Intranet-Powered Law Practice

What It Will Mean for Lawyers and Clients

By LaVern A. Pritchard
Law Office of LaVern A. Pritchard/Pritchard Law Webs

Table of Contents

Synopsis.
Author Note (original).
Author Note (July 2014).
Introduction.
First, about the Internet.
Browsing the World Wide Web.
Now, We Have Intranets.
The Word Intranet is New. The Idea Is Not.
Why Build An Intranet?
Some Aspects of Intranet Functionality.
Tips for Building Your Intranet.
Conclusion.
Author Biography.
Comments or Questions?


Synopsis: With the advent of intranet technology, collaborative law practices and law departments will be able to share critical knowledge resources and practice more efficiently. In this jargon-free article intended for those unfamiliar with intranets, the author considers the opportunities of this new knowledge-rich era and shares some tips for planning your intranet. (Just remember, it was written in 1997, not currently.)
Author's Note: This article is dated April 15, 1997. If you are new to intranets, or want to focus on core concepts rather than technological intricacies, I hope you will find this article helpful.
Author's Note (July 2014): I removed this article from the Web a few years ago, figuring it had served its purpose. But every once in a while I come across a wonderful article or even book citing to it or linking to it. So I'm restoring it to the web address where it was before.

Although this article is now properly a part of legal web history rather than legal web present, more than seventeen years after writing it, intranet-powered law practices, in the way I envisioned them, remain exceptions to the general rule.

Were I to write such an article again, I'd write about how in the intervening years, it has become possible not only to assemble a vast collection of law practice resources but to interconnect concepts and resources into richly integrated semantic networks (a la Pritchard Law Webs' LawMoose subscriber level service).

Such lawyer-designed networks offer a new promise — bridging the intellectual gap between lawyers' minds and our intellectual domain — and bridging the navigational gap between a lawyer's personal electronic interface and the riches that by reason of what still seems like magic, can be brought into view in a click or two.


"The goal of a good legal intranet is to provide the knowledge you need, when you need it, to practice law most effectively."

Introduction

In an age of increasing complexity, intranets aim to simplify and speed up access to knowledge. Because lawyers use knowledge like oxygen -- consuming it, combining it, and communicating it day in and day out -- intranets are good news for lawyers and clients.

You might even think of an intranet as a "knowledge pump" filled with both general and proprietary knowledge-oxygen. The goal of a good legal intranet is to provide the knowledge you need, when you need it, to practice law most effectively.

If that sounds too "far out" to be believable, think again. There are no insurmountable barriers to having a knowledge-pumping intranet in your office today.

To understand how we can now seriously talk about a seemingly futuristic concept resembling a knowledge pump, let's briefly survey where the intranet concept comes from and take a glimpse at how this technology works. Then we will consider why to use an intranet and some principles to keep in mind when building one. The best place to start is at the Internet, the world's electronic frontier.

"The growth of the Web confirms that if knowledge is power, quick access to unprecedented quantities of knowledge on a global level is unprecedented power."

First, about the Internet.

Say the word "Internet" or the words "World Wide Web" and all sorts of thoughts come to mind. The growth of the Internet as a present and future force is too compelling a story to ignore. Almost overnight, the Internet's World Wide Web has become the world's prime electronic destination.

The Internet can start you thinking about doing new things and adopting new ways. New frontiers are like that. In 1993 there were fifty web sites in the world. Since then, organizations and individuals have rushed to put up web sites of all kinds, including electronic libraries and storefronts. The Web is enriching our language and significantly accelerating the rhythm of change itself.

The growth of the Web confirms that if knowledge is power, quick access to unprecedented quantities of knowledge on a global level is unprecedented power.

"The Web's success also proves that simplicity is power."

Browsing the World Wide Web.

The Web's success also proves that simplicity is power. You can learn the basics of how to use the Web in a few minutes.

Record numbers of people are using it because it is nearly intuitive and loaded with content they do not have to figure out how to use.

When you sign on, you first select an electronic destination somewhere on the Web. Click your mouse to follow an electronic link (called a hyperlink). In a moment you connect with another computer another across town, across the country, or across the world. Now, you are at the top of the web page you asked for --or inside a document, right at the particular word or section you wanted to see. Just a moment has passed.

When you are ready to move on, other hyperlinks let you branch off to related information or an entirely new destination. You are "browsing."

If direct hyperlinks cannot take you where you want to go, you search. Your search results come back in the form of a new web page, created at your request. On this page are new hyperlinks that will take you to the information you are seeking. Now, you can browse through the results of your query at will.

You cannot get "lost" on the World Wide Web because the "web browser" software you are using -- but probably barely notice -- keeps track of where you are and where you have been. You can backtrack, then return to where you were, like you are reading pages in an electronic encyclopedia. In fact, you are on the worldwide encyclopedia. If you know where you want to go and what you want to do, you can find knowledge on the Web in minutes that would take hours or days to find in any other way.

Do you want a SEC report, a new court decision, a press release, a company profile, or information about another lawyer? It's yours. Get it, use it, and go on to what you want to do next. In less electronically organized times, it was more like want it, ask for it, wait for it, receive it, get back to it, finally use it, and go on with what you want to do next. Surveys report lawyers are quickly transforming themselves into users of Web-based resources that help them practice law more effectively.

"Intranets are spreading like wildfire throughout businesses and organizations of all kinds and sizes."

Now, We Have Intranets.

The Web (with a capital W), along with the technology that makes it possible, has spawned an even more recent development -- mini-Webs called intranets.

As explosive as the growth of the Internet and its World Wide Web has been, industry sources predict much greater growth for intranets. They are spreading like wildfire throughout businesses and organizations of all kinds and sizes. They are nothing more -- and nothing less -- than internal, proprietary knowledge networks or webs (with a small w) -- collections of intertwined electronic files and associated functionalities. Embedded or automatically generated hyperlinks hold everything together.

Conceptually, they work like the World Wide Web does and use the same web browser software. Although you can set up a complete intranet on a single computer, the true power comes in easily sharing knowledge with others in your organization. You can use your existing networking structure and file server arrangements. Add web server software and web-enabling protocols and you have a basic intranet.

"Vannevar Bush thought that the futuristic device he proposed would be greatly beneficial to lawyers who would want at their "touch" their "whole experience" and "the experience of friends and authorities."

The Word Intranet is New. The Idea Is Not.

Intranets have been more than fifty years in coming. They were hypothesized, prototyped, and promoted by visionaries and technologists who understood the vast potential of rich, integrated, easy-to-use knowledge resources.

The first description of what we now call intranets came at the close of World War II, from no less an authoritative seer than Vannevar Bush. After a career including serving as dean of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering, president of the Carnegie Institute, and chair of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Bush as the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war years. In that capacity, he had responsibility for overseeing the work of six thousand leading scientists involved in the war effort.

In July of 1945, looking beyond wartime and forward to peacetime, before there were computers as we know them, Bush wrote an article published by The Atlantic Monthly called "As We May Think." It has come to be regarded as a classic work of technological vision.

World War II had vastly accelerated the creation of new scientific knowledge. Bush observed that although the quantity of available knowledge had exploded, "the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."

Bush thought the solution could be found in "a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library . . . a device in which an individual stores his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

He predicted that new forms of encyclopedias would appear, "ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them[.]" He even thought that the futuristic device he proposed would be greatly beneficial to lawyers who would want at their "touch" their "whole experience" and "the experience of friends and authorities."

Bush had conceived the concept of hypertext and hyperlinking, connecting knowledge in all of the ways that make logical sense. It is electronic hyperlinking of related knowledge resources that gives the World Wide Web -- and private intranets as well -- their power and ease of use.

As computers grew in power and sophistication, others pursued Bush's vision, over time turning it into reality. About a decade ago, legal publishers began to build hyperlinks into legal reference materials. Doing so helped speed legal research and pointed the way to future opportunities.

With the advent of the first commercial pre-Web hypertext software, a few lawyers and legal academics turned to it to solve their existing knowledge management problems in new ways, enthusiastically reporting on its potential.

But it took the World Wide Web to make hypertext technology attractive to a wider audience. Lawyers who already use the World Wide Web have insights that will prove useful as they turn to building and using their own intranets.

"The goal is to create a truly useful collective knowledge resource and alter lawyers' methods of delivering legal services to their clients."

Why Build An Intranet?

More than fifty years after it first sounded like a really great idea if it could be done, the time has come when you can actually build an intranet through which to manage the knowledge you need to practice law more efficiently and effectively.

Moreover, since we can now connect work groups and entire organizations, the goal is also to create a truly useful collective knowledge resource and alter lawyers' methods of delivering legal services to their clients. An organization's members can use such a resource in two interrelated capacities: first, as contributors of their own knowledge and, second, as consumers -- not only of the knowledge they have recorded earlier but also of the knowledge that others have recorded for them.

The whole of a collaborative, knowledge-sharing organization will inevitably exceed the sum of the knowledge capabilities of its parts. Simply put, knowledge sharing and reuse throughout a knowledge-intensive organization leads to dramatic improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.

Legal organizations that take advantage of better ways to manage and reuse knowledge they need to practice law will tangibly demonstrate that they provide enhanced value to their clients.

They will attract and keep clients who value and understand their commitment to excellence, efficiency, and innovation.

They will work faster, using leaner teams, to accomplish higher quality work with less effort than before.

They will improve responsiveness. When clients call for information about their matters, a lawyer with a good intranet will often be able to give them immediate, authoritative answers rather than having to get back to them later.

Intranet-powered legal organizations will delegate more effectively. They will better control business risk and lower administrative costs. They will maximize the efficiency of hours their lawyers devote to practice building and practice management.

They will assimilate new lawyers and staff more quickly and train personnel more efficiently. When a lawyer or key staff member departs, the organization will experience less disruption and loss of institutional capability.

They will conduct litigation more efficiently. Most of the cost of litigation today is not in the courtroom but in knowledge acquisition, organization, retrieval, analysis, and disclosure.

Litigation lawyers using intranets will know their cases better. Case-specific intranets, loaded with information about witnesses, documents, discovery, timetables, legal issues, and team strategies, represent a powerful new ally for litigation teams. While a litigation intranet cannot eliminate inherent litigation complexity, if it has been properly designed and is properly utilized, it can enable lawyers to manage their work and the litigation itself much more efficiently.

Overall, the potential for legal intranets is the leverage effect of giving already smart professionals much better tools than they have ever had.

"Intranets can combine database power with "front-end" simplicity. Users seeing only the simplicity reap the benefits of the power."

Some Aspects of Intranet Functionality.

Although the basic function of an intranet is to rapidly retrieve and display requested text using a hyperlink, intranets are capable of much more than that.

Sophisticated intranets also include information now stored in databases. Indeed, this is one of their most powerful capabilities. Intranets can combine database power with "front-end" simplicity. Users seeing only the simplicity reap the benefits of the power, including the ability to create web pages "on the fly" at the userís direction. This unleashes a remarkably useful level of functionality difficult or impossible to achieve by alternate means.

Intranets can be designed to display images, including scanned document images. They can offer slide presentations and play sound recordings and video clips.

Interactive intranet designs allow users to add content via intranet pages. They accept user input through easy-to-use, fill-in-the-blank forms, check boxes, menu choice lists, and buttons. For example, users may respond to surveys posted on the intranet about how to make the intranet itself more useful.

If an intranet includes a gateway to the public Internet, it can combine the best of the vast universe of publicly available resources with proprietary resources.

As if the above capabilities were not enough, the software industry is now racing to infuse intranets with additional functionality, including in the areas of group collaboration and document assembly tools. Many older technologies are being updated to perform with or as a part of intranets.

"Your intranet should adapt to you."

Tips for Building Your Intranet.

With sound web architecture and design, one can make an intranet more functional than virtually any Internet web site is today and yet keep it exceptionally easy to use.

After all, most people do not want to "use technology." They want to find the information they need and accomplish the work they need to do.

The best technology is that which its users need not think about to use effectively. The best intranet designs have more in common with good book designs and thoughtful software interfaces than the advertising graphics that pervade World Wide Web sites.

Reducing the number of options on each page is consistent with sound design principles. The goal is to reduce complexity. Content and functionality is what drives intranets, not trendy aesthetics.

Since content should be in charge, and it is knowledge you want to manage better, start loading your intranet with the elements of knowledge you and others in your organization need most often. Put several things you always have to look up on your intranet. Turn it on, and you will begin to save time immediately.

Have those who regularly provide information to others in your organization "publish" the questions they receive and the answers they always provide on your intranet. They will begin to save time immediately.

Next, add documents you already have that you consider valuable references: forms, model documents, checklists, outlines, precedents, and training materials. Keep issues of intellectual property ownership and usage in mind in this new environment as well.

Take it to the group level. People who work most closely together in your organization need work group-level common resources.

Give each person a home page and space on the intranet. Just as people personalize their office environments, they feel more at home on an intranet with a place to call their own. Encourage them to post information of value to others. Lawyers can greatly benefit, for example, when their secretaries post information about how to function without them when absolutely necessary!

At first you will spend more time building your intranet than you save by using it. Most of that time will be devoted to bringing better organization to the knowledge you want to put on the intranet. If you are already highly organized, it will be easier to load your intranet.

Over time, everyone in your organization will begin to look for many kinds of information on the intranet first, asking questions only when they cannot find it on the intranet. Instead, they will suggest that things they did not find that should be added to the shared knowledge pool.

They will not stop communicating, of course. They will have more time to communicate about matters that cannot easily be looked up in an intranet.

The more well-organized content you add to your intranet, the more people will want to use it. It will eventually take on a critical mass, pulling in content and users, precisely because it is inclusive and easy to use.

Make sure to design security into your intranet. There are many options. Although security concerns are similar to more traditional computer network security concerns, intranets offer both new opportunities and new risks for information security.

As your intranet evolves, if you do not like the way it looks or what it does, change it. Any knowledge tool intended for daily use must be refined until its rough edges are worn off. Collective usage and acting on suggestions for improvement are the most effective ways to build a truly valuable intranet.

Remember, an intranet is not like an off-the-shelf software program that requires you to adapt to it. Your intranet should adapt to you.

"Clients cannot help but notice the changes that intranet-powered lawyers will be able to achieve in responsiveness and cost-effectiveness."

Conclusion.

Information at your fingertips and knowledge on demand has been a tantalizing, but elusive, prospect for a long time. Interest in intranets is exploding because they promise a credible way to put us on the road to achieving that prospect at last.

Thanks to intranets, lawyers are going to be able to extend their powers over the legal, factual, and administrative resources they need to serve clients more effectively.

Lawyers who integrate an intranet into their practice environment will soon wonder how they used to manage without immediate access to the knowledge they need. Clients cannot help but notice the changes that intranet-powered lawyers will be able to achieve in responsiveness and cost-effectiveness.

The new century should find many examples of thriving intranet-powered law practices with more "knowledge power per capita" than any of their 20th century forebears.

But there is no need to await the millenium. Intranets are feasible today. Their benefits are achievable now.


Author Biography.

LaVern A. Pritchard is a solo practitioner in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also the founder of Pritchard Law Webs, a web technologies research, design, development, and consulting firm. He built his first litigation hypertext system in 1989. So far as he knows, that system was the first large scale legal hypertext system used used by a litigation team.

Mr. Pritchardís original legal hypertext systems in the late 1980ís are featured in Nina Plattís February 15, 1998 article, Knowledge Management Part II, published by the Law Library Resource Exchange.

Mr. Pritchard can be reached by telephone at 612-332-0102 and by E-mail at lpritchard@prilaw.com (for law practice matters) or lpritchard@priweb.com (for web consulting matters).