Three Benefits of Open Source Legal Docs

In my last post, I discussed how open-source software could potentially be used as an alternative to expensive TAR platforms or, even worse, teams of associate attorneys to review and organize large bodies of documents. Open source principles are not, however, limited to software or computers. In fact, “the concept of free sharing of technological information existed long before computers. For example, cooking recipes have been shared and remixed since the beginning of human culture.” So it should come as no surprise that organizations are applying open source principles to disciplines beyond software and computers.

The legal industry, despite its often cited resistance to change, is no exception.

GitHub’s logo

Take Fenwick & West, the Am Law 200, Mountain View-based law firm, which specializes in providing legal services to hi-tech clients in emerging industries. More specifically, Fenwick & West provides free online early stage funding documents, which are posted to GitHub, a web-based platform and storage space for collaborative works (generally programming projects). Fenwick & West originally released Series Seed documents in 2010, which have since been used by several companies and startups. The documents can be accessed here.

Fenwick & West aren’t alone in this endeavor. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto-based firm, also provides open source convertible equity documents, which can be downloaded and used for free (thanks to Joel Jacobson for the tip). So what does the emergence and provision of open source documents mean for the delivery of legal services?

In my mind, law firms, no matter what size, that take the initiative to create and provide open source documents reap three important and distinct benefits:

(1) Expertise

Open source is as much of a culture as it is an ideal. By posting open source documents on GitHub, which is one of the not-so secret clubhouses of software developers everywhere, a law firm is basically saying, “I get it.” In other words, a law firm like Fenick & West is directly participating in the communities that their clients and potential clients are a part of. Moreover, if a client is seeking assistance with say, an open source warranty, licensing agreement, or the acquisition of an open source organization, the firm that actually uses open source in its practice is likely a more attractive choice for representation in comparison to the firm that advertises open source expertise, but does not practice by it.

(2) Client Empowerment

In addition to conveying expertise, firms that provide free and open source documentation are empowering the client. Instead of paying an associate by the hour to draft up Series Seed documents that the firm already has in template form, a firm can simply make these documents available for free. Thus, the client or potential client can do this work on their own. I think the idea here is that if a potential client has questions about the document or needs counseling with more complex matters, who are they most likely to turn to? The firm that provided the *free* document, or the firm that did not? This not only empowers clients, but is a step in solving clients’ often cited “more-for-less” challenge. This is especially true with nascent startups, whose legal needs may not seem important enough to rationalize procuring a law firm for work that can otherwise be found online.

(3) Collaboration

The final major benefit, that I can see, with open source legal documents is collaboration. This one is probably a long-term benefit. In the future, companies (I’m thinking GCs) will expect legal service providers to work more collaboratively on issues, especially when it comes to standardized documentation. Open source platforms or projects will provide an excellent mode for collaboration between firms and providers, which again, gets at the more-for-less challenge. This is where firms who initiate open source projects and document sets would see the greatest reward because I imagine that the initiating firm would be the quarterback of the project, or at least get their name at the top of the list of contributors. Further, this should foster higher-quality legal documents, as two (or hundreds) of contributors are better than one!

These ideas are a bit rough and certainly need refinement, but I think the point remains: Firms that provide open source documents to clients and potential clients are not only conveying expertise in the space, but also getting at the heart of most clients’ biggest problem: How can we get more-for-less?


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