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Features - Pure Oxygen: Breathing Life into Law Office Intranets

By Stephen T. Maher, Published on February 15, 1999


Stephen T. Maher is a lawyer and legal educator who lives in Miami, Florida. He has practiced law for almost twenty-five years, and he served for a number of years as a member of the full-time faculty at the University of Miami School of Law, where he directed the Clinical Program and taught a variety of courses. After leaving the law school, he formed The Practical Professor Incorporated, a consulting company that works with lawyers and law firms to train lawyers in practice skills and in new technologies. He can be found on the Web at www.usual.com and can be reached by e-mail at smaher@ usual.com.

Everyone has heard about the huge returns on investment claimed for corporate intranets.  Many large companies have reported more than a 1,000% return on investment. But how do intranets fit in the law office?  The answer is that they fit well, since many of the same benefits that have motivated corporations to create intranets are also available to law firms electing to implement intranets.

Intranets are private internets, or as some explain it, they are internal portions of the global Internet. That explanation highlights the fact that the technology can allow someone using an intranet to seamlessly move from the intranet to the Internet and then move back inside again. Firewall technology is used to keep out external users while allowing intranet users to move back and forth between their intranet and the Internet.

One benefit of intranets is that they are not based on proprietary technology. They are Web based, and use the same technology as the World Wide Web, the most graphical part of the Internet. Thus, the same browser software is used to navigate an intranet as is used to navigate the Web. Many people are already familiar with this software through their Internet use, and those who are not do not find the software difficult to use. New users quickly pick up the point-and-click approach that it employs. Intranet users surf law firm content the same way that they would surf the Web.

There are lots of reasons that intranets make good sense for law firms, but the most important one from my perspective is that intranets facilitate the sharing of expertise among legal professionals. The larger the law firm, the more expertise is housed under one roof, or under one series of roofs, but the harder it is for the individuals who have the expertise to share it with each other. Professionals in large firms cannot go to lunch together regularly, or swap information by the watercooler. An intranet provides an efficient method for capturing firm expertise and sharing it at the desktop across the firm.  Individuals can share information, annotate entries, and interact with and build upon each other’s content without being in direct contact with each other. In this way, expertise can be shared and even increased, while creating content that has potentially independent value, such as identifying or collaboratively creating definitive forms or memorandums on recurring issues.

Content can include messages, documents, forms, policies, legal research, court filings, orders, links to useful Web sites, links to law published on the Web that is relevant authority for ongoing legal matters or that indicates changes in the law or the practice of broader interest, as well as annotations to and discussions about posted items. Some content can be brought over from the firm’s document management system (or users can create links to documents in that system in newer Web-enabled systems).  Different groups within the firm will find special uses for the intranet that meet their special needs. Groups that regularly share paper memos on new developments will find the intranet is a better way to distribute such information, and more importantly, to find it again when you need it. Content can be easy to find when it is needed, since the intranet can be organized in a logical manner, and even if it grows somewhat disorganized, the intranet can be designed to be fully searchable. The content will naturally point users to firm experts in the area, because the intranet can be designed to indicate the authors of the documents that show off that expertise.

There are some problems that must be overcome if legal intranets are to work. The most obvious is that individuals at the firm must support the enterprise.  Barriers to participation in the creation and use of the intranet include computer phobia, unwillingness to share expertise for personal reasons, and unwillingness to put in the time necessary to contribute to the creation of intranet content. Each of these problems can be solved.

Lawyers unable or unwilling to use computers must learn to use them.  Day by day, it is becoming more and more difficult to practice law competently without using a computer.  That may be an unwelcome reality, but it is a reality nevertheless. Training can assist in changing old habits and giving lawyers new computer age skills. The launch of an intranet is a good opportunity to push for full participation in such training.

Lawyers unwilling to share their expertise for fear that by doing so they will be compromising an important personal asset should look more carefully at the intranet opportunity. Sharing expertise does not necessarily mean relinquishing the position of expert. Indeed, the more widely an individual’s expertise is known within the firm, the more likely that people will seek out that expertise when opportunities arise. The more broadly expertise is shared, the less likely that the firm will fail to respond properly to challenges that require expert knowledge.

Encouraging participation in developing intranet content is the probably the biggest challenge, and it may be the single biggest factor in determining the success of the intranet.  The time that individuals will spend contributing to the intranet will vary depending on the type of content being contributed and upon how difficult it is to contribute to the intranet.  The software being used is important here. If it calls upon the contributor to provide input in Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), then it will be difficult to encourage broad participation because lawyers and paralegals do not generally feel comfortable using HTML, and even with training, this will be a significant obstacle.

Also, some intranets are set up so that content must be approved by editors before it can be made part of the intranet. This requires either a full-time webmaster or the use of a number of editors who must commit a significant amount of time to the enterprise. The use of editors can create a bottleneck because both the contributor and the webmaster or editor must participate before the content reaches the intranet. The use of a webmaster or editors can also add cost to the intranet, because they must be paid for this extra effort. If already busy people are assigned jobs as intranet webmasters or editors as unpaid additional work, it is unlikely to be a very high priority, and it may not get done any time soon. The resulting delays will compromise the success of the project, because the best way to convince people to take the time to contribute is to show them the benefits that they and others in the firm will reap through participation, and this can only happen if content continues to be posted.

One intranet software product that I believe provides an elegant solution to the problems involved in creating a law firm intranet is John Hokkanen’s Pure Oxygen software. John is the legal technologists at Alston & Bird in Atlanta. He regularly uses his prior experience as a practicing attorney and his significant abilities as a programmer to design technological solutions to some of the challenges that lawyers regularly face in their day to day practice. His focus on developing intranet software reflects his belief that this technology has the potential to change the practice of law for the better by allowing lawyers to work more collaboratively.  Facilitating collaboration among lawyers is the obvious purpose behind the Pure Oxygen software.

The main strength of Pure Oxygen is that it is simple but powerful.  Lawyers should have no trouble using it, since its point-and-click interface presents them with templates that allow them to add and edit content despite a complete lack of understanding of HTML.  The software is powerful because it can be used by legal professionals who have been given some training to create useful and attractively displayed content, and links to such content. This lawyer-centric approach promotes collaboration, because the experts in the field are creating the content, and reacting to each others postings, from their desktops.  No webmaster is needed to add content, and the philosophical approach that the software promotes is that collaboration between practicing attorneys does not need to take place through content editors. The software automatically makes content fully searchable as it is added, and the software automatically inputs the latest additions to the intranet to a page that highlights the latest developments. This allows people interested in browsing the latest developments to do that from a single screen.

Once lawyers become comfortable using Pure Oxygen, they become the intranet’s content creators. My experience has been that as soon as you demonstrate this software to a group of lawyers, they start coming up with ideas of ways the software could be used to make the firm more productive.

Pure Oxygen requires the purchase and installation of Web server software and Cold Fusion software, but it can run on a fast Pentium computer and can serve the needs of even a large firm without difficulty. But the best thing about Pure Oxygen is that it is presently being given away free. You can obtain a CD-ROM that contains Pure Oxygen, together with some of John’s articles on intranets and some video on the subject, by ordering the CD at http://www.hokkanen.com/cdorder on the Web. I am working with John and others to produce a successor CD-ROM that will also include the Pure Oxygen software and John’s materials, and that will also include the work of others and some articles that I have written and some video that I have recorded on various Internet topics of interest to lawyers.