Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000

Leveraging Web-Based Research Tools Through an Intranet

By Jeffrey P. Cohan

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In recent years, we have all become familiar with the Internet and the World Wide Web as a vast repository of information. Many of us believe that everything is "out there." The most common reference requests these days presuppose that the requested information exists on the Internet.

In fact, everything is not on the Internet. But a lot of good stuff is. The way to increase profits and efficiency in a law firm is to design tools that allow lawyers to access information on the web themselves, as quickly as possible and with the least expense.

These tools ease concerns about information reliability, scope, timeliness, and cost, placing those burdens on the intranet manager and relieving the lawyer. Effective design of web research tools decreases reliance on traditional online research tools by providing a menu of accessible choices from various sources. This article is a practical discussion of how this works.

By Way of Background

The idea of leveraging a firm's internal information sources has been around for a long time. Most firms have paper indexes to library holdings, briefs, work product, case law, or legislation that they have kept over the years.

However, the practice picked up steam and got really interesting with the advent of personal computers and network technology. This technology allowed users in an organization to create, share, and centrally store information that could be accessed by any user in the organization from their personal computer.

Librarians and other information professionals charged with managing the firms' resources invented a practice called "knowledge management." In the administration of the law firm, knowledge management initiatives are now commonplace and often include well-designed brief banks and other easily accessed indexes to lawyer work product.

For these access tools to be most effective, it is best if they use a common interface, or access tool, so that patrons need only learn one set of skills to get to information. With the introduction of Windows operating systems to the desktop came a framework allowing point-and-click access to all materials on the firm network.

The advent of web design tools provided for a uniform search structure from the user's Internet browser, allowing access to all materials regardless of format.

Building upon the foundation already established by knowledge management of a firm's internal sources, web design tools should be implemented to leverage a firm's external information demands as well. These tools create what is loosely known as an intranet, an Internet tool restricted to users in an organization.

Knowledge Management and Web Design

Electronic information sources are easier to keep current than print material, can be updated without substantial revision, and can be printed for less expense. For users this provides several potential benefits, including lower costs, increased comprehensiveness, and easier access through keyword and Boolean logic tools, as well as links from traditional access points. Further, electronic format allows for instant distribution of materials to multiple users.

The migration of sources to the World Wide Web from other media, including CD-ROM and dial-in modem connection, reflects a pragmatism about a cheap technology that is easy to support. Proof of this strategy can be seen in the emphasis that BNA, Lexis, Westlaw, Dialog, and other information vendors have placed on developing access tools for the web. In addition, the federal and state governments have taken tremendous initiative to make large segments of their legal information available on the Internet.

It is both reasonable and prudent to develop information policies promoting web access to materials. Managing the web so that the distinction in providers is immaterial to the end user is the goal of a successful knowledge management project.

One Source-More Choices

In the past, one of the principle impediments to effective online research was the limited scope of information from the various research services. For example, Lexis carries the full text of the New York Times, but only digests the Wall Street Journal. Westlaw offers the opposite scope of coverage. When the only access option was via modem to the providers, users who wanted to look at both papers in full text had to dial in and out of the services in a time-consuming process, launching different software applications. A simple knowledge management initiative might be to create a web-based interface to news sources and put the two links near each other. To the user, the organization is convenient, and the distinction between providers is irrelevant.

This type of organization allows the intranet manager to provide information in a more cost-effective matter. In fact, it may be cheaper to subscribe to the New York Times on the web than to use Westlaw or Lexis. The usage patterns of the organization determine the choice the manager makes. Certainly, the manager can set up a link to the free same-day version of the Times for users interested only in perusing the daily newspaper. Again, the information is important; the provider of the source is not critical.

The best option from among differently priced information options is the primary choice on the firm intranet. This discourages users with brand loyalty from using one commercial source to the exclusion of others. Usually, focusing on one information source is not the least expensive way to access all of the information for which one might use that source.

This is particularly true with flat fee or core service pricing agreements. Many firms take advantage of these deals because they offer budgeting predictability and allow the firm to leverage their market share to get a more competitive price. One potential drawback with these deals comes when users access core providers for information outside of the service agreement. These services are usually at a premium.

In the past, users became accustomed to accessing premium services from core providers through the modem access to the services because of the inconvenience associated with dialing out to separate providers and/or the need for additional training. An effective intranet gives users the breadth of coverage they are accustomed to, but uses cheaper providers.

Indeed, many alternative sources exist. Often securities, public records, and patent information are not included in the core agreements with the major providers of computer-assisted legal research. In addition to free or low-cost government websites, many smaller vendors provide text-searchable access to this information at more competitive prices.

For example, our firm utilizes the New Jersey Division of Revenue on a regular basis. Our litigators often conduct investigative research to determine whether individuals are affiliated with companies, and our corporate attorneys often check for name availability when registering new corporations.

In New Jersey, the Division of Revenue's website provides a free search engine to locate corporate records by the name of the corporation or the officer. Records that include business address, corporate status, state of incorporation, and date of last filing cost $5 each. Often, a free search is all that is needed to see that a name is taken, or that an individual has significant corporate involvement. This cost stands in marked contrast to the rates that the core service providers charge for the same information, which is usually outside of the core agreement and costs $800 to $1,200 per hour to access. The trick to making information options viable is to integrate them seamlessly on the firm intranet.

Further, lawyers are often better able to utilize more expensive services once they have looked to less expensive sources that reference an issue. There are numerous free databases of case law and news that reference key persuasive authority on a given issue. For example, our employment lawyers often consult the Garland's Employment Discrimination Digest as a first place to find references. This source is offered at no charge to individual users, and the links on the intranet indicate this to the lawyers.

Once the researcher has a primary reference, the researcher has been trained to then link to the Shepard's citator service on Lexis. When a lawyer cites a leading authority on an issue, this is a very cost-effective and time-efficient way to retrieve references from the entire Lexis service.

For $5, the lawyer can get all primary and secondary authority collected by Shepard's and across the entire Lexis set of databases. The lawyer can then search this subset of results for as long as they wish by defining and redefining Boolean expression word searches and/or restriction by date, jurisdiction, Shepard's analysis codes, or references to the head notes of the authority being cited.

Play this out in your own mind, using Asahi Metals as the reference in a jurisdictional issue involving minimum contacts, and you can envision the power of this cheap research tool.

Teaching lawyers to use the intranet to familiarize themselves with secondary analysis before accessing primary sources is an extension of traditional library research training. In this scenario, lawyers already appreciate proper research procedure, and it is easy to convey enthusiasm about the cost and efficiency gains that are realized by the firm and passed on to the client.

Information research sources are organized on a uniform intranet platform, and they are easy to access. By using this organization and providing a mix of cost-effective resources, our firm has provided a greater level of service and reduced our online expenditures by approximately 40 percent. As vendors change their pricing and service levels, we can respond flexibly without putting undue pressure on our patrons to learn new access tools.

Beyond Price: Better Products

Gathering relevant sources of information to address the needs of legal practitioners promotes comprehensive analysis. No single vendor or government unit provides all the tools in one place. A well-organized research tool has three sources of information organized topically and by structure of authority. These include primary law, executive and administrative interpretation, and secondary sources of analysis. Further, the lawyer needs search tools to explore the factual structures behind the law. Side by side, resources from various providers create a product that is better than what any single provider can offer.

This is the unifying force behind the design of an intranet research site. By way of example, one can look to the areas of product liability and environmental practice. Our firm's intranet menus provide access to individual commercial databases comprising primary and secondary authority, as well as the lexis.com Shepard's service described earlier. They also provide links to the governmental agencies charged with enforcing the laws. For example, the OSHA and EPA websites have agency interpretations that can be found only on these sites or in a printed agency publication.

The intranet also provides links to free sources of nonlegal information that aid in defining the facts. These include the Merck Manuals, Medline, Technical Standards, and various drug and vitamin directories from assorted sources. It is also important to keep links to sources of statistical information (freely provided by the government on the Internet). Basic-and free-reference information, including maps, directories, dictionaries, atlases, transportation information, and calendars should also be a part of the intranet.

Using the Intranet to Track Clients

In addition to free government information, free news sources can easily be linked to on the intranet. These news sources usually include the wire services, CNN, MSNBC, and some regional sources. Yahoo! allows you to set up a link for news searches that tracks news for the previous two weeks.

The clients' information section of our intranet contains news links to all of our clients. For some clients, we set up commercial links to Lexis news sources not picked up for free by the other web engines.

Some clients and matters are so central to the operation of the firm that they require constant monitoring. Several of the search engines on the web have made a news notification program available to Internet users at no charge. Our intranet has set up a link to the search request form on Excite. This form allows the user to enter a relatively simple Boolean word search and to set the service to run a news search twice a day. When there are results, the user is notified immediately by e-mail.

Recently, one of our clients predicted that a client of theirs would soon declare bankruptcy. They asked us to keep track of it as a courtesy. The bankruptcy attorney assigned the matter set a news alert using the name of the debtor. Several days later, the wires released the news about the bankruptcy filing at 3:30 EST. The lawyer was informed by e-mail at 3:38 and was on the phone with the client by 3:45. The filing didn't appear on the publicly accessible docket until several days later. We spent no money or time, but by providing an easy interface to create a news alert search on our intranet, we maintained a good client relationship.

We also provide other links to client information on our intranet to keep our lawyers informed about clients and their interests. Through FreeEdgar, we have set up free links to retrieve security filings of individual companies from the past several years. Annual reports and proxies are useful for learning about corporate management and 8-Ks provide news on recent developments.

Links to client websites are excellent tools for keeping current with the information clients want known about themselves. Also, these links are useful for educating associates who are new to a matter. Similarly, we link to the Martindale-Hubbell corporate directory and provide instruction on how to link to the various corporations.

The intranet is a very cost-effective and efficient source for keeping lawyers informed about the activities of their clients. Further, the creation of a client knowledge base promotes the information leveraging goals of knowledge management generally. Partners often assign client monitoring duties to upcoming associates. They expect feedback on client developments. The client monitoring assignment provides the catalyst and organization for training associates on maintaining and sustaining client involvement.

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Jeffrey P. Cohan is the librarian at Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey in Newark, New Jersey.

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