Open Source in the Law Firm

I’ve written a short article on open source opportunities in law firms looking for a content management application. Specifically, the article in the April 2010 Law Technology News talks about Web content management, like Drupal, Plone (booyah), and Alfresco, and document management. Monica Bay, the editor of Law Technology News and blogger at The Common Scold, interviewed me about open source for a podcast.

First, the links:  Rethink Open Source article in the April 2010 Law Technology News.  The podcast is about the first ten minutes of this Rethink Open Source and Green Legal Matters interview, where Monica Bay interviews Tom O’Connor about the Green Legal Matters conference in New Orleans.

I was spurred to write about open source content management not just because I’m a huge believer in it – I have run this site on Plone for nearly 10 years and spent a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and curse words on it, but I have also implemented Joomla sites – but also because it’s clearly a missed opportunity.  I was recently involved in a Web content management system process that involved only the top applications as identified by Gartner’s magic quadrant.  Which is not to say that they weren’t identified through a thoughtful process, but the omission of certain leading open source options may have more to do with revenue than features.  It’s not that open source is always the answer, but I think most law firms and many businesses (especially those with 500 employees or fewer) should certainly be looking at the open source world as a comparison point.

One argument I heard against considering open source was that it was “second rate”.  But after sitting through numerous vendor demonstrations, I don’t think it’s true that there is a significant gulf between open source and proprietary Web content management systems.  There was one product that was so awful that I was embarrassed for the team showing it off, because it was so clearly lacking in functionality.  What was apparent was that open source and proprietary products often excelled in particular ways, but neither was always going to be on top.  If you are doing an RFP or evaluation of these systems, taking into account the nuances in open source in the same way you do with proprietary may be a huge value to your organization.

Another argument I heard was that there was no support.  Which is why the tack of both my article at Law Technology News and a blog posting on the Slaw blog about open source desktop operating systems reflect this feature.  You can now purchase support from a number of companies who support a particular open source product, whether it’s Red Hat’s Linux or Acquia and Drupal.  There is also the “open core” world, where the core is left in the community and the enhanced version (as with Al Fresco or OpenKM) is only available to paying customers.  Either way, there can be applications in which your open source application is supported in comparable ways to proprietary software.

An aspect of proprietary software that has always killed me is the ongoing maintenance fees.  I completely understand the need for the fees, for companies who develop software to be able to continue to develop it.  But what I find frustrating is when I am paying maintenance fees (perhaps per server or per CPU) and not seeing any improvement in the product I am using.  The opportunity that open source offers is for you to forego those maintenance costs, and invest that money instead in your own people so that they can contribute to the open source community.  I think there are opportunities for cost savings there, but even if you don’t save money, having that expense going into staff development rather than a sunk project cost for a company that may not be providing any commensurate value seems a better use for the money.