Wikis in Law Firms – an Alternative View?

A number of colleagues I respect remain excited about “wikis in law firms” (see Connie Crosby here and Doug Cornelius here as two examples).

I remain contrarian and cynical. Aren’t all major law firms with mature document management systems (DMSs) “wikified” to the max already? If everyone in the firm has online access to the “Smith file” or the “Jones file” and can edit documents, view calendars or other lists of information, access research memos, and post comments, isn’t this “wiki” personified?

This raises the question: what makes “wikis” different than DMSs? Is it simply ease-of-use and the fact that wikis can or will arise more organically without central IT control? I concede those two points but if those are the main differences, I am not sure I am getting the “wiki in law firms” discussion (and yes, I have contributed on “pure” wikis, albeit on a limited scale).

Please enlighten me (although if I am misguided please be kind in your comments). I remain open-minded and not that cynical.


  1. Ted –

    I think you are “misguided” on the use of wikis. I do not think they will replace client files and a document management system. The factory side of legal work relies on using the document management system as it assembly line.

    But a DMS is generally lousy at highlighting the best content for reuse and wrapping context around the individual content.

    Second, the research memo is static. The next person on the topic is going to copy it and update it. The third person in will have to distinguish between those first two and figure which is most relevant.

    Third, the wiki should allow you to incorporate more sources by allowing you to easily hyperlink to other sources, such as primary law sources, other documents, other internal site and other external sites. This is hard and clumsy to do inside a word document.

    Lastly, the big plus with a wiki is the flow of information; the magical RSS feed. As edits are made, subscribers are alerted to changes. That dramatically changes the interaction with content and the people that care about the content.

  2. Doug does a great job of outlining how a wiki may be helpful in a large law firm with existing infrastructure you outline, Ted.

    Please don’t forget, however, that the majority of lawyers are not in big law firms. Not all have DMSs or intranets or portals. A wiki platform for some, therefore, might be useful for projects where they don’t want to implement a full document management, content management, or intranet system. Moreover, it could even serve as a lightweight solution for easily building a small intranet.

    To be honest, I do not endorse the use of wikis in all law firms. I believe them to be merely one tool in the toolbox that may or may not work for a specific organization or group. I am mostly curious to see *if* and *how* they are being used, and helping people think about how they might use them as well. They probably do not fit in everywhere, but it is good to be informed about what they could do.

    I also believe it is not necessarily the tool that you are using, but how you use it. If the system you have set up is working well and people are finding it works well for their collaborative needs, then you may not need wikis at all. Wikis may be *too* lightweight a solution since you have a sophisticated system that is being successfully used.

  3. For me, wikis & internal blogs are a different type of expertise exchange. Perhaps an analogy could be made to the library, and the distinction between the catalogue & path finder tools. The later being a finite purpose lead-in tool.

    Sometimes we need to get to the crux of an issue very fast, and need authoritative directions from people we trust. The DMS has the possibility to evolve in this direction, but will always be clumsy in my books. As Ted points out, DMS folders are mostly classified by work flow, and require an intervention (subject based workspaces) to classify by topic.

    The future as I see it, is to have wikis & blogs as the front end to your DMS. Great pathfinders & topical guides available via the Wiki; and blogging when you need to tread new ground, get direction in a hurry, or require some authoritative guidance from busy colleagues.

  4. Ted, I think that the everyday business of a law firm is better run through a DMS – you want version control, you want audit trail, you want to limit access. Wikis have potential for ancillary types of information sharing – a Wiki would be a great place to post operational guides and orientation information for new hires, for example.

    In the library context, I can anticipate staff throwing “reference challenges” in there – either to solicit help, or to share learning after the completion of a particularly complex request.

    Wendy Reynolds

  5. I am posting this on behalf of Heather Colman of Hicks Morley. She is having difficulty posting to Slaw:

    In my experience, the transition to a wiki style platform is much quicker with less resistance and more “success stories”.

    Document Management Systems are much more complex and involve a significant change in firm culture. Users tend to resist filling out document profile forms and the workflow that is embedded in a DMS. Due to their complexity Document Management Systems involve a significant amount of training as well and users only start to see real benefits 6 months to a year after implementation.

    It is much easier to add and publish documents on a Wiki and users see the immediate benefits. Wikis look like existing intranets with additional features such as tagging, RSS notification, commenting and more robust searching. Lawyers have the choice of being passive users who just browse for information or they can be active participants and contributors to the wiki.

  6. In my research I also had a look at Nina Platt’s blog The Law Firm Intranet. Her current post When to Introduce Wikis and Blogs points to an excellent write-up by Helen Day called Self-Service Publishing: Implement With Care which talks about the need to create formal intranet spaces before creating informal “under web” spaces. She emphasizes the need to be strategic in implementing these tools.

    I thank Ted for taking the cynical view: taken as a whole, our comments on this post are building some substantive ideas on when and why one would use wikis in legal practice.

  7. Connie, thanks for mentioning my post on Wikis.

    One library or KM use of wikis in law firms that I think would be interesting to try is a research wiki for associates. A research wiki would

    * Provide a place for associates to ask questions of each other in how to approach a new research question.

    * Serve as a KM warehouse of research ideas

    This type of wiki would also allow librarians to provide direction when needed and would serve as a way of building closer connections with associates who will become partners one day. A strategic move on the libraries part.

    I am curious if anyone thinks this type of wiki would be used?

  8. I think in the right firm culture it could. In a firm where associates are set up as competitors and do not want to show that they do not know something, it may not work. Those associates would be more comfortable going directly to the librarian or trusted colleague.

    But in a firm that has developed a learning culture where people are allowed to ask questions and make mistakes as a means to learning, I think this is a terrific idea. It would allow associates to see how research could be approached. Especially if these same people don’t have time for a regular face to face meeting to cover similar questions. Or, it could be used in conjunction with such a meeting.

    Terrific idea.

  9. I love email, but I HATE email. We all get way too much of it. I feel the same about meetings. Wikis in law firms (like any other organizations) can be effective, but it depends on the people – and their willingness to use them. In my experience, relatively few lawyers will directly participate in a wiki. Wikis seem better suited to the business of law rather than the practice of law. My approach would be to start with the converted: a KM (or other) group that has many projects — large and small — is the perfect petri dish for wikis. I would love to be able to completely abandon email (and almost completely abandon meetings) for the discussion and collaboration on the many different moving parts of my projects. There is no flow and organization to email – no context – unless you’re willing to spend most of your day scrolling through emails and hunting for the forwards and replies.

    As for the DMS vs. Wiki argument, I think that they’re too different and have different purposes to be mutually exclusive. Wiki is the Hawaiian word for “fast.” And speed is the killer feature for a wiki (It’s not collaboration; as Ted, and others, have pointed out, collaboration is achievable with documents in a DMS; but it’s slow and cumbersome). Lawyers’ documents (which reside in a DMS) are anything but fast. And they shouldn’t be. Keep the briefs and merger agreements in the DMS and move the discussion about those documents (and many, many other things) to a wiki.

  10. These are all excellent comments and I appreciate the kindness that people have shown to my (up until now) close-mindness on this topic. Chieftech also picked up on our comments – see here.