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The New Normal

The Lessons of WikiLeaks for Lawyers (It’s Not What You Think)

Posted Dec 7, 2010 2:46 PM CST
By Paul Lippe

Paul Lippe

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

Corrected: Last week’s shocking news that WikiLeaks is publishing as many as 250,000 confidential U.S. State Department cables showed the danger of social media. It is high time that government steps in to regulate this dangerous tool, and also that every company, law firm and government agency impose mandatory training on all employees to prevent these kind of disasters. Thank goodness Virtual LegalTech is hosting an event on the legal dangers of social media.

Or not …

In truth, nothing about the WikiLeaks mess has anything to do with social media, but it doesn’t take much effort to simulate the hubbub and hand-wringing if it did.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is an opportunist and an anarchist. If Assange really believed in openness, he would be leaking cables from the Chinese, Russian and Iranian embassies, not undermining the diplomacy of the most open (and it appears, generally competent) government, the good old U.S. of A.

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia has criticized WikiLeaks and said he wished they were not using the Wiki name. Wikipedia is an excellent model of collaborative editing and publishing to create a highly reliable comprehensive encyclopedia; WikiLeaks isn’t even a real wiki, for heaven sakes! (Wikis are now being used by legal departments and law firms for secure collaboration in a much safer mode than traditional e-mail.)

The leak is alleged to have come from Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is now in military custody. Not one sentence in WikiLeaks was created using social media, and none of it was stored in the “cloud.” WikiLeaks illustrates the vulnerability of all centralized IT systems, not the “dangers of social media.”

Most knowledge workers (e.g., diplomats) will try to describe what’s going on around them in the most vivid way they can, they’ll do so in an electronic format that can be readily transmitted so that others in their professional network can get access to it (and they can get credit for being right), and they’ll write in a way that makes the author seem clever, even perspicacious, and may be annoying to the subject, because in all likelihood there is a gap between what the author communicates publicly to or about the subject and what he or she communicates privately. (The happiest guy around WikiLeaks is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was glad to see Arab leaders’ private comments about the dangers of Iran disclosed publicly.)

So this model doesn’t require high school students, it turns out it involves the Foreign Service as well. Big surprise.

What’s the alternative?

Well it certainly would be better if Bradley Manning hadn’t violated his oath, or if Julian Assange found something better to do with his time. But, it would be naïve to attribute the leak to a few individuals and imagine “but for…” Information is digital. Digital information has velocity. Many pieces of information will exceed the intended audience. As WikiLeaks illustrates, classification systems (e.g., top secret) can often create their own problems. Transparency is a strong force in the universe. Forget Daniel Ellsberg—even Ron Paul has defended WikiLeaks.

On the flip side, check out the story on NPR on Friday about how the Army is using network analysis to track down the folks who plant improvised explosive devices in Baghdad. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, the network is everything, and so network mastery, not network ostrich-ery, is the only viable strategy. Just as “a roadside bomb is never the work of one individual alone,” no legal position is ever the work of one individual alone.

Lawyers should get serious about protecting what matters (client confidences) and stop using straw-man fears of social media as a way to avoid learning something new.

Lawyers can certainly start using encryption on e-mails and managing secure information in the cloud, which would be more reliable than the current methods. But lawyers who can’t work in and among networks or distinguish between real risks and pseudo-risks will face big problems.

Paul Lippe is the founder and CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering. Lippe formerly was an executive at the electronic design automation company Synopsys and later was CEO of Stanford SKOLAR, a medical digital library and e-learning company sponsored by Stanford Medical School.

Last updated Dec. 10 to make revisions and corrections to the original copy. See Paul Lippe’s response at comment No. 19.

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