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Features - Is an Intranet in Your Future? Part II: Planning Your Law Firm or Legal Department Intranet

By Sabrina I. Pacifici, Published on May 21, 1997



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).

Introduction

There are several essential factors which, when well coordinated and integrated into an intranet design and implementation project, insure it’s successful deployment in a law firm or legal department. These factors include: choosing the appropriate hardware and software, developing a intranet team, defining the scope of the intranet, creating relevant, well documented and current content, providing user friendly design, training users, and marketing the intranet to insure maximum usage.

Hardware

The first order of business in undertaking such a project is to carefully specify and acquire the appropriate hardware. The choice of underpowered hardware at the desktop and server level will impede your intranet’s functionality, size and overall value. Our Department’s first intranet was designed on 120MHZ Pentium PC workstations with 24 MB memory and 1.6GB hard drives, and hosted on a 133MH z Pentium PC with 32MB memory and a 2GB hard drive. In short order, these computers proved to be insufficient to the task, and we are currently undertaking our third desktop computer and server upgrade in two years. The lesson to be learned from our experience is that it is far better from the onset of an intranet project to acquire the most robust hardware configuration possible. In the long run, this approach will save considerable time, effort and even money in quickly and effectively implementing your intranet. With our new round of purchases we have chosen a server configured to maximize the following: hard drive space and redundant backup, network integrity, system security and stability, and the rapid response time required to serve a large, nationally located user base. Partnered with an HP Netserver 200mh z LXe-Pro with mirrored 9.1GB hard drives we have chosen 200 MHz Pentium MMX desktop computers as the foundation of our intranet’s design, delivery and support functions.





The choice of underpowered hardware at the desktop and server level will impede your intranet’s functionality, size and overall value.



Work with a vendor to configure a server that will meet your exacting specifications, inclusive of network issues, number of users and their geographic location, size and content of your intranet, and security/firewall requirements.
Prices for 200 MHz Pentiums are currently very competitive, quality is high, (see Dell computers at http://www.dell.com/products/optiplex/gxi/index.htm and C-Net reviews at http://www.cnet.com), and many new models are available in the net server class configured specifically for intranet applications, ranging from $6,000 (see http://www.dell.com/products/powredge/pe2200/index.htm) to $16,000 (see Hewlett Packard servers at http://www.hp.com/netserver/products/index.html). Work with a vendor to configure a server that will meet your exacting specifications, inclusive of network issues, number of users and their geographic location, size and content of your intranet, and security/firewall requirements. With the boom in intranet development exponentially expanding the scope of products being introduced by major computer companies, the timing is right to either upgrade your current intranet hardware or embark on the first time purchase of hardware for a new intranet program.

Personnel

Matching your system requirements with your human resources is a project imperative. Evaluate the applications expertise of the professionals tasked with creating the intranet. In our case, all development, deployment and ongoing management of our research intranet, the InfoWeb, is the responsibility of the professional law librarians. A good team of people that works well together and possesses excellent technical skills is an essential component of a successful intranet strategy. This is a team sport, so to speak, not a one person endeavor. Draw upon the skills already resident in your department, and initiate the process of developing new ones. Maintaining intranet development in-house insures greater flexibility and control in the future as your system requirements and software applications invariably evolve. This approach also offers new challenges and opportunities to skilled and highly motivated professionals within your organization. Furthermore, the inherent expertise of in-house professionals who possess an intimate knowledge of the firm’s practices, attorney and client work product requirements and overall company operations is a critical asset to an intranet design program.




A good team of people that works well together and possesses excellent technical skills is an essential component of a successful intranet strategy. This is a team sport, so to speak, not a one person endeavor.




The best lessons on how to configure your intranet application are often learned from those within the legal profession who have already forged the waters and are willing to share their experiences, both good and bad.


Online Magazines

PC Magazine
http://www8.zdnet.com/pcmag

PC Computing
http://www.zdnet.com/pccomp

Internet World
http://www.iw.com

Software

Once you have acquired the appropriate intranet server and desktop computers, and have your team in place, the next logical step is to review the numerous software options available. Choose software that will seamlessly integrate with your network platform as well as provide you with the required flexibility to aggressively grow your intranet. As even a casual reader of computer periodicals is aware, choices abound in the area of intranet applications, and the total price tag for a complete setup can quickly skyrocket, so be a discerning consumer. Read product reviews (see the sidebar for online magazines). Review and subscribe to relevant listservs, and routinely take advantage of all the free topical information available on the Web, at sites this one (a gratuitous plug!). Talk with colleagues and experienced intranet consultants and by all means contact individuals or organizations whose Web pages impress you. Often, they also have parallel intranets which you may be able to review. The best lessons on how to configure your intranet application are often learned from those within the legal profession who have already forged the waters and are willing to share their experiences, both good and bad. When undertaking an intranet project, be sure to tap resources such as these which will provide you with valuable ideas, broadening your intranet’s content and functionality, and encourage you to remain focused and reasonable about the goals of the technology.

Before purchasing any software, review your current law firm or departmental network standards, your budget parameters, the support you can expect to receive from your applications vendors, and their history of upgrading their software. The last scenario you want to experience is buying software that suddenly becomes obsolete when the vendor goes out of business. Do your homework, read the product reviews, do some research on the vendors and talk with colleagues at other law firms. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with several different applications before making a decision. Review the intranet products of the Big 2, Microsoft and Netscape, who command the lions share of this market. At Microsoft Office 60 Minute Intranet, there are numerous tools available to speed you on your way to building an intranet, including free software, guides, templates and documentation. At rival Netscape, you can review, configure and order the Netscape Intranet Starter kit.

Do your homework, read the product reviews, do some research on the vendors and talk with colleagues at other law firms. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with several different applications before making a decision.
  Many law firms have policies that require pre-purchase beta testing of software applications to insure compatibility with their network and product value. Consequently, upon request, some vendors will allow you to beta test their software for 30 to 60 days. More often than not, they will not offer until you ask, so don’t hesitate! Even companies that claim not to provide such a service may acquiesce as a means of insuring a sale. Remember that installation of their software at your firm is worth more than just the purchase price. It also constitutes free advertising, and is a boost for their marketing program.

Our evaluation process lead us to purchase intranet software from two companies. At the heart of our InfoWeb is Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Server, which works in tandem with the Microsoft Proxy Server in our Chicago office for additional security. The firm’s Web browser is Microsoft Internet Explorer. At the desktop, our Department is running Windows 95, and our HTML editor is Microsoft FrontPage 97. Although this sounds like a complete sweep for Microsoft, we diverge to another product line.

Over the course of the past four years we have used Folio Views, from the Folio Corporation, formerly a part of LEXIS-NEXIS and now a division of Open Market. Prior to deployment of the InfoWeb, we utilized numerous Folio products at the desktop in several formats: online commercial research databases (LEXIS-NEXIS Office), subject specific legal CD-ROM libraries using the Folio application from IHS, and our Department’s unique Folio infobases. Consequently, the introduction of the Folio siteDirector 3.1 corporate intranet solution was a logical choice. After beta testing the siteDirector for 60 days, we became well acquainted with its attributes and determined that it provided us with an excellent platform for delivering comprehensive research resources in partnership with a powerful and user friendly search engine. SiteDirector also provided us with the ability to manage and distribute legacy information as well as the new generation of digital information. To capture non proprietary information from the Web, we utilize another Folio application, Folio Web Retriever 2.1. All the Folio products are fully integrated to provide a single, uniform interface for the dissemination of corporate information via the InfoWeb to the attorney desktop.  

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In Part III of this article, I focus on intranet design, content, and targeting user requirements.