Christopher Whelan was dubious about the merits of a partnership with the commercial world, until he joined the advisory panel of an internet firm.
It does not take a rocket scientist to know that the academic and business worlds do not always marry well. The collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 was a timely and costly reminder that academic success - even winning a Nobel prize for economics - is no guarantee of commercial success. Robert Merton and Myron Scholes won the prize in 1997 for their work on derivatives and the management of financial risk. Only one year later, as Thomas Friedman put it, they won the booby prize when they discovered that the only predictable thing about the market is its unpredictability.
Of course, not many businesses are so dependent on the quality of academic advice. Or at least that is what I assumed when I was invited to join the academic advisory panel of a dotcom start-up company last year. On the other hand, given the fragility of new-technology companies, perhaps it needed all the help it could get.
The company was Judicium Ltd, a legal internet portal, and the invitation came from Alex Mehta. He had been a doctoral student at Oxford's Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, an interdisciplinary research centre I had been affiliated to since the 1970s. Alex had qualified as a barrister and was the legal director of Judicium.
I agreed to join, on the basis of doing "as much or as little as I liked". As an adviser, of course, there was no risk - at least to me - only the intellectual challenge and, should the project succeed, the prospect of modest remuneration. In fact, the lack of upfront spending - advisers do not get paid - is one of the more unusual and promising features that distinguishes this company from many other dotcom start-ups.
Joining has provided an opportunity to observe not only the evolution of an internet company, but how academics and academic ways of thinking can add value to a new business. Interestingly, it is the very newness of the internet business that gives academic input more promise and value. While last year dotcoms burned through millions of pounds, even though they were advised by all manner of e-commerce experts, today there is a growing realisation among dotcom leaders that there is no expertise about the internet, just different degrees of ignorance.
Several factors influenced my decision to join. The key one was the company itself. Judicium runs three law-related businesses, with several more in the pipeline. Many of these link to research I have done as a legal academic over the past 25 years. I knew that the main business, www.freelawyer.co.uk, might go some way to addressing one of the perennial problems in the legal system: how to deliver affordable legal services to ordinary people.
Freelawyer offers instant tailor-made legal information free of charge via the internet. The user chooses an inquiry, ranging from noisy neighbours or unfair dismissal to parking fines or speeding. They are then given recommendations - including guidance on where to find specialist solicitors in their area should legal action be required.
Freelawyer also offers a free legal estimates service. Users can post their legal needs on the site. Law firms then bid for the business, leaving the user free to choose whichever price they prefer.
In addition to freelawyer, Judicium operates esettle.co.uk, an online claims resolution service to be piloted by several insurance companies including Zurich Municipal, Eagle Star, NFU Mutual and AIG Europe.
The third site, recently launched, is called LegalShop. It is designed to provide transparent legal products for set prices. It will be interesting to see how off-the-shelf, pre-packaged legal solutions affect the cost of legal services for ordinary people.
Judicium plans to expand and has bought into its French counterpart, misterdroit.com.
Other factors influencing my decision to join were the range of experts on the management team and a business plan that has won backing from big business.
So how are the members of the academic advisory panel going to help this business? One thing is clear: unlike LTCM, the academics do not drive the business. Nor does the business drive the academics - we are not consultants doing work specified by the management. Actually, it is a two-way relationship in which the management team does the business and the advisory team does the academics.
The advisory panel has three other legal academics - Bob Lee (Cardiff University), John Flood (Westminster University) and Peter Robson (Strathclyde University) - and an expert in artificial intelligence and computational logic - Marek Serget (Imperial College, London). Others may join. We discuss and critique the various businesses, offer technical and practical assistance and brainstorm. We can do as much or as little as we like; while our offers to help are welcomed, there is no pressure to do more.
One of my first tasks as an adviser was to research legal websites in the United States. Using networks of American colleagues, I identified about 300 sites, some of which provided ideas on how to develop the business. I continue to monitor developments there.
Academic freedom in a commercial world might strike some as a kind of oxymoron - or at least a business luxury - but it seems to have paid dividends. The panel has not only advised on proposals and helped with technical matters, it has also dreamt up original ideas that management has adopted.
This fusion of corporate decision-makers, law and academia is unusual, but the partnership appears to be working. Real Business magazine recently voted freelawyer one of the top 50 UK businesses to watch; Net magazine put it alongside Yahoo, Google and CNN.com as one of the top 18 websites in the world, the only British start-up to make it.
Christopher J. Whelan is associate director, international law programmes, University of Oxford.