC member, 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 communities of interest within MHC based on their own criterion. A legal organization, for example, could create a community, or a community might focus on a particular city or state.

Other communities will be created automatically. A broad corporate counsel community will include all lawyers who work in-house. 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 will 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. This will be a legal reference guide collaboratively written and edited by MHC’s members.

But understanding the inertia that accompanies a blank slate, Martindale with “pre-seed” the wiki with the content from its Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest, lawyer-written digests of the laws of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Another feature will be knowledge centers focused on the areas of law in which corporate counsel are most interested, such as labor and employment, insurance, litigation and intellectual property. 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 designed to assist in-house lawyers with making hiring decisions. These reviews are more detailed than Martindale’s familiar peer review ratings. They provide at-a-glance overviews of a lawyer’s quality of service, value for the money, responsiveness and communications.

As in-house counsel review lawyers’ profiles in the Martindale directory, they will be invited to provide ratings of those with whom they have worked. Martindlae will have checks in place to ensure the validity of these reviews, but the identities of the actual reviewers will be kept anonymous. This feature will be available through both MHC and t
he public directory.

Another tool in the works is aimed at facilitating legal department management of preferred providers. While some companies already have sophisticated processes in place for this function, most do not, Lipsey believes.

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.

The usefulness of this master list is that it shows not only names, but also which of them your colleagues are actually using and who among your colleagues is using 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.

“This is leveraging technology for a business purpose,” Lipsey says. “I may be able to see a lawyer’s public rating, but I care more about ratings from people I work with. Here’s a way we can provide that.”

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.

Also part of this preferred provider tool is the ability to send messages to the lawyers on the list, either limited to selected recipients or broadcast to all, and to send custom surveys to preferred providers and monitor results.

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,” he says. “The ability to know when two lawyers have come up against each other in a case is pretty technologically remarkable.

“From a networking perspective, that’s valuable. And that’s just one flavor of expertise we can bring to bear in the professional networking world.”

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.