Facing the future

By Nick Holmes on June 26, 2007
Comments Off on Facing the future
Filed under Blogging, Internet law, Law 2.0, Web 2.0

Last Friday/Saturday I attended the SCL Web 2.0 conference in Oxford where speakers and panellists included technology lawyers from large practices, lawyers from Web 2.0 companies, a venture capitalist, an academic and our deputy from the ICO.

The majority of the delegates were from large law firms – there to learn what this Web 2.0 was all about. They weren’t disappointed. There were plenty of insights and much food for thought. It was refreshing to be in a forum with individuals who understood the brave new world or at least acknowledged its existence, but at the same time salutary to realise that the law firm paymasters are still firmly stuck in the old world.

There was a lot of talk of Web 2.0 in terms of companies: MySpace (“so January”), Facebook (countless references) etc. Understandable – these are the valuable clients or potential clients. Virtual worlds were also high on the agenda: Second Life, World of Warcraft and so on. These services pose interesting questions for the lawyer in the bathtub to ponder, such as: Who actually owns the property created/bought in a virtual world? (Answer – read the T&Cs). What happens if they pull the plug? (Ditto.) A few speakers were clearly heavily into other lives: at one stage we were addressed by a tenth-level something-or-other dwarf masquerading as a technology lawyer. But it all comes down to money: there is real money to be made in virtual worlds and where there is money, there are lawyers.

There was less talk on how Web 2.0 technologies were actually being implemented in law firms. Not a lot of activity it seems. Many individuals had recently set up Facebook profiles. Garnering new signups at a growth rate of 6 per cent a month, FB is now seen as a quite acceptable networking forum for grown ups, lawyers included. But few firms had done anything with blogs, wikis and social software. The old guard it seems sees experimentation with these as a waste of fee earning time.

Another interesting take-away is that these web-savvy lawyers are obliged to dish out good, solid, letter-of-the-law, old-world advice, but recognise that if you play by the rules you are disadvantaged. Live dangerously and you may create the next big something-sharing service worth billions; follow the letter of the law and you won’t make the cut. Similar applies with compliance: spend £K on doing it right or save yourself the money, fudging it in the knowledge that the ICO has no teeth.

And finally to blogs and blogging. This did not, to my mind, receive enough attention – perhaps because, unlike the other Web 2.0 services that were flavour of the conference, the blogosphere is very much a democratic space: not only can anyone contribute, but the network is distributed and not owned by anyone. Euan Semple and Ruth Ward of Allen & Overy made the case for implementing blogs, wikis and other social software in-house and Deryck Houghton of Freeth Cartwright gave an entertaining presentation of why blogging on IMPACT works for them. Lilian Edwards, Professor of IT Law at Southampton, was also up there on the podium, though not to speak about blogging.

The difference between the old and the new was well summed up in an exchange on the risks of blogging. Kim Walker of Pinsent Masons suggested companies needed blogging policies to manage the risks posed by employees let loose in the blogosphere, whether on the firm’s or their own account. “You must be joking” (or words to that effect) said Simon Deane-Johns of Zopa (see his take on the conference): existing policies adequately cover the issues and you’re asking for trouble circumscribing individual freedoms. In the new world, the user is king.