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Features - Law Firm Intranets: "It's About the Content"

By Richard E. Camacho, Published on May 31, 1999

Richard E. Camacho is an Applications Consultant with Lexis-Nexis in New York, NY.  He is the developer of the Lexis-Nexis New York Intranet Knowledge Base.  Prior to joining Lexis-Nexis, Mr. Camacho worked in the financial services sector in New York.

(Archived July 1, 1999)


So You Need to Build an Intranet

Since the focus of this article will deal with an already operational Intranet, I have included a series of sites at the end as a starting place for the types of issues that must be predetermined out prior to beginning this task.

You have implemented the law firms intranet.  "Now What"?

Once all the initial testing has been completed and the intranet has been released to the firm, you anxiously await the tidal wave of users to visit the site everyday like a proud parent who has sent their child to school. Yet after the first few weeks of initial traffic (generated mainly out of curiosity by the end users and several firm wide e-mail announcements), the number of hits begin to slide. What’s going on? Suddenly a quiet sense of panic begins to set in.  "Did we just spend $50,000 to $100,000 dollars to build an intranet that nobody will really utilize." Yikes!

Invariably, in most early iterations of a law firm intranet, the dominant content has an administrative bias. For example, firm policies and procedures, forms from the human resources department on medical benefits,  retirement and vacation data, are often available at the onset. Not far behind are attorney directories, marketing pieces, firm events and cafeteria menus.

The site looks great, its fast, and every attorney has desktop access.  So why aren’t they using it? The answer is very simple.  Ask yourself this question: "How does the intranet help the attorneys answer the client related questions." If the system cannot do so, then attorneys have no reason to look at the site on a weekly basis, let alone a daily basis.

In order to avoid this common pitfall, one of the keys to a successful implementation is for both the IS department and the firm's research professionals to collaborate as early as possible on design, content and the functionality of the intranet.

This type of partnership is extremely logical.  IS has the expertise in hardware and software purchasing and implementation, and the research professionals have the expertise in the revenue generating needs of the attorneys, i.e., content.  In addition, the research professionals have access to a national network of professionals through such vehicles as AALL, SLA and LawLib, to develop and implement content for the attorneys. When these two groups come work effectively together, the value of the intranet to the attorney increases dramatically.

The Law Firm Portal

Since the goal is to provide attorneys with a reason to visit the intranet everyday, it is useful to think of the intranet as a portal, and not as another internal system or Web site.

"The definition of a portal and the technology to make it happen are something of a moving target. What differentiates portals from their simpler relatives, say users busy working out the details, is there ability to incorporate data from multiple sources in multiple formats and organize it into a single, easy-to-use menu. Portals may incorporate triggers that alert users when new information arrives."   "How you differentiate it from a Web site is really a method of categorization," says Parrish Arturi, VP of channel development at First UnionCorp. in Charlotte, N.C. "The first step is aggregating your basic sources of information, then adding navigation and structure and more information."1

The idea is that the attorney comes to work on Monday morning, switches on his or her computer, and logs into the equivalent of "My Yahoo" and everything the attorney needs to do his or her job will be there.2

Where’s and What’s the Beef

So if I’m to think of our law firm intranet as a portal, what content do I need to include? How should I organize the information? What tools will the attorneys need? Are there vendors out there that are willing to help?

This is where the information/research professionals can really add tremendous value to the design and on-going enhancements of the law firm Intranet, as they can answer most of these questions today.

Content & Structure

Lets first address the two components of content and structure, as they go hand in hand. When designing your intranet, think niche segmentation. What I mean by this is that each of the firm's practice areas must have their own intranet page. The practice area pages should contain links to research content for materials that specifically assist the attorney in relation to client questions. For example, a Tax Practice page would include: links to numerous state and federal Web sites for such content as IRS tax forms, FASB rules, GASB rules and AICPA information. Vendors, such as Lexis-Nexis, can deliver content like: Shepard’s, IRS materials, case law, Tax Notes Today & State Tax Notes, directly to the intranet. Others vendors like BNA, WestGroup and CCH are also delivering dynamic content directly to practice area pages.

Once the pages are created, make sure that a mechanism is created to capture requests by attorneys for URL suggestions, and feedback for the type of information they would like to see on their practice area page. The more ownership the attorneys have for the page, the more traffic will be generated.

Customizing Content

Shortly after you identify and link the tremendous amount of research material available on the Web, and from vendors (one major New York law firm has incorporated over 4,000 research links into their Intranet), the challenge for the attorney will be to locate the specific sources they require. This is where early collaboration between IS and the research professionals can make a difference.

When designing the intranet, think about creating pages for: daily news, client tracking, periodicals, practice area current awareness, work product search and retrieval, firm success and recognition, new law reviews and journals with a table of contents. In addition, remain open to feedback from the attorneys for unique elements to be added for each of the practice areas. (For example: paralegals on nightshifts, visiting attorney’s etc.)

Daily News

This area of the intranet could include links to CNN, MSNBC, USA Today, LJX, The National Law Journal, PR Newswire, Business Wire and local newspapers, to name a few.  This page will be especially helpful on days when breaking news is occurring that could impact clients of the firm.

Client Tracking

Since driving traffic to the intranet is a primary goal, one of the best applications that can be included is a client tracking daily alert. Since attorneys are eager to know what is happening to their clients prior to receiving a call from that client, this type of data becomes invaluable. Lexis-Nexis for example can deliver customized information on clients from its warehouse of over 5,000 news and information sources. The value here is that a string of clients can be included in a single search with only the most important ones distinguished with a separate URL as a subset on the intranet.

Periodicals

Numerous publications are available on Web sites and commercial vendors to post on intranets, either for free or at a nominal monthly charge. The advantage is providing publications to all attorneys simultaneously, rather than relying on routing lists that make take several days for the publication to work its way through the list of recipients. BNA, WestGroup and Lexis-Nexis are a good source for specialty publications for legal intranets.

Practice Area Current Awareness

Similar to the client tracking and periodicals functions, another application that can be included is a current awareness electronic search. Since it is important that attorneys remain current in their respective fields, this type of tool could augment their current set of resources. In addition to some of the Web portal tracking tools from Yahoo or Excite, Lexis-Nexis can develop and deliver customized practice area searches to deliver practice specific current awareness information. The value here is delivering the latest information on the issues your attorneys care most about today, through the intranet.

The Intranet is Never Finished

Keep in mind that the intranet will always be a work in process. The individual needs of the end users, whether it be for HR forms, No Action letters from the SEC, or the soup of the day, can seamlessly and cost effectively be delivered via the intranet. The key again is for both the IS department and the research professionals to work together and contribute their respective expertise in the design and administration of the law firm's intranet.

Obviously, the possibilities for page segmentation in a law firm portal are endless. The focus of the intranet should remain on the end users: partners, associates, legal assistants, research professionals, as well as support and administrative staff, and how they will benefit from the content.

In closing, continually ask yourself:

"How does the intranet help the attorneys answer their client's questions?"

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Footnotes

  1. InformationWeek, February 8, 1999 SECTION: Top of the Week, Pg. 18, and Cover Story.
    HEADLINE: Data Gateway -- Businesses Are Adopting The Web Portal Model As A Way of Transforming Intranets into More Powerful Data-Delivery Platforms.
    BYLINE: Clinton Wilder, Beth Davis, and Gregory Dalton. <back to text>

  2. Ibid. <back to text>

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Sources Used to Develop This Article