General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
Volume 17, Number 4
Portals: Your Gateway to the Internet
BY Edward Poll
"Portal"-It's a popular word these days, frequently used in conversations about websites. The dictionary defines a portal as a doorway, gate, or entrance. In relation to the Internet, a portal is the single point of entry, the place you start from to access the myriad resources that the Net and the web offer.
Every noncommercial and commercial website would love to be your portal site, because you will keep coming back, and on your way through to the rest of the Internet, you'll be exposed to your portal's content, products, or advertisements.
There are two basic types of portals: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal portals grew out of what were originally called search engines and appeal to a broad audience. For example, Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) is a self-proclaimed portal to general Internet users. To keep people coming back, it now includes, in addition to its searching ability, auctions, free website creation and hosting, free e-mail for life, a shopping mall with millions of products, and so many more features that it's hard to keep it all straight.
Another example, Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), started only a few years ago by selling books. Now it offers music, DVDs, videos, electronics, software, toys, video games, and home-improvement equipment and supplies. It also hosts auctions, a shopping mall (zShops), and gift products.
Vertical portals have more focused content and are geared to specific audiences. Noncommercial sites by associations are one version of this type. Accounting professionals have a good portal with AICPA Online (www.aicpa.org), the website of the premier national professional association for CPAs. This site includes downloadable forms, white papers, reports, and software tools. There is also information about conferences, product highlights, job openings, publications, and voluminous links to other organizations, companies, and related sites.Legal Portals
The ABA's site (www.abanet.org) bills itself as "a national platform to exchange ideas, discuss ethics, and explore important legal issues." The site contains a wealth of resources including all member entities (sections, divisions, forums, commissions, and committees). It also has areas devoted to publications, policy, and advocacy; and resources for law students, media, and the general public. In other words, it has everything you would expect from the world's largest volunteer, professional membership association.
Two good ABA section web pages on the ABA site that provide more focused, noncommercial portals are those of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division and the Law Practice Management Section. The General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division's site (www.abanet.org/genpractice/) includes an archive of articles from recent issues of GPSolo magazine and Solo newsletter, links to state and local bar associations, and offers products and services.
The Law Practice Management Section's site (www.lawpractice.org) includes a summary of hot law-practice issues. You can sign up for the Section's free monthly e-newsletter, LawPractice News, or explore the articles archived from the Section's print newsletter, Law Practice Quarterly. You can also check out weekly opinion polls; a "Best Practices" section featuring practice management solutions; an "Education" area with all upcoming events, conferences, and meetings; a publications catalog; and a special link to the Multidisciplinary Practice Resource Center. Overall, the site is a well-developed, noncommercial legal resource portal for lawyers interested in practice management.
The commercial legal websites are also trying to establish their portal roles by offering much more than a list of their products and services. With new sites popping up almost every day, any list is immediately out of date, but here are a few of the most popular portals I've found.
American Legal Net (www.americanlegal net.com) is a research-driven Internet resource designed mainly for litigators. A pioneer in electronic filing, this service features a comprehensive library, and soon, all U.S. court forms. But it also wants to be "your on-ramp to the information superhighway," and one way it's doing that is with an interesting feature found at the bottom of its navigation menu bar. Called "My Legalnet," this page is designed to be used regularly. There are links to almost anything a lawyer would be interested in, but best of all, the page can be customized with your own favorite links.
Legal research firm Lexis (www.lexis.com) has a site that includes a free electronic advance sheet service ("Daily Opinion Service"); a career center with thousands of job listings; a CLE center listing MCLE-approved seminars; a law schools section; a bookstore; practice areas that are specific to areas of specialty; and, oh, by the way, a complete listing of Lexis products and services.
LawInfo.com (www.lawinfo.com) leaves nothing to chance by claiming to be "Your Gateway to the Law." Starting in 1989 as a referral service in California, LawInfo's stated goal now is to "maintain and enhance our position as the premiere legal information resource on the Internet for attorneys, legal support services and the public alike." To that end, LawInfo.com offers referral lists of lawyers, private investigators, court reporters, expert witnesses, and the like; a law dictionary; a resource guide for law students; an online legal bookstore; message boards; a consumer help section; lots of legal research links; and free lawyer website creation and domain hosting.
FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) calls itself a "leading web portal focused on law and government." It provides access to a comprehensive and fast-growing online library of legal resources for use by legal professionals, consumers, and small businesses. FindLaw's mission is "to make legal information on the Internet easy to find." The site features web search utilities; cases and codes; legal news; and community-oriented tools such as a secure document management utility, mailing lists, message boards, and free e-mail.Networking Forums
Although they're not technically portals because they're not websites, these lists (variously called List Serves, message or discussion boards, or forums), which are online communities of people with similar interests, serve a similar function. One dedicated user of a legal forum wrote in: "I've gotten into the habit of reading my messages in the morning with my tea. You guys are interesting companions! I continue to be amazed at the wealth of knowledge out there; thanks for all those who share."
A good example is the ABA's SOLOSEZ (solosez @abanet.org) List Serve. Sometimes described as the electronic water cooler, SOLOSEZ is the electronic mail forum for lawyers practicing alone or in a small firm setting, particularly those in firms of five or fewer lawyers. With more than 600 lawyers signed up (it's free!), SOLOSEZ offers practitioners the opportunity to pose questions, offer advice, and share information on everything from bankruptcy law to marketing to computer glitches. Participants also share jokes, life experiences, and the camaraderie often found in "chat rooms." Group participants determine the topics for discussion by posting threads on this "active" and totally "unmoderated" list.
An example of how SOLOSEZ has helped me: I recently needed to find a referral lawyer in a small town in Colorado, and within two hours of throwing the request out to the group I had three names to contact. Within a day, I had engaged a lawyer for my client.
The Internet has been described as a very large library with no card index (or a library with all the index cards scattered around the floor!). Many of today's websites are trying to become your front door to that library by offering multiple services and resources at one location.
Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing their profits at the same time. He is the author of Secrets of the Business of Law: Successful Practices for Increasing Your Profits. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.