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Features - Intranet and Knowledge Management Solutions: Law Librarians Lead the Way

By Sabrina I. Pacifici and Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on August 1, 1999

Sabrina I. Pacifici is the Editor, Publisher and Web Manager of LLRX.com, the legal Webzine on research and technology.

Roger V. Skalbeck is the Electronic Initiatives Librarian at Howrey & Simon, contributes to their intranet and related projects, and he is also the current WebMaster for the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., which is a chapter of the national American Association of Law Libraries.


Law Firm Intranets: Librarians as Web Managers

Who are the individuals who organize the content, design the user interface, create value-added content to enhance the system through the addition of critical practice materials? Predominantly the firm’s research and information professionals, the law librarians, fulfill these responsibilities. Increasingly, law librarians have assumed the role of Web Managers for their respective firm intranets. This is due to the fact that they are uniquely skilled in the use of Web technology applications, as well as in using the firm’s network to directly deliver value-added services to attorneys. Many law librarians are at the forefront of working with intranet technology within their firms, initiating and facilitating an expanding corpus of research-related content. In addition, more law firms are expanding their professional staff with the addition of positions in Electronic Services or Web Applications, with direct responsibility for creating and managing content for internal firm Web sites.

Who is uniquely qualified to assume positions of leadership and guidance in implementing and maintaining content on a law firm intranet? Again, predominantly law librarian Web Managers and research professionals are filling this role. The skills that are most advantageous in terms of contributing content are not exclusively the technical skills of HTML or database management. More important are knowledge of the legal information industry, an understanding of emerging as well as longstanding delivery mechanisms for legal information, and experience providing lawyers with resources to assist their practice. This range of expertise will prove to be more beneficial to the process of developing content for a law firm intranet than the strictly technology skills. Some technical proficiency is indeed still required in order to implement new projects. As systems inevitably become more complex, technical skills will be an integral part of the profession.

Intranets and the Administration of Value-Added Content

Content is the engine that drives an intranet or knowledge management system. It must be comprehensive, current, well indexed, appropriately vetted and represent firm-specific subject matter. To remain of value to the firm, the system must be dynamic and reflect the availability of new intellectual capital from within the firm as well as applications enhancements from the technology market.

Some important legal research materials which should form the basis of legal research oriented content on a law firm intranet are: collections of legal research sites and databases, Internet-based subscriptions, access to internal firm materials, and answers to frequently-asked questions. It is important to note that with these and the subsequent examples, the traditional responsibilities of librarians, such as the selection and acquisition of materials, are still significant factors. The main focus is that the tools to achieve these tasks are markedly different from those of a few years and even a few months ago. Overall, the same responsibilities of selecting and evaluating research materials remain, as does the need to provide research services to lawyers and other information users within a firm. The main tenet is that the tools and delivery mechanisms have changed, while so too have the requirements and expectations of the users.

In implementing or expanding a firm intranet, a number of decisions will have to be made regarding the purpose and goals of the resource. A major factor in the decision-making process will be the identification of the user groups who have access to the internal, external (Internet) and restricted documents. With the restricted documents, this will relate both to privileged attorney work product as well as to those resources for which access fees and licenses are required.

Technical Skills and Intranets

With few exceptions, the more complexity in terms of software and functionality desired on an intranet, the higher the technical skills and staff levels that will be required for its development and maintenance. If requirements specify a highly customized, database-driven site with integrated document management systems, browser-accessible CD-ROMs and content that is constantly updated, the staffing needs will have to be appropriately balanced to provide such value added services. In short, the more dynamic the content, the more demanding it is to keep the system up-to-date. With complex systems, IT/MIS support and overall firm-wide coordination will be required. It is certainly assumed that the IT/MIS staff will have a role in most instances, but it is increasingly the case that content-based internal projects are undertaken by the library, especially if they relate to legal research resources.

If a firm’s intranet consists of a modest number of HTML documents, it is likely that a librarian will have or can develop the skills to maintain these resources. It is important to realize though that along with developing these new infrastructures, the traditional job responsibilities are not disappearing. To accommodate new expertise and responsibilities, cooperation is needed at all levels. For projects of any breadth, job descriptions should be rewritten, and staffing needs and budget must be adjusted accordingly.

To balance the view of intranets, remember that they are significant, but they don’t have to be high-tech staffing and procedural nightmares. If needs and expectations are modest but well conceived, adequate and even elegant resources are possible. With a firm of even fifty or sixty lawyers, a majority of the needs might be met with a minimum of effort. If resources are slim, planning and selection of legal resources will play a key role in focusing efforts. If available, a skilled librarian or other legal information professional will provide significant input and guidance in selecting and caring for content on a functioning intranet.

The Process of Developing a Successful Intranet

When it comes to the success of intranet projects, it is important to consider that often the technology itself is not the hurdle, but rather the process required to provide or implement it. If a project or new resource depends upon coordinated buy-in or voluntary contributions, success levels will vary greatly, especially depending on the number of other demands that people have on their time. To give a concrete example, if one part of your intranet includes information on attorney bar admissions, the process for updating this data will have to be coordinated with those tasked to assemble it, as well as those who deliver it on the intranet. Often these tasks are done in two or more departments, especially if attorney biographical information is maintained within multiple areas of the firm. If a resource of this nature also encompasses other biographical elements and subject specialties, the complexity and coordination requirements will grow with each new facet of information added to the system.

For new projects that pertain to legal research and services, again, the information professionals in the firm will be key players in fostering innovation. Law librarians often find themselves at the nexus of delivering crucial information services within a firm, and it is their experience that will prove vital in selecting research content for an intranet. As an example, the knowledge that a particular practice reporter will cease being published in print will help those in that practice area plan for the forced transition to a more electronic-based research environment. Also, if there are system or infrastructure needs that will have to be met in providing this new electronic access, advanced warning and knowledge of the usage characteristics of this resource will help greatly.

Practice and Process Resources

In very broad terms, the major types of resources being added to law firm intranets fall into the two major categories of practice and process resources. Very often a firm is divided into practice groups or similar functional associations, which lend themselves to organizing materials in logical groups on a site. Example of practice resources are: a group of environmental practice Internet links; a bibliography of materials for an estate planning group; or links to electronic subscriptions for a corporate securities group. Process resources are likely to serve multiple groups, and they target the task-oriented collection of resources. Examples of process resources are: database searching tips; tutorials and pathfinders for performing research such as updating state legislation; and any descriptive group of data that could be distributed with the assistance of electronic delivery.

To study the process of obtaining distinct types of research resources, it provides one with a unique look at the way in which work gets done. This should afford the intranet Web Managers the chance to orient resources and projects properly. To the extent that a lawyer or group of lawyers within a firm is technically proficient, their knowledge of the legal process will provide even greater and more meaningful insights into the development and provision of materials on an intranet. In these circumstances, the librarian will certainly remain a vital resource in terms of fostering and streamlining the whole process.

The Evolving Role of the Web Manager

Having determined the current and future importance of Web-based applications, some pioneering firms are empowering a new group of experts to direct their efforts in the implementation and support of these systems. The focus of this group is knowledge management solutions. Vast stores of internal corporate knowledge resources reside on most firm network servers, and yet this data is not available to those users who may benefit most from its use, the attorneys. Using a knowledge management application, information located on servers throughout the firm, and throughout the World Wide Web, may be indexed and organized into a fully searchable hierarchy. This data, which may be stored in hundreds of different formats, is accessible in full-text format through the indexing engine that forms the core of the knowledge management system. These internal corporate resources are rarely tapped to their full potential, and in some cases, not at all. Knowledge management applications are the engine that drives the connection making vast stores of knowledge accessible through one seamless, user-friendly Web browser enabled interface.

From the perspective of the Web Manager, there are several overriding responsibilities to this task that require continual attention. The content of the intranet must be dynamic, reflecting the changes in the availability of information on the Web, as well as proprietary data from within the firm. Furthermore, the Web Manager must insure that users are well trained on intranet functionality. This will invariably result in better informed users and a more robust, useful application.

Successfully Marketing and Training Users on Web Browser Enabled Corporate Knowledge Applications

The delivery of an intranet or knowledge management solution to the desktop may represent an end to the major development phase of this application, but it also marks the beginning of two equally challenging, important and ongoing components of the overall system implementation. Training personnel to use the value added content provided by an intranet or knowledge management system (KMS), and marketing its availability, reliability and system support, are complementary components essential to a successful implementation program.

Why You Need a Training Program, and Who Should Undertake the Responsibility

It is certainly in the interest of the firm, especially if it has multiple offices, to support a training program protocol as part of the overall implementation of an intranet or KMS. Considerable time, effort and expertise are required to launch and maintain a sophisticated Web based knowledge management application. Without a well-conceived and executed training and marketing program, usage of such systems will invariably not meet expectations, thereby diminishing their impact and value.

Training users on the intranet and marketing its' features, content and services are activities that go hand in hand. Overlapping skill sets are required to accomplish these intersecting tasks, and as such, require that they be undertaken by professionals within the firm who possess expertise on the content and technology side, as well as strong communications skills on the training side. User training on the various aspects of the intranet’s features and resources, and marketing the resources, are two key components which must be an ongoing part of the successful implementation and maintenance of a law firm intranet or KMS.

Training programs accomplish a two-fold set of objectives. The first objective is to encourage attorneys to use the system and to enable them to do so in an effective manner. Technology applications are often perceived, across the board, as too complex, and this viewpoint dissuades many users from taking advantage of useful resources. A successful training program will contribute to eliminating barriers about intranet technology. It will also result in the intranet becoming a part of the resource portfolio routinely used by attorneys. The second objective of such programs is that they provide both trainers and users with the opportunity to critically evaluate the system, and suggest changes, additions and advantageous new features. This dynamic process will help to insure that the functionality, content and design of the system meet user requirements.

Informing users throughout the firm about the content, value and usefulness of the intranet is an essential undertaking. As each firm is structured differently, a general marketing program should highlight the availability and ease of use of the system, along with the range of resources and associated services it supports. In following with the concept that training and marketing are parallel functions, there are numerous opportunities within the course of each year to make presentations in support of the intranet.

Venues and Delivery Options for Training and Marketing

If your firm has regular practice group or departmental luncheons, seeking an invitation to appear as a speaker is a good recommendation. In a large firm, this may require that the Web Manager make a number of presentations, often before groups of fifty or more attendees. Smaller practice groups allow a more informal presentation, which may stimulate a greater give and take in terms of questions and answers. Also, as different practice groups will have decidedly different needs and procedures, alignment with those who practice in a specific area will insure that users with similar needs are addressed together. The specific resources that are required by a commercial litigation group will be markedly different than those that are needed by a transactional securities practice group.

When giving presentations, it is always best to conduct a live demonstration using a network computer, a large screen and a projector. Handouts tailored toward the audience are also suggested, as this venue may be the best time available to train many members of the firm due to restrictions on their time.

The Web Manager should be prepared to demonstrate the full range of content, services and value-added enhancements that make the intranet or KMS a unique resource to the firm. For example, if the intranet provides access to a wide range of commercial, subscription and proprietary resources at the attorney desktop, this resource should be demonstrated. They may include: CD-ROMs; Westlaw and Lexis toolkit applications allowing users to choose files and databases and process a search query on these systems from within the intranet; proprietary databases on practice and client specific matters; full text publications authored by attorneys; attorney bios; and topical and practice specific annotated Web links.

Although it is useful to send e-mails detailing specific information available, there is no substitute for direct communication to simultaneously market and train the users. Mass e-mails to all attorneys firmwide tend to have questionable impact. However, e-mail is practical and useful when targeting specific attorneys or practice groups with data and updates that are especially pertinent to their work. Tailoring the deliver of training and marketing information to the user group will result in greater acceptance of the process, and higher usage of the system.

Including intranet training as part of the firm’s orientation program for new attorneys, summer associates and legal assistants, is highly recommended. This may be accomplished using two quick and direct initial introductions. A printed guide to the intranet should be provided as part of the firm’s overall orientation documentation. The printed documentation should also appear in firm-wide manuals and brochures. This guide should include screen shots and system pathfinders for each major area, in addition to information on representative resources throughout the system. In addition, the firm’s Web Manager should provide a live demonstration of the system’s content, functionality and special features, preferably as soon as attorneys and legal assistants begin with the firm. Many firms are also using the intranet or knowledge management system as the default homepage, so that it opens immediately when the Web browser is activated. This arrangement is recommended, as it directly establishes the value of the system, and suggests that it be the starting point for navigation through, and access to, internal data as well as carefully chosen external resources.

If there are existing vehicles such as internal firm newsletters or bulletins, these can provide a valuable supplement in the marketing of intranet content and services. This kind of resource is especially good when the newsletter is an established staple of information delivery within a firm. This is not a good place to exclusively exhibit matters of importance on an intranet, but it can provide yet another vehicle for informing users at all levels about the intranet. Some firms have developed newsletters as a specific result of the growth of Internet and intranet resources, but these decisions should be weighed against their costs and available alternatives.

Another vehicle to provide training is through the use of PowerPoint presentations. These presentations may be made available via the intranet or KMS, to be viewed or downloaded as the user requires. Some firms also conduct associate training programs, and these venues afford yet another opportunity for the Web Manager to effectively reach a targeted audience for training purposes.

Monitoring and tracking content and usage on the Intranet

In an effort to ensure that intranet usage is optimized, it is highly advisable to use software that tracks system usage with specificity. This may be accomplished by using such software such as Web Trends on the Web server that hosts the intranet. Usage reports generated on a regular basis allow the Web Manager to accurately track a wide range of information regarding system usage. For example, usage reports will indicate which system data is accessed with great frequency, as well as that which is accessed infrequently. Peak usage information according to day, time, hour and minute allow careful monitoring of bandwidth and overall system usage by individuals, groups, offices, or locations. Within the closed environment of an intranet, usage information can potentially be detailed down to the level of the individual user. If appropriate, this could afford the Web Manager the chance to identify specific people who regularly use specific parts of the intranet. These users might then be able to provide key insights into what they do and don't like about specific resources.

Although the usage information may be viewed as passive, it provides the Web Manager with valuable data with which to critically evaluate system usage. Careful attention to this information allows the Web Manager to continue to develop the system in areas of high usage, and to redirect resources away from areas that may be less essential than previous evaluations determined.

Conclusion

Intranets and knowledge management applications are changing the landscape of how law firms are organizing and accessing their valuable work product, as well as value added external data from the Web and commercial vendors.

Law Librarians are increasingly assuming the role of Web Managers, content creators, and innovators in this challenging new environment, and assisting their law firms in the essential enterprise of mining information on behalf of their internal users and their clients.

For more information on intranets and knowledge management solutions, we direct you to the LLRX Resource Center on Intranets and Knowledge Management Resource Center. Here you will find a wide range of Web links to articles, presentations and program materials, book recommendations and other resources on this topic.

Note:  An edited version of this article was published in the Legal Times on July 19, 1999, p. S26.