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Extras - Internet Roundtable #13: A Continuing Discussion of Law Firm Marketing on the Internet - Q: What are virtual communities and how can lawyers use them for marketing?

By Brenda Howard, Dennis Kennedy, Jerry Lawson and Kevin Keefe, Published on October 1, 2000

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site

Guest Panelist: Kevin O’Keefe, a former practicing lawyer and the founder and fearless community leader of Prairielaw.com, a virtual law community of people helping people.

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center

Q: What are virtual communities and how can lawyers use them for marketing?

Jerry Lawson (JL): Our guest panelist this month is Kevin O’Keefe, probably the country’s top expert on virtual communities for lawyers. Kevin was a successful trial lawyer in Wisconsin before he decided that his "highest and best use" was serving lawyers and the public through virtual communities. He is the founder of Prairielaw.com, a company headquartered in the thriving Seattle tech scene. Kevin, we are really pleased to have a national leader like you with us.

Kevin O'Keefe (KO): Thanks for inviting me.

Dennis Kennedy (DK): Our subject this month is virtual communities, which are Internet gatherings of people with similar interests. The term "virtual" communities was coined because these communities have digital rather than geographic locations. A "virtual community" is created when people can come together and communicate in a shared fashion using the Internet. The "community" might be created by the use of newsgroups, message boards, e-mail discussion lists or even chat sessions. In other words, by using some of the Internet tools other than the traditional web site, even though the other tools are likely to be components of a web site. There are two basic alternatives for lawyers who are interested in trying this under-appreciated marketing tool: The first way, and the way most lawyers initially get into this, is by using a virtual community started and hosted by someone else. That’s what your site, Prairielaw.com, is all about, isn’t it, Kevin?

KO: Right. Prairielaw.com makes it easy for lawyers to get involved in online discussion with potential clients, without worrying about the underlying technology. You just show up and participate.

JL: Prairielaw.com gets plenty of traffic, so that eliminates the initial hurdle of most virtual communities: luring a critical mass of users. 

The alternative to participating in someone else’s discussion group is starting your own. One of the first, and best established virtual communities for law firm marketing, is the advertising law group founded by Lew Rose, a partner with the Washington, DC firm, Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn. You can reach the advertising law online discussion group by the URL http://www.advertisinglaw.com and following the "Discussion Forum" link, or directly at the following URL: http://www.arentfox.com/post/forum/alforum.html.

Lawyers may pick up a few new clients directly by hosting a virtual community, but the biggest benefit is probably furthering the lawyer’s reputation for expertise in a particular area. This can be particularly valuable if the virtual community is able to attract key leaders in a specific industry.

BH: Jerry, there’s a side benefit that most people do not realize until they’ve established a community area. They are fun! I have a client that added a bulletin board to his site. Industry professionals started hanging out there and now he knows the latest news in his industry – almost instantaneously. While it’s time consuming for him to moderate this bulletin board, he wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world. It’s proved valuable to him as a professional. Now he wants to add a listserv (email list) so that they can communicate with industry professionals faster than the pace of a bulletin board.

KO: One of the reasons bulletin boards and other community tools are fun is because lawyers get to help so many people. These are often people who for whatever reason felt the law was inaccessible. In a virtual community lawyers are not only helping the one person who a lawyer may respond to on a one-to-one basis, but also the hundreds or thousands who view the lawyer’s response. The way I see it, and I think a lot of lawyers are the same, as lawyers we have the obligation to do the right thing by people. The Internet, and virtual communities in particular, provide the perfect opportunity to help folks on a bigger scale. In virtual communities, lawyers may be staring in the face at the best means of changing the public’s negative perception of lawyers and the legal system into a positive one.

DK: This is another example of how lawyers who move to the Internet have found their enthusiasm for the practice of law rejuvenated and, if you’ll permit me to say this, rediscovered some of the ideals that led them into the profession in the first place. In the virtual community, you can become the helper and counselor that perhaps you can’t be, for any number of reasons, in your "real" community.

JL: I think you are absolutely right. It’s also important to note that there is no single mode of operation for a virtual community. Some of the options are:

They can be open to anyone, or require prior moderator approval of participants.

The discussion areas can be done by e-mail, web-based bulletin boards, "chat," or even through providing a mechanism for instant message or conference software to get together.

The discussions can be moderated (i.e., the moderator reviews all messages and posts only appropriate ones), or unmoderated.

The operators can provide merely the basic discussion mechanism, or they can provide ancillary services. These could include things like group calendars, membership rosters, archives, file upload/download areas, chat rooms, voice and video conferencing, etc.

DK: One of the difficulties that anyone who gets interested in this area can have is deciding to choose among this smorgasbord of choices. Then, after making a tentative decision, it can feel a little overwhelming to try to figure out the technical aspects of building out your community. What technical tools are available for building virtual communities?

BH: This is a business within itself. There are many off-the-shelf products that contain a bulletin board, chat room, newsletters, etc. They can costs thousands of dollars, or you can get these tools for free. One of my favorite places for community tools is BraveNet, http://www.bravenet.com. You can choose the free version and their company name is displayed and advertising banners appear in the community areas, or you can pay a small fee and have the same tools available without advertising.

DK: By the way, the "free with advertising banner" or "pay for no advertising" approach is common in this area.

KO: While I agree that there are some good community building tools out there, it’s like anything else: it takes time to find them, to learn how to use them and get people coming to a Web site to use them.

BH: Learning, operating and building with these tools definitely can be time-consuming and costly. To get around this, you don’t even have to put one on your site, you can use one of the online companies that provide all these tools. There are many out there, but here are a few of the larger ones: eGroups: http://www.egroups.com

Visto: http://www.visto.com

Topica: http://www.topica.com

L-Soft: http://www.lsoft.com

JL: Of the ones you mentioned, eGroups is my favorite. They were recently bought out by Yahoo, for about 400 million dollars. I hope this buy-out does not adversely affect their quality of service, because I have some to use them quite a bit. L-Soft is an alternative that has e-mail lists only. L-Soft is expensive, but has a high level of service. They own the trademark on the name "listserv," by the way, but there is room to argue that widespread use has made it a generic name like aspirin.

DK: HotOffice, http://www.hotoffice.com, might be another example in that it offers some of these tools in its "suite" of web applications for small offices.

JL: WebEx, http://www.webex.com, is another interesting alternative to the sites we’ve mentioned. It is expensive, but particularly strong at real-time interaction. There are many others. All these services have ads, and/or the branding of the company providing them. Many law firms will prefer to spend a little money for a non-branded version that looks more professional. The eGroups version with no ads on the e-mail messages charges $4.95 a month. In addition to costing more, hosting one yourself necessitates some technical expertise, unlike the examples referenced above.

BH: Keep in mind that these companies host your community on their servers. This might have some security implications for a law firm web site. For that reason, you may want to have the community area hosted on your own web site.

DK: And, don’t forget about Kevin and Prairielaw. One legitimate choice is not to create your own site but to become an active participant in an existing community. That makes your technology decisions infinitely easier

JL: Getting back to resources, the best book I have seen on the practical business aspects of building a virtual community is "Poor Richard’s Guide to E-mail Publishing," by Chris Pirillo.

KO: Chris Pirillo’s book is excellent, Jerry. We also use three others: "Net Gain" by John Hagel, "Hosting Web Communities" by Cliff Figallo, and "Community Building on the Web" by Amy Jo Kim. Joe Vitale’s "Cyberwriting", although a little dated, can still teach lawyers a ton about getting out and communicating on the Internet.

DK: Kim’s book has gotten very good review. Let me add Jerry’s Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers to our list. And, we mustn’t forget the granddaddy of them all - Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Communities, which tells the story of virtual online communities in the pre-Internet days. Some of the stories are quite touching, particularly those involving the illnesses or even deaths of community members. As I was reminded of just a few months ago, the death of someone in your Internet community, even if you’ve never physically met them, can hurt just as much as a death in your local community. People who participate in communities are often surprised by the depth and vitality of them, and how they grow to have lives of their own, often in far different ways than the creator imagined. But, let me get back to the subject at hand - Kevin, do you have any tips for lawyers who want to break into virtual communities for marketing?

KO: Remember that focused discussions tend to be preferable. Virtual communities, by their very nature, need to break down into more and more sub-communities, if you will. If a lawyer is an expert in California employment rights, he or she might look for a law site or employment site that already has a community that could benefit from a sub-community on California employment law. That way, a lawyer drops in without needing any technology, without needing to learn much about the tools and has an instant draw of people.

BH: AOL is a good example of the power of virtual communities. AOL has a track record of poor customer service, including inaccurate billings, tons of advertisements and other problems, but they do one thing right: they make it easy to find communities and use them. The sense of community is so important that millions of AOL users will tolerate the problems that afflict AOL.

BH: Keep in mind that these companies host your community on their servers. This might have some security implications for a law firm web site. For that reason, you may want to have the community area hosted on your own web site.

JL: That’s a very perceptive insight. In fact, AOL plays this up in their ads, with one of the most recent featuring a customer who says something like, "This may sound corny, but we are a big family."

DK: Actually, it would be more accurate to say that AOL’s allure is that it is many communities. Although, frankly, it is difficult to participate in more than a handful of communities in any meaningful sense. Kevin’s comment about specialized communities being the most attractive was also right on the money.

JL: Yep. The skeptical will wonder, "If virtual communities are so effective, why haven't I heard much about them as a marketing tool?"

A main reason is that consultants haven't figured out a way to make money on them. Unlike most web sites, virtual communities are built mainly by "sweat equity," not hiring a contractor.

Law firms are willing to pay large amounts of for web sites, because they understand them (or think they do). They look like advertisements.

Virtual communities, on the other hand, rely on a new paradigm. Law firms (and, to be fair, most businesses) don't understand them at all.

BH: Jerry, this is the hardest part of justifying a community area. The benefits are intangible from a dollar perspective. It’s the "warm and fuzzy" part of the site. It’s the place where people feel comfortable and share information. However, like the television show, Cheers, there is a benefit in creating a place where everyone "knows your name." Obviously, we aren’t selling drinks, but when that person needs legal assistance, who do you think they trust?

KO: Brenda is so right about creating a place of comfort. I tell people all the time, Prairielaw.com is a place like Cheers – "where everyone knows your name." I can envision lawyers a long tome ago sitting in pubs or town gathering places sharing what they knew with others in a casual setting. A virtual community can do the same thing – that is breakdown some of the barriers between the average person and lawyers in this country.

DK: In Missouri, there’s a great virtual e-mail community called the Small Firm Internet Group. It’s great fun and the people really help each other out. At a recent Missouri Bar function, one of the highlights was a happy hour where the members of SFIG actually got to meet each other. I’m sort of allowed to participate even though I’m now at a firm of nearly 300 lawyers. It was so much fun to meet some of the regulars and when some of the most helpful posters were introduced, people broke out into applause. Here, the group was only lawyers, but lawyers separated by geography. I have to agree 100% with Kevin’s point about breaking down barriers.

KO: On one hand, it’s surprising that virtual communities have not caught on faster in the legal arena. Virtual communities thrive in information-intensive fields. Not much is more information-intensive than the law, with all its topics and geographic areas. On the other hand, lawyers are not real familiar with the tools used within a community such as listservs, message boards, live events or newsgroups. Lawyers tend to think of an Internet presence as having a Web site and leave it at that, once their firm has one. Plus, lawyers, who have not had time to review the ethical issues of participating in communities with non-lawyers, are scared to stick their toe in the water.

JL: Lawyers do need to think about possible ethical problems, including being accused of being accused of the unauthorized practice of law if they talk to someone in another state, or inadvertently forming an attorney-client relationship, which could lead to a conflict of interest with an existing client, or even a malpractice claim.

No written retainer nor fee payment is required to form an attorney-client relationship, and the courts are inclined to give heavy weight to the putative client’s subjective belief that an attorney-client relationship existed. Disclaimers have some value, but they should not be considered an impermeable shield. Until the ethical rules in this area are clarified, exercise care in what you say. There are some questions, but my common sense overall assessment is that lawyers can ethically participate in such forums so long as they exercise good judgment.

DK: The March issue of the ABA-BNA Lawyers Manual of Professional Conduct had a good overview of this and related issues. [Ed.: Available at http://www.bna.com/prodhome/bus/mopc_and.html.] Catherine Lanctot, a professor at Villanova, had a more scholarly treatment of the same topics in the Duke Law Journal. [Ed.: available at http://ww.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?49+Dule+L.+J.+147].

BH: All this sounds great, but on the other hand, Jakob Nielsen’s August, 1997, Alertbox article predicted the death of Community, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9708b.html. While this article highlights the extreme negative side of community, there is value and vitality in communities and that has been proven by the fact that communities didn’t die in 1997. Used appropriately, community tools do provide benefits.

JL: Brenda, I’ll match you guru for guru: In her book Release 2.0 Esther Dyson goes in exactly the opposite direction. She predicts that hosting high quality virtual communities will become a for-profit business. I think she is probably right. This business model could be an option for law firms that have the reputation and connections to attract top industry leaders to an exclusive virtual community. If you are a mover and shaker, there is value in the opportunity to network with other movers and shakers, in an exclusive forum. The law firm that brings them together in a quality forum stands to benefit indirectly, and, if Dyson is right, directly by charging for access to the community.

Dyson’s theory is credible to me because of my personal experience. I belong a membership-restricted group of lawyers who practice the same type of law that I do. It’s saved me literally hundreds of hours of research over the past six years. Possibly even more valuable, that group has helped me become well known to a network of other lawyers that would be very useful if I ever decided to change jobs. Would I pay to continue to be a member of that group? Absolutely.

DK: And many members of the Missouri SFIG community I mentioned earlier will echo those comments.

JL: I don’t mean to make it sound like I disagree with Nielsen’s essay. He does a good job of making the case against poorly thought out and managed communities, especially unmoderated ones. However, Nielsen does not claim that good virtual communities have no value. As he explained in his later article "Why Advertising Doesn’t Work on the Internet," linked from the URL above, "Only loyal users have any lasting value for your site." There are few better ways to get "loyal users" than a high quality virtual community.

DK: I don’t want to rain on the parade, Jerry, but isn’t it time to paint the full picture of the virtual community approach. There are some negative factors to consider.

JL: Absolutely, let’s not leave readers with any mistaken impressions:

It is much more difficult than commonly understood to grow a successful virtual community. The difficulty is not in the technical factors, which are what engineers refer to as a "solved problem," but in the human factors. It is particularly hard to grow a virtual community that will help a law firm sponsor. Time and time again, I see links to web-based discussion groups from law firm web sites. When you access the discussion group, there are usually no messages. This doesn’t help the law firm, it just makes them look dumb. If you’re not going to do it right, don’t bother.

KO: You’re right Jerry. There is an art to building a community. You need to seed it, fertilize it and cultivate the content created. It takes a lot of effort on the part of not only employees of the company creating the community but volunteers and community leaders who arise from the communities’ members. Your community leaders need to have more than just good Internet social and management skills. They need to have some knowledge and practical experience within the specific topic area. Because of these challenges, I see an opportunity for Prairielaw.com to create a medium in which lawyers may participate in a virtual law community without a heck of a lot of time, effort or Internet savvy. Bottom line, lawyers need to understand there is no better way of "tooting your horn" than sharing what you know on the Internet.

DK: To be effective in creating a virtual community for marketing, you will need to figure on a substantial time comment. You also need to build a "critical mass" of users - there’s nothing more pathetic than a discussion board site with just a couple of topics and minimal response. I think that it probably helps if you are good at being a host in general or have a personality that would be good in radio or other media. A weekly chat session could be great fun and a terrific marketing tool for the right personality. And, you have to allocate real hours that might otherwise be billable to marketing. Kevin, take us on home.

KO: We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to law and the Internet. As lawyers become more comfortable interacting with members of the public on-line, you will see the Internet and virtual communities become the preferred method of marketing by lawyers.

DK: I’d like to emphasize Kevin’s point that participation in a virtual community can be a way for lawyers to rediscover how to help people and find again the role that lawyers often had as a wise counsel or advisor in their communities. While the reward in that alone may be enough for many of us, the tangible marketing benefit of the good will you can create by participating in virtual communities make this technique one all lawyers should consider.