Business Is A Conversation (Or Clueful Lawyers)

The business of law is a conversation. Are you conversing?

By Erik J. Heels

First published 10/1/2000; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; publisher: American Bar Association.

The web is getting blurry. I don’t know what the web is anymore, where it begins, where it ends. How to define it. E-mail is delivered in HTML format, complete with formatted text, graphics, audio, and video. Meanwhile, websites are providing access to Usenet and e-mail (think Yahoo mail). Televisions and other devices are becoming web-enabled. You can access the web via WebTV (http://www.webtv.com/). Sprint has the “wireless web” in its “cell phones” (if that’s the correct name for them). And IBM recently announced that they have a prototype of a wristwatch that runs the Linux operating system.

Anyone involved in the business of the Internet must find it increasingly difficult to describe – to the uninitiated or to their parents – what they do for a living. Anyone using the Internet to conduct business – either as a provider or a consumer – has probably already begun to take the Internet for granted.

Remember when ATMs became popular? When you realized that you no longer had to plan ahead when and how to get cash for you next business trip? You simply relied on the fact that you could get cash at the ATM at the airport, board the plane with you e-ticket, and be on your way. And now ATMs are becoming web-enabled.

What is e-commerce? It’s commerce. What is e-business? It’s business. What is e-mail. It’s mail. Some companies understand this, others don’t. Here’s how you can tell them apart. Read a company’s mission statement. Remove all the “e-s” from it. If it no longer makes sense, the company does not Get It.

There is an excellent book (and accompanying website) called “The Cluetrain Manifesto” (http://www.cluetrain.com/). The central startling simple revelation in the book is that business is (or should be) a conversation. That customers want to talk with the people behind the faceless corporations. That these conversations are already taking place on the Internet in places like Yahoo stock boards, Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) sessions, and chat rooms. That the conversations are taking place with or without the people behind the corporations. That these conversations are taking place inside of companies as well on unfettered corporate intranets. Some companies are listening – to their employees and to their customers – and some are not. And most importantly – customers are talking with their wallets, employees with their at-will status.

“The Cluetrain Manifesto” by David Weinberger, Rick Levine, and Christopher Locke.

Is your firm listening to its associates? To its potential associates? To its customers? There are lots of conversations going on, with or without you. Want to know what your associates think about your firm? If you have an open intranet where all can publish freely (which would be the exception), you can look there. Or you can look elsewhere, like Greedy Associates (http://www.greedyassociates.com/). Rick and I have been a small part of the conversation about website design in our critical – but painstakingly fair – reviews of law firm websites at http://www.redstreet.com. And more and more companies are filling the gap with opinions about law firms and their services. Companies like ePinions (http://www.epinions.com/) and BizRate (http://www.bizrate.com/) don’t rate law firm services yet, but the key word is “yet.”

The conversation of the business of law is progressing with or without law firms. Increasingly, consumers are turning to other sources to meet their legal needs. Selling their houses themselves, creating their own wills from software, getting tax advice from financial planners. The legal profession can continue to bury its head in the sand about the reality of how the Internet is enabling the conversation (and by conversation, I mean business) of law, or it can do something about it.

When was the last time you talked to your clients? When was the last time you listened? When was the last time you sat down with your junior associates and asked them about their career plans and goals. It costs five times as much to replace an employee (or a client) as it costs to retain him or her. Do the math, have the conversation.

Mission statements are not conversations. Law firm histories are not conversations. Websites that are not interactive are not conversations. Yahoo started out as a directory of other websites. It has evolved into a community where people meet, shop, and talk about everything. What is your website evolving into? What is a website? It is a venue for conversation. More generally, the Internet is a venue for the conversation of business. It doesn’t matter if the conversation occurs on your web-enabled cell phone, ATM machine, HTML-formatted e-mail, or web-based chat group.

Mark Twain said we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. If you talk, they will come. If you listen, they will stay.

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