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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
July 2014 | VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
Crowdsourcing and Work Synergies
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»Teaching Legal Research to the Google Generation
»Paying Attention to the Canaries in KM's Mineshaft
»Law Firm Space Planning as a Knowledge Management Strategy
»Crowdsourcing and Work Synergies
»Big Law: Big Data
»Managing Risk Disruption Through Internal Risk Structures: An interview with Donald Caputo, Chief Internal Auditor, Shearman & Sterling
»Risk Avoidance through Succession Planning
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Crowdsourcing and Work SynergiesElaine M. Egan, Manager, Libraries and Information Centers—Americas, Shearman & Sterling, LLP, New York, NY
Crowdsourcing can offer opportunities for improving the greater sum of an individual's separate contribution through a distributed workforce by completing complex and discrete tasks on demand. This article touches upon the business values and challenges of crowdsourcing and crowd working generally, while highlighting how the practice of law may secure value and understand underlying risks.

Crowdsourcing is a very real business concept. Definitions vary, but essentially the idea is to tap into the broader collective intelligence of a cohort or group to perform needed services, develop ideas, and create content through contributions in the social community, thus eliminating the need for traditional employees or suppliers. The success of Wikipedia is a perfect example. Why hire writers and editors and invest in an infrastructure when you can give a crowd the ability to develop an online encyclopedia, some say the most comprehensive encyclopedia in the world?

But what does that mean for the way we work? It seems this change will be radical in the near future. What we know, who we know, how we gather information, and utilize resources influence our everyday work life. Therefore, it isn't any surprise that volunteer-based crowdsourcing has turned into an industry of crowd workers. This type of work has a wide range of skill, pay levels, and hierarchies. Anyone with access to the Internet can contribute to a task through a myriad of crowd working platforms, such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk® or a more professionally oriented crowd work platform such as ODesk®.

Not all jobs or projects are ideal for this concept, but usually there are segments of a job that can be distributed to the crowd. As crowdsourcing becomes more commonplace, people are beginning to understand the basic idea of giving tasks to the masses who are interested in participating and shaping the outcome of a project. But there is the potential of crowd work diminishing outcomes through the loss of communication channels, nontraditional workspaces, trust, intellectual property rights, stagnant and undeveloped skills, and lack of motivation.

In corporations or formal work environments there is very real opportunity to open the power of crowdsourcing internally. Corporations with millions of employees have the most at stake in work efficiencies yet still seem hesitant to embrace this work model. Historically, these work environments were leaders in efficiency work models such as the adoption of Frederick W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management, focusing on job fragmentation and time and motion theory. But today it is nontraditional organizations driving the value of work models like crowdsourcing through social and entrepreneurial channels.

From a practical standpoint, crowdsourcing can be deployed within an organization's internal business "social" network by leveraging flexible workforces, systematizing related work, and scaling up or down throughout a project. Internal project owners would invite individuals or groups to participate in projects they would like to work on, thereby encouraging employees to learn new skills and to contribute beyond their current roles. Value systems and task hierarchies could be applied to each task and project, contributing to organizational productivity, and stretching assignments for team and individual advancement.

Since social networks fuel crowdsourcing, can it gain inroads in the legal industry where legal ethics regulators are paying close attention to what legal professionals are doing with social media? After all, crowdsourcing involves seeking input or advice from a large group, relying on their collective wisdom and experience.

Even the most experienced lawyer can be overwhelmed by the amount of research, case law, and the number of tasks required to manage a client matter successfully. A good argument can be made that the increasing commitment to knowledge management, experience management systems, and legal project management are based on this very idea of crowdsourcing. The prevalence of collaboration in the legal industry is aligned with the openness of crowdsourcing. By harnessing the power of social sharing, the rigor of research and problem solving, crowdsourcing allows new lawyers to tap into the wisdom of a seasoned attorney.

Combining these aspects in the legal industry to good effect are two examples of social legal disruptors. Mootus® ( is a social platform developed by Adam Ziegler and Jeff Schneller whose primary message seems to be "legal research should be iterative, not redundant." Mootus users submit issues for argument and the crowd then determines if citations are "on point" or support the argument. It is a way for law students and lawyers to practice effective skills in arguing their case. Casetext (, developed by Jake Heller and Joanna Huey and launched in 2013, is unique for its content, but users can also add descriptions and annotations to the cases.

The legal industry, like any business considering the long-term ramifications of crowdsourcing, will need to review privacy, security, reputation, and intellectual property concerns, not to mention decide what might constitute legal advice by the crowd. But harnessing the power of the crowd in any organization develops a culture of collaboration, unlocking knowledge, creativity, potential, and efficiencies that deliver a competitive advantage.

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