Jump to Navigation | Jump to Content
American Bar Association

Law Practice Today

Search
Font Size: Increase Font Increase | Decrease Font Decrease    Bookmark:   Bookmark page Print:   Print-friendly page   Email: E-mail This Page   

The Strongest Links

Wikis for the Legal Profession

February 2007

With the increased use of "wiki" in the legal profession, there is a surprisingly great knowledge gap. What is a "wiki" and how can it prove beneficial to my work? From the basic to expansive side of this recent phenomenon, Mighell and Kennedy provide a useful tool of reference and insight.

If you hang around lawyers talking about "Web 2.0" long enough or read our articles, the word "wiki" is eventually bound to pop out. In fact, it's hard to have a discussion about Web 2.0 and the new Internet technologies without discussing wikis; they may be one of the oldest tools of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. It's also a safe bet that few of you reading this article have any real experience with using a wiki, or how a wiki might be useful to the practicing lawyer.

Why should lawyers use wikis? They may help lawyers both as consumers and as producers. Most lawyers will get the most value from using wikis created by others. The classic example is the Wikipedia. Wikis can be seen as constantly updated collections of useful information arranged in an encyclopedic or similarly organized way, with hyperlinks to related internal and external information.

On the producer side, perhaps the greatest potential of the wiki tool for lawyers is its use as a collaborative tool or even an information or knowledge platform, especially as a way to gather and manage "unstructured" information easily and quickly. The key feature of wikis in this regard is that multiple authors and editors are able to work together to create a collection of information or even collaborative documents.

This month The Strongest Links focuses on wikis. We've scoured the Net for some of the best links on wikis -- we'll discuss and point you to resources about what a wiki is and how it works, how to pronounce "wiki," how a lawyer can use one in his or her practice, and how this tool is an extremely powerful platform for collaborating with others on the Internet.

What is a Wiki?

Naturally, we're going to define the "wiki" by starting with probably the best-known, and one of our favorite wiki resources: Wikipedia. At Wiki: "A wiki (. . . WICK-ee or WEE-kee . . .) is a website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove, and otherwise edit and change available content, and typically without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring." (footnote omitted). Wiki also refers to the software, platform or tools used to create wikis. The term is loosely based on a Hawaiian term "wiki-wiki" for "fast" or "faster," and was selected, in part, because of how quickly someone could learn to use the tool.

So, a wiki is a website, external or internal, that lets people add and edit both structured and unstructured content. If you understand that simple concept, you will be able to understand and explore the possibilities of the tool. Most wiki pages have several elements in common, designated by tabs along the top of each page: a main page, a discussion area, a history of all changes, as well as the ability to view the source of the information provided.

Like so many of the Web 2.0 tools, the easiest way to understand wikis is to look at some examples and explore what can be done with wikis. Wikipedia is probably the best starting point for your tour; it currently offers over 1.5 million articles on virtually any imaginable topic. To get the most out of Wikipedia, check out WikiSeek, a new search tool devoted solely to Wikipedia articles.

Wikis are being used in lots of different ways, in different areas. For example, the Campaigns Wiki offers information on political campaigns and elections. Another government-related wiki new to the scene is Wikileaks, which provides a place for people to anonymously leak documents and other information for discussion and analysis. The Zillow Real Estate Wiki (http://www.zillow.com/wiki/RealEstateWiki.htm) allows you to learn the ins and outs of buying and selling real estate while you contribute and share your knowledge with others. And if these wikis make you want to see even more, then check out Wikia (http://www.wikia.com/wiki/Wikia) - it's a collection of wiki communities in topics such as movies, computing, sports, literature, health, and more. Wikis also work well for events and conferences, both for sharing information prior to the event and for collecting notes, pictures and other information after the event, such as in the BlogWalk Wiki. Bill Ives discusses this further and gives some other examples of conference wikis in a recent post on conference wikis.

For you law librarians out there, The Tao of Law Librarianship - Becoming a Wiki Warrior is a must-read - Connie Crosby's introduction to wikis for law librarians offers some great examples and other information, like The Blogging Libraries Wiki.

How Can Lawyers Use Wikis?

People who "get" the idea of wikis start to see uses for them everywhere. Connie Crosby's article mentioned above is a good starting point to see how the legal profession might use wikis. While the number of law-related wikis on the Internet currently may be few, there are a number of sites that demonstrate how lawyers and other legal professionals making use of the wiki model. Be sure to note how often these sites are updated and how "alive" they seem to be; keeping an active wiki going will definitely take a lot of effort and commitment.

One of the first law wikis to debut was Wex, from Cornell Law School. It's like a legal "Wikipedia" - a collaboratively-built, freely available legal dictionary and encyclopedia. Another law library, one that anyone can edit, is found at WikiLaw; it concentrates on U.S. law, with topics ranging from Alternative Dispute Resolution to Wills, Trusts and Estates. And JurisPedia picks up with where WikiLaw leaves off, with a more world-wide coverage of the law. U.K. Lawyer Justen Patten has posted his Human Law Book Wiki (http://humanlaw.pbwiki.com/) in an effort to enlist others to help write his book on blogging and other social media. Lawpedia (http://lawpedia.jot.com/WikiHome) is a seemingly anonymous wiki on Michigan family law. Web 2.0 for Lawyers is a companion to lawyer Patrick Hindert's presentations to the Cincinnati Bar Association on the participative and collaborative aspects of Web 2.0. Finally, take a look at one of Rick Klau's latest projects: creating his Resume as a Wiki (http://www.rklau.com/tins/archives/2006/10/03/resume_as_a_wiki.php) (In fact, the idea intrigued Dennis so much he wrote his own blog post on it).

These links demonstrate the many external uses lawyers can make of the wiki platform. But wikis may be just as powerful, if not more so, when used internally in law firms or companies. Wikis can be created for specific cases or products, or to create and edit a publication, as with the Human Law Book above. The links below will help you get started with your wiki, whether you use it in-house or decide to take it public.

How to Get Started with Wikis

As we mentioned above, keeping a wiki active can take a lot of work -- you will want to consider that carefully before you jump in with a public, or even internal, effort. Each of us can point to examples of projects where wikis did not work out as planned and faded away. But if the previous links leave you wanting to learn more about wikis, read on about what tools are available, how you might use them and how much they cost.

The good news is that many wiki tools and hosted wiki services cost little or nothing, and are built on Open Source software. The bad news is that there are a bewildering number of choices and, from our perspective, no clear tool of choice that is commonly used. Probably the biggest "brand name" in wikis is SocialText, which offers a range of wiki products, especially for the enterprise; the company also recently debuted SocialText Unplugged, a personal wiki tool. We suggest that you start with the very useful WikiMatrix site; it lets you create side-by-side comparisons of many different wiki tools so you can evaluate them and choose the wiki that makes sense for you.

Here are some examples of wiki tools we like:

Wiki Articles and Other Resources

Looking at how other businesses and professions have used wikis will give you some ideas and a good flavor for the pros and cons of this collaboration tool. We'll start with a new book called Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams and its companion website. The book is about as good an all-in-one-place starting point on wikis, their business uses, economics, and the opportunities of collaborative tools as you will now be able to find. Another good starting point is Troy Angrignon's list of resources on corporate wikis. We've found also the following articles to be useful in helping us think about wikis.

Podcasts

In recognition of the growing availability and usefulness of podcasts and other forms of audio and video becoming available on the Internet, we wanted to point to a few podcasts about wikis that serve as excellent introductions to the topic.

Jon Udell's Interview of Ross Mayfield on Enterprise Wikis - Mayfield is the CEO of SocialText and can explain wikis in a clear and understandable way. Mayfield also talks about developments in wikis in a recent IT Conversations podcast.

Amy Gahran, Why Wikis are Cool - Gahran's podcast captures the enthusiasm many people have about wikis and is an excellent introduction.

Will lawyers adopt wikis? Do they make sense for your practice? At this point, we expect most lawyers will use wikis as consumers, relying on collections built by others. Although wikis are not difficult to learn or use, building them requires more "techie" involvement than most lawyers will want to invest. On the other hand, wikis lend themselves well to the creation of legal knowledge bases, research collections, and other collaborative projects that lawyers have long sought to create for their firms or clients.

Is there a wiki in your future? Wikis offer a platform that fits well with the types of information and knowledge collections lawyers like to create. Of the Web 2.0 tools currently available, wikis have a long history and good examples of success and failure. We think they're a tool you will want to learn about and, for certain lawyers, firms, and especially law librarians, may be just the tool you need..

About the Author

Dennis Kennedy is a technology lawyer, legal technology consultant, and well-known blogger based in St. Louis, Missouri. An award-winning author and frequent speaker, Dennis has written extensively on the technology of electronic discovery and co-authors the "Thinking E-Discovery" column at DiscoveryResources.org. His website and blog are well-regarded resources on legal technology and electronic discovery topics. He is a member of the Council of the ABA's Law Practice Management Section and the Webzine Board.   He podcasts with Tom Mighell about legal technology, with a focus on the Internet, in The Kennedy-Mighell Report.

About the Author

Tom Mighell is Senior Counsel and Litigation Technology Support Coordinator a Cowles & Thompson in Dallas.  He publishes the Internet legal research and technology weblog Inter Alia , and is the current Chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2008.  He and Dennis Kennedy talk about legal technology, with a focus on the Internet, in The Kennedy-Mighell Report .