Roger Skalbeck is the Electronic Initiatives Librarian at Howrey & Simon in Washington, D.C., and is the Assistant Chair for the Web Committee of the Law Librarian's Society of Washington, D.C. Current work activities cover myriad aspects of electronic research resource evaluation, intranet-based legal practice content development, as well as research and technology training, all from a librarian's point of view.
(Archived June 15, 1999)
Lexis-Nexis recently launched Intranet Solutions to provide a variety of content selection and access tools for webmasters, web editors and all kinds of intranet content providers. The great news is that this innovative Internet-based service allows you to pick and choose between solid, trusted and proven database resources and provide seamless access on your own intranet, through any standard web browser. You can pull out, annotate and customize features and options as much as you see fit for those who need access to databases and documents on Lexis. The impressive Intranet Solutions service automates, and expands upon the earlier Research Linking options, providing a feature-rich user interface and added functionality.
The Lexis-Nexis Intranet Solutions product is fully accessible on the web, and there is no software to install. In order to use Intranet Solutions, you need only a current and valid Lexis-Nexis ID, a higher-end web browser, and of course access to the Internet. There is no charge for creating pages using this service, but it's important to realize that you will incur a search charge for checking out any of the links you create once you log on to Lexis.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should emphasize that I acquired my initial exposure to Intranet Solutions as part of Howrey & Simon's on-going technology and legal research partnership with Lexis-Nexis. In fact, Howrey & Simon helped Lexis-Nexis launch Intranet Solutions by demonstrating the firm's implementation of this new product at last month's ABA TechShow in Chicago. For a review of a competing product, as well as a comprehensive overview of this new class of intranet content development tools, see Susan Charkes' review of West's Intranet Toolkit, available here on LLRX.
In the following review, I attempt to provide my objective assessment of the functionality and technology issues confronted in handling the first known law firm implementation of Intranet Solutions on an intranet.
Intranet Solutions Functionality and Implementation Ideas
As I see it, there are at least three major areas in which new content presentation and enablement tools such as the Lexis-Nexis Intranet Solutions will provide information professionals and webmasters with new functionality and ways of thinking about and dealing with electronic content for their users. I will present each of these areas separately, along with information on how the Intranet Solutions product can be used to implement them. The areas to be covered are as follows:
- Practice-oriented research resources
- Current awareness and update searching
- Provision of annotated and contextualized electronic content
In closing, I will look at some technical issues posed by Intranet Solutions, including general strengths and weaknesses, in addition to a look to the future of enabling intranets for access to fee-based documents and databases.
Practice-Specific Research Resources
From an organizational and research standpoint, legal issues are very often framed around specific practice-oriented groupings. Your firm might have an intellectual property practice group, you could have a legal issue involving antitrust concerns, or you might be working on a securities case or transaction. When the research need arises in any of these instances, a centralized collection of materials on that subject area will assist you in getting what you need. In the world of electronic resources and hyperlinked intranet environments, these materials can easily be collected together on intranet pages, irrespective of whether the linked materials are primary laws, treatises, hornbooks, law reviews or general news resources. If this collection is logical and straightforward in presentation, you can streamline the research process and direct users to targeted and focused collections.
With the Lexis-Nexis Intranet Solutions product, you have essentially two options for obtaining practice-specific pages for use on an intranet. You can either download one of their existing ones, piece them together based on customizable elements of the service. In the "Practice Areas" section of Intranet Solutions, Lexis currently offers 17 practice-specific pages, which you can download individually or as a group for immediate inclusion on a site. These pages are attractive and uniform, and cover major practice areas, generally oriented towards the practice library names on Lexis. These pages include each of the customizable options and variable elements available within the Intranet Solutions framework, and are oriented towards likely configurations of broad legal topic areas.
If you want to customize your own pages, you are most likely to use some combination of their services: Quick Searches (pictured in the left column), Research Links (implemented in the top right) and Search Forms (which are linked in the right column and included in the second figure). In order to best understand the difference between these, a summary of their features follows.
Using an intuitive and user-friendly interface on Lexis-Nexis, the Quick Search option allows you to create forms-based search templates for searching databases and retrieving and/or updating citations (LEXSEE, LEXSTAT, Shepard's, AutoCite). For building the forms, you walk through a series of steps to select the type of form you want to build, customize labels and descriptive text, and choose the source databases that you want to be able to search from the given form. The entire process is relatively intuitive and non-technical, and the source selection process is especially useful. You select sources by paging through the hierarchies of available libraries and files on Lexis-Nexis Xchange, and they are built into drop-down lists based on their actual database names (as opposed to requiring abbreviated library/file name such as: NEWS;LGLTME).
These quick search forms are allow you to customize and collocate the databases from any of the possible Lexis-Nexis files, so that searchers are not required to identify the library and file names for desired resources. This search form limits you to a single search field, but for advanced and experienced users, complex queries using segment names, date restrictions and/or nested boolean commands can still be used. Also, for those who prefer an alternative to boolean searching, you can build quick search forms to allow users to submit FREESTYLE searches.
In providing quick search forms on the pre-formatted pages, Lexis has done a good job in grouping source material types (cases, statutes, news files, etc.). If your practice is more specific, or if you want to guide your users towards more directed, practice-focused resources, there are few limitations to the nature of items that can be included.
Under the "Research Links" heading, Lexis allows you the option to create links based around pre-formatted searches. The three basic options are "Search by terms", "Get a document" and "Check a citation". The idea is to build a link that will execute a search or document link to the Lexis-Nexis Xchange service without having to formulate what you need every time you run a search. You can choose to build any number of customized links, including:
- a pre-formatted news search to track recent stories about a client or competitor
- an agency search for the most recent Consumer Product Safety Commission announcements
- a caselaw search for new topical cases within a previous number of days, weeks or months
- a link to a known document, case or case update option
The advantage to these kinds of links is that you can enable searches that are activated only upon demand for a variable range of dates. In a sense, this constitutes a kind of pull technology as opposed to the push mechanism of a news-feed, filtered news resource or even an Eclipse search on Lexis. Instead of linking to fixed sets, you access dynamic content based on pre-defined but invariable criteria.
The other is to link to specific known documents or cases. In this context, anything that has a LEXSEE or LEXSTAT citation can be set up for access with a single hyperlink. Other possibilities for these kinds of static links are discussed in the following section. As a final option, though there may be limited practical applications for it, you can build static links to updating services such as Shepard's and AutoCite.
Provision of Annotated, Electronic Intranet Content
One thing to note when using Research Links is that you must know the LEXSEE citation format before you can link to it using Intranet Solutions. With some resources, this is obvious, but with others, additional research on Lexis might be required to track something down.
The Intranet Solutions product also allows hyperlinks to specific search interfaces or content pages on the Lexis-Nexis Xchange site. Many of these kinds of links could be created on your own with minimal HTML authoring skills, but it is nice enough to be able to browse through variable options.
Another feature employed in the sample practice pages, but not directly customizable within Intranet Solutions allows you to link to database directories on the Lexis-Nexis Xchange service. This is done by creating a hyperlink based on the identifying code associated with the directory, and can be easily emulated by copying the structure from the pre-formatted pages provided by Lexis.
I offer one caveat about using the pre-formatted practice group pages: some HTML editors (notably Microsoft's FrontPage) don't allow you to edit the coding easily, due to some table formatting incompatibilities. There is a comment note to this effect in the underlying HTML code, but if you import the pre-formatted pages into FrontPage, you will likely notice some frustrating reformatting of the page orientation.
One useful development area for Intranet Solutions would be to include the option of allowing people to obtain database source description information before even executing searches on Lexis. If you browse through source directories on the web-based Xchange service, you can get this information in the form of source description scope notes. When executing searches from customized and/or Lexis-designed forms, this kind of information is not available until you actually run the search. This descriptive information allows you to find out crucial database details like coverage span, update frequency, segment names and overall content of files, and is important in instances where you are not explicitly familiar with the source being searched.
As a point of clarification, the earlier Research Linking site, though certainly surpassed by their Intranet Solutions, provides comprehensive technical details about the functionality of URLs and quick search forms. The underlying process of how the queries are transmitted is explained in detail on this other site, and it remains useful if you understand HTML and intend to work to heavily customize your resources.
Organizations like law firms often need cost allocation for online service fees. Even with flat-rate contracts and blanket agreements, there is typically a preference for allocating individual charges as much as possible. Although the solution is still far from perfect, Lexis-Nexis tools do provide methods for forcing users to input client numbers. Briefly stated, the Lexis.com Xchange service will currently assume the client number that was previously used to successfully log in to the Internet-based service, unless you select to change that number.
By using a Java-based form and a small Java applet that Lexis provides it is possible to require users to input a client number before submitting a search. These applets are employed on each of the pre-formatted practice pages, and you can implement them the same way for pages that you design using the customization elements of Intranet Solutions. For the forms-based quick search elements, Intranet Solutions walks you through the steps for setting up the Java applet to force client billing, if this is the option that you select. With the first release of Intranet Solutions, it is not as easy to force client billing numbers for research links, but it can be done if you fundamentally understand the underlying HTML and Java elements. Lexis plans to offer this settings option for all customizable links in the near future.
Ideally, there should be customization options for field-based searching, which would make it less important to know the specific segment names for a given database. The pre-formatted search forms do allow for this, but they reside on the Lexis-Nexis server so the field options for each form cannot be changed.
At Howrey & Simon, we have included practice pages geared to the firm's individual practice groups, using the framework of our own Intranet. By customizing, you can adapt the forms and links to the look and feel of your own intranet, so that the colors and orientation don't clash with your internal site design. More importantly, end-users don't feel as though they are leaving the familiar territory of their own Intranet.
The Future of Enabling Intranets for Access to Fee-Based Databases and Content
It is indeed the wave of the future to utilize Internet browser technology as the platform for performing a wide range of computer research and law practice tasks. Centralization of resources and interface uniformity will help limit any process disconnects between tasks. This centralization does not come without its caveats and quirks, however. In utilizing a web browser for multiple kinds of research tasks, there is little or no visual interruption between searching AltaVista for an apple pie recipe, using WhoWhere to find a phone number for a friend, or running a series of $118 MEGA;MEGA searches through Lexis.com.
In other words, users need training and explicit explanations to realize that following some hyperlinks, including those implementing Lexis Intranet Solutions, incur commercial charges. You have a variety of methods for flagging fee-bearing activities for users. On the intranet used at Howrey & Simon, we have links to the Lexis Xchange service open in a new browser window, to visually signal the entry to a commercial area. You could also choose to place a dollar sign or other visual flag next to any fee-based services. Finally, there is the option of placing explicit pricing information as well as cost-effective search tips directly on the search pages you provide.
A Closing Thought
The availability and flexibility of tools like Lexis-Nexis Intranet Solutions afford web gatekeepers the ability to pick and choose exactly which elements will be displayed and in what format. You have the ability to reign in myriad databases and documents and present them in the framework of the information infrastructure that your own organization provides. You can present fee-based databases, free-access indexes and databases, subscription-based services and a whole range of previously divergent materials in a uniform and relatively balanced fashion. We are getting closer and closer to providing our end-users with one-stop desktop shopping for all research needs, within the familiar and comfortable environment of a customized Intranet.