Sabrina I. Pacifici has been a legal newsletter editor and publisher for the past decade, as well as a law librarian in Washington, D.C. for 18 years. She is the Editor of Law Library Resource Xchange (LLRX).
(Archived May 22, 1997)
Intranet development is proliferating throughout corporate America. An intranet, or internal networked corporate Web site, is an application whose time has come. Law firms, initially hesitant to embrace this new technology, seem to have caught the intranet bug in a big way. In some measure, law firm interest in intranets has increased due to persistent technology hype, on par with that still evident for the World Wide Web (WWW). It has been forecast that intranet usage will surpass that of the Internet by a ratio of 10 to 1 before the year 2000. Numerous articles describing how most Fortune 500 companies either have intranets or are developing them have focused a strong spotlight on the technology. The fact that clients increasingly expect their law firms to maintain comparable technology is also promoting law firm interest. For law firms trying to keep up with the rush to embrace each new successive wave of technology, an intranet is a logical, positive step in the right direction. The movement to this medium can be accompanied by some unexpected benefits in the areas of cost and information dissemination. Intranet technology alters the context of costly information management infrastructures. These infrastructures are highly centralized and exclusive, while intranets are inclusive applications that are enhanced by the participation, expertise and input of numerous individuals and groups. Unlike the model of expensive groupware applications, intranet software is inexpensive by comparison, and much of it is actually available for free on the Web from companies such as Microsoft and Netscape. The essential components of intranet technology provide an opportunity to significantly transform the manner in which information is stored, published and distributed within an organization.
To Intranet or Not to Intranet
Over the course of the past twelve years, the Sidley & Austin Washington, D.C. Library & Research Services Department has utilized the most current technology applications to support our attorneys and clients. Our department's experience with using the Internet for communications and research dates back to 1992. During this period, when Internet usage began to escalate among corporate users, we developed an expertise using such protocols as FTP, Veronica, Archie, Lynx and gopher through our UNIX- based Internet provider.
Four years ago, the combined forces of the World Wide Web and the hypertext, point and click web browser interface introduced by Netscape resulted in a dramatic increase in Internet content. It also caused a tremendous rise in Internet awareness, legions of new users, and rapturous media declarations concerning the Internet's far reaching impact on "life as we know it. " Those who have a stake in profiting from Internet expansion have been encouraging this rhetoric, even going so far as to make statements contending that the medium will replace all previous knowledge formats, including libraries. These statements have been made before in the promotion of other new technologies, such as CD-ROMs, Digital Audio Tapes (DAT) and books on compact disk. But unlike these examples, the intranet platform has altered the playing field in that its functionality creates a new standard from which to evaluate information technology.
Netscape Server Central - Intranet Deployment Guide Getting Started
The legal research market, dominated by the powerful WESTLAW and LEXIS databases, presents a challenge for establishing a parallel, if not equivalent, value set for an intranet. A significant percentage of law firms have fixed fee contracts with WESTLAW or LEXIS, or both. Familiarity with the search engines, content and arrangement of information on these systems has raised expectations about the use of other large scale, value added legal research databases. In spite of a popular consensus in favor of "all things Internet," now equally applied to "all things intranet," attorneys are a very discerning user group, and expect a new technology application to fulfill the criteria effectively met by the online research applications with which they have the most experience and familiarity.
Our serious evaluation of the intranet/Internet connectivity and the potential for developing a host for our many in-house applications began in earnest in 1995. From the perspective of our Department, the hunt was on to establish whether this new Internet incarnation was a viable alternative to our legacy groupware applications. This evaluation was essential to lay the proper foundation for future projects incorporating Internet and intranet based software applications. The intranet facts listed below helped to support our decision to create an intranet as soon as possible.
Ten Good Reasons to Implement a Law Firm Intranet
There are many good reasons to choose to implement an intranet, and you will find that the list below is applicable to most law firm environments, as it is to our own.
- Utilizing a standard Web browser, a corporate intranet offers a hardware independent platform. This is an important issue as most law firms are in the process of upgrading their hardware from a combination of 386 and 486 computers to Pentiums, and from DOS or Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 or Windows NT. Hardware and software incompatibility is often compounded by conflicting groupware applications. An intranet works on a TCP/IP network that many firms have already implemented and it can be overlaid on the firm's existing network structure.
- Costs associated with an intranet are reasonably low. A law firm can expect to pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a smaller implementation to several hundred thousand dollars for a large project that is national in scope. These estimates are very competitive when compared to the cost of purchasing proprietary, in-house software designed to support networked document distribution.
- Configuration options provide the flexibility to match the content to the requirements of the user group. An intranet can be equally valuable to departments, practice groups and the entire firm.
- An intranet can be designed and launched quickly, often in a matter of weeks, and can support a wide range of information which is accessible through one uniform interface.
- Intranet technology is scalable. In this environment, bigger does not necessarily equate to better. A complex network applications interface often imposes impediments to the user's ability to directly publish and disseminate documents throughout the organization.
- An intranet can be installed on a stand-alone PC or made available on a LAN or WAN.
- A firm or department need not abandon its existing networked applications and start all over again to implement an intranet. Most applications, such as work product files, human resources data and department newsletters can be migrated to the intranet Web page.
- Content can be written and published by many departments and individuals, allowing each group to exercise control and responsibility over their portion of the intranet through the publication and creation of information resources.
- Information and documents can be published and distributed according to different departmental, practice or client related requirements. This information can also be disseminated to clients and other authorized parties outside the firm through the use of password protected access to the firm's intranet.
- An intranet provides a stable, secure, environment for the internal publication and dissemination of information and documents which may not otherwise find their way onto the firms' network. The criteria for the value of online content becomes broader, and is no longer necessarily limited to firm work product. The resulting benefits, direct and indirect, strengthen the value of firm networking as well as resource sharing.
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In Part II of this article, I discuss the Sidley & Austin Washington, D.C. Law Library Intranet, called the InfoWeb.