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Collegiality is often viewed as a defining hallmark of a felicitous legal career. With the advent of virtual offices and the tethering of humanity to Internet devices, though, much of what made for traditional law firm interaction has vanished from the scene like a meteor-struck Yucatan dinosaur. What if there was a way to bring it back (even expand it), by using the very same technologies that served to rot out the personality of professionalism in the first place?
Well, Mootus, a question-and-answer service for lawyers, is making the attempt.
Mootus — named for the concept of the moot = simulated court argument, and not mootness (that would be bad) — may answer the question: What would it be like to discuss a legal position taken with thousands of other attorneys? Acquiring that breadth of opinion should allow the querying attorney to source the “best” (or, at least, “most popular” answer). Anyway, Mootus hopes it would. By offering users a chance to potentially commiserate with countless other lawyers in the world, Mootus represents a universal collegial space, the likes of which has never before been rendered so formally.
At base, Mootus seeks to capitalize on the expanding popularity of Q&A sites like Quora and similar legal sites like LawPivot, and, to a lesser extent, Avvo. Mootus’ twist on the genre is that it is a space designed for lawyers to discuss issues of precedent.
The operation of Mootus is fairly straightforward. Questions are either purchased (for $100 each) or proposed (for free; but, the site editors determine whether the query is posted, based on relevance, uniqueness and other factors). Once User A has purchased a question, Users B through n answer; Users B through n vote for the answers as “On Point,” or “Off Base.” (You pay for questions; responses, comments and votes are free — though tiered pricing packages are being developed.)
Purportedly correct answers (those with the most up votes) rise in the queue, while purportedly incorrect answers (those with the most down votes) sink.
Queries and responses are limited to 200 characters plus citation to a court case; each answer must be tied to a case citation to provide an objectively verifiable source for the basis of the user’s opinion.
Users can create personal archives or libraries for specific issues, and can filter for queries they’ve submitted, answered or followed.
Mootus’ “Argue Issue” tool allows its users to vote or comment on discussion chains — again within that character limitation.
User accounts are associated with profiles. Profiles default to private (though they can be toggled to public), making Mootus a presumptively anonymous (to the extent that’s possible online for non-dogs) way to float ideas before running after them. For those so inclined, user profiles are made up of a bio, status and stats and portfolio (basically a recapture of the user’s activity on the service).
Of course, since this is 2013 (for the time being), no one is willing to do anything unless they get to play a game while doing it. (I blame Farmville.) So, naturally, there are some gamification aspects. Users progress through five levels based on their total contribution to the site. The ranking is based on quantity and quality, and represents aspects that are both user-dependent and user-independent. A user’s sheer number of responses and votes counts (quantity, user-dependent); but so do the up votes that a user receives (quality, user-independent).
Sometimes, I say “Beer Me,” even when all I want is a compact disc; then, sometimes people say “Beer Me strength.” Will you be saying “Moot Me”? (Okay, Moot Us.) Here’s a recitation of pros and cons, to help you decide.
Mootus co-founder Adam Ziegler partnered with a programmer and developer to create Mootus. These guys sank some start-up capital into the user interface, and it shows. Mootus has a very clean design, and it’s easy to figure out how to leverage all of the major components. The site’s not fully optimized for mobile yet; but that’s coming like winter. The brevity required of Mootus users represents the right touch for modern attention spans.
Nobody’s really into being convinced they’re on a listserv anymore; the vogue is instead to join online groups of certain enumerations (that are just like listservs — or that are used in that way, at least). But popular listservs (like the ABA’s SoloSez) remain popular for a reason: They’re professional development drivers; they’re safe places for lawyers to pitch ideas and to respond to submissions. They’re the virtual “members only” jackets of attorneys. Still, it seems like there should be something cooler than listservs, and something more inherently functional than LinkedIn groups, which often degenerate into link-posting competitions for marketers. Well, Mootus, if nothing else, is a fresh take on the lawyer’s listserv, but one that requires actually constructive discussion out of participants.
That sounds like the best of both worlds to me; just ask old Miley Cyrus. If true, then this means that Mootus is one of the more powerful professional development engines lately created for attorneys. While Mootus could be construed as a delivery mechanism for legal advice online, under its conceived use regime, it’s more like a personalized legal knowledge base for attorneys; it’s more personalized professional development than professional personalized marketing.
Of course, it’s not all iron and wine for Mootusers. (See what I did there?) Although the site presumes to grade out user responses based on quality, the notion of quality presumes the competence of the users. If someone is wrong and a simple majority of others support their wrongheaded notions, it doesn’t make that person any less wrong. So, while Mootus does provide objectively verifiable information about a user’s position (the case cite), there’s no objective criteria within the Mootus universe for ranking the correctness of the notion attached to the citation. However, this is an inherent flaw in all crowdsourcing platforms; and, my sense is that most users of Mootus will likely be aware of this built-in limitation, and will use the product accordingly.
Mootus users link to case law (and soon, statutes and regulations, too) to support their statements. As of this writing, though, there’s no linking to law reviews or other secondary sources, which would help provide a wider view as to the question of law. Users must link out to all case information, short of citations referenced; there are no flags for caution within Mootus itself, as you would find within a traditional research engine. (Of course, this could be remedied via integration with a legal research provider.)
So, when you’re using Mootus, you’re dealing with a self-contained interface. You’ll need to open at least one other website (and probably more) to really make this hum. Also, because Mootus is anonymous if you wish it to be, there aren’t necessarily flags (and certainly not prominent ones) for positions offered by disbarred lawyers, or those with misconduct records, even extensive ones.
Overall, one major drawback to Mootus, in its current incarnation, is that it lacks internalized context; naked responses don’t necessarily trace the full outline of an issue, or its purveyor. Given the anonymity offered, you wouldn’t know, to any degree of certainty, with whom you’re hashing out arguments. Of course, this issue is not unique to Mootus. And as far as depth of response is concerned, lawyers should apply due care respecting confidential information on any semi-public forum — it’s just that most of those forums require some form of public-facing identification, and Mootus does not, necessarily. It’s a Gordian Knot, to be sure — and so, it can begin to become untied. Some of these issues are inherent in the nature of the Mootus platform (crowdsourcing, even if it offers the shadow of orthodoxy, can never promise correctness), while others can be resolved (profile links to law firm bios remove guesswork — and anonymity, sure).
Pros and cons respecting Mootus will be resolved through the actual use that the product gets in real-world scenarios; and, this is where we remove ourselves from theoretical exercise.
Is Mootus an internal think tank for large law firms, where attorneys would otherwise actually have to walk up or down stairs to source opinions of their colleagues?
Is it an in-office social network for midsize firms, whereon attorneys are limited to substantive discussion? (Yammer, for serious.)
Is it another professional development and marketing hybrid for solo and small firms lawyers, as it features the twin siren calls of public-facing profiles and non-attorney users?
Could it be any of those things, across any of those law firm categories? Well, sure. Mootus, in essence, remains a reflection of its program logic. It’s a question to which attorneys will complete the answer. It’s a flexible platform that will be rediscovered through each use. And, if the measure of a start-up is its potential future utility to law firms, Mootus carries with it much promise.
Follow Jared @jaredcorreia.
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