General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Building a Better Bulletin Board

(A.K.A. the Intr "a" Net)

By Steven S. Stern

Notices from the IRS, workers’ compensation rules, paid holidays, frequently called numbers, favorite carry-out restaurants, lost and found, office policies, and a few cartoons from Dilbert fill the cork-board bulletin boards in the kitchens of law firms across the nation. Using software you already own, you can build a better bulletin board—one capable of being organized and updated in a moment’s notice, without risk of injury from sharp metal tacks.

Over the past few years, I have noticed that many firms continue to use the public bulletin board as a means to communicate firm-related information such as the short list mentioned above. However, several factors are making this form of communication less than effective. Such factors include:

• work-at-home and part-time employees

• multiple office locations

• changing state and federal notice requirements

• limited staff resources available to keep information current

The issue arises as to how to communicate time-sensitive information to your staff using your existing technology investment. Although electronic mail is an effective means of communicating changes, it does not provide a common source for the information such as the old-fashioned cork bulletin board.

The solution may be found "re-using" technology commonly found in almost every law firm network.

The discussion that follows provides a basic recipe for creating what is known as an Intranet. The ultimate goal of an Intranet site is to communicate accurate and timely information in a cost-effective manner to a limited audience.

Defining the Problem

Law firms, like many of their clients, are required by state and federal law to post notices in common and conspicuous areas. Oftentimes, law firms publish employee procedure manuals that provide vital information such as vacation, sick leave, and paid holiday policies. In addition to firm-related information, employees may want to post information about upcoming community activities.

Once the information is created, distributing it becomes a daunting task. Does the firm publish the information in book form, post it on the board in the hallway, or simply hand it out in memorandum form? Many firms have utilized e-mail to distribute such documents; however, the staff will tend to "save" e-mail well beyond the useful life of the document. Oftentimes, besides wasting system resources storing multiple documents, various versions of the document may be saved and eventually misused.

Exploring the Concepts

Low Cost, High Accuracy Communication

Imagine if the information could be distributed in a form as convenient as your favorite Internet Website. Actually, don’t imagine—do! The Internet is a fabulous form of communication. What other form of communication can reach the magnitude of audience with such a high level of accuracy and low cost? The answer is simple—there is none!

What Makes a Website?

Word processing software such as Microsoft Word creates documents in Microsoft Word format. Corel WordPerfect software creates WordPerfect format documents. Both of these software packages are capable of saving documents in a variety of formats. This allows the user (you) to open the electronic document in a variety of applications.

Without regard to the feelings of those talented Web designers and programmers, a Web page is nothing more than a word processing document saved in a special format called HTML. HTML documents may be opened by every Web browser regardless of whether the browser is used on an IBM-, Apple-, or Unix-based system. Because of its wide compatibility with diverse computer systems, it was quickly adopted as the standard document type for the Internet’s World Wide Web. The format is so popular that both Word and WordPerfect allow you to open and save documents in HTML format. This means that any document created by Word or WordPerfect may be viewed on the Internet without the need for programming.

A "Website" is simply a collection of HTML documents. It is the content and organization of the various documents that distinguish a useful Website from one that merely looks good. The next time you are browsing the Internet, take a look at the "address." You will notice that as you click along, the address looks like a subdirectory on your hard drive. For example, "www.ltsweb.net/company/info.htm." If we break down the address, you will see that "www.ltsweb.net" is the address of the site, "/company" is the subdirectory on the Web server and "info.htm" is the name of the file.

The next time you open your favorite Internet browser, notice that there is a menu category called "File." Under "File" there is an "Open" option. If you select "Open," the browser will prompt you for either a Website address or a file on your system. This means that you can "browse" your own network for Web pages. We recommend that you create a "shortcut" on everyone’s desktop to make accessing the firm’s Intranet site easier. We also recommend that you make the site a part of the user’s "startup directory" so that it launches every time the computer starts.

Internet versus Intranet

The primary difference between an Internet Website and an Intranet Website is the intended audience. Internet implies open to the public; whereas, Intranet implies accessible to those "within" the firm. A firm may desire to share certain information with its staff that it would not want to share with the general public.

Many firms have implemented Intranet sites before their own Website. This decision may be attributed to the ease and informality of an Intranet site. Because Intranet sites are intended only for staff, there is no need for spinning logos and animated graphics.

Defining Content

Once the firm has made the decision to transform its cork and board to an Intranet site, the firm must begin collecting "content." Content can include any information that the firm has created or gathered that needs to be shared among its staff. A brief list of content is provided below:

Employee Manual

Phone and E-mail Directory

Firm Fax Coversheet

Firm Letterhead Macro

Request for Supplies

Client Intake Form

Lost & Found

Classified Ads

Firm News

Community Events

Client Lists

Once the firm decides the demand for each category of information, it can begin constructing the Intranet Website. The next step is to create a "home page" for the firm. The home page functions the same as a table of contents for a book. However, instead of turning pages, the user clicks on the word or picture of the topic and the computer browser loads the appropriate subpage.

Getting Started

Assigning the Staff

Once you decide on the information to provide, assign a person who is responsible for creating the Intranet site. This person should possess advance word processing skills and understand how your firm Network is organized.

Selecting the Content

Selecting the content may be as simple as going to your firm’s current bulletin board. Take a look at the types of information on the board and start there. If you happen to work with a specially organized person, maybe the board is divided into categories. If so, much of your work is already done.

Once you have decided on the categories of information, you must now construct a document containing the information. For example, if you have a category called "Employee Documents," and would like to distribute the firm’s policy manual, you must make an electronic document. Fortunately, the document is most likely already in a word processing format such as Microsoft Word. Simply save the document in HTML format and you have your first Intranet document. Continue creating documents until you have the desired content.

Picking the Right Tools

Next, you will need to pick the software tools you will use to create the Intranet site. We recommend using either your word processing software or purchase a Website building program such as Microsoft FrontPage. As one would expect, the software designed to create Websites usually include a sample corporate Intranet example.

In most cases, these Web builder applications include Web functions that will make your site more useful. For example, FrontPage includes a function that allows employees to post their own classified advertisements. Without regard to whether allowing employees to post their own classified ads is a good firm policy, at least you know that you can do it.

Organizing the Content

Once you have created the HTML documents you must organize them. I suggest that you create a directory for the Intranet site and subdirectories for each major category. For example, LTS’s sample Intranet site is organized as follows:

\intranet

\forms

\events

\docs

\wiz-says

Each directory contains only the "documents" contained in the Intranet main category. If we need to update a particular document, we can quickly find it. Of course, we only change the information in the document, not the name. This allows us to keep our index page without having to edit it too.

Giving Employees Access

Next, you must give the employees the rights to view the information. We suggest that you assign "read-only" rights to the Intranet site. You can even assign different levels of rights to protect confidential information such as employee phone numbers and client lists.

Finishing Touches

When the Intranet site is completed, the information must remain current. This is why we suggest that the task is assigned to one or more staff members. This task does not have to be a full-time job, although the temptation does exist. The task should be to keep company news current and to make certain that the "latest and greatest" version of any of the documents listed is available on the Intranet.

Also, you should continue improving the Intranet site to include new features every so often. Some Intranet sites allow the user to not only open documents but perform tasks such as launching applications. This means that the Intranet site could have entries such as:

Create Retainer Agreement

View Incoming Faxes

Dial the Internet

Open New Client Form

Send E-mail to Everyone

Request a Cup of Coffee

Of course, some of the tasks listed above will require programming knowledge beyond the scope of this article!

Conclusion

An Intranet site designed for a law firm can benefit the firm in many ways. Most importantly, the firm creates a more efficient means of distributing information to its staff. Moreover, the firm provides its staff with a reliable and accurate source for retrieving information.

Finding the correct version of a document is difficult enough with or without an automated document management system. By creating an Intranet site, the firm naturally reduces the amount of time and staff people required to obtain information.

The law firm should start with its most important internal documents and expand the site as the staff accepts this form of communication. Unlike traditional e-mail, the Intranet site provides a common repository for the information. This means employees do not have to save e-mail that contains file attachments individually anymore. This also means that the firm can reduce the expense required to reprint and distribute lengthy
documents.

Start with your office form file and keep going; you won’t regret it. n

Steven S. Sternis with Legal Technology Solutions in Baltimore, Maryland.

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