Intranets & Law Libraries

The Special Libraries Association Legal Division’s newsletter published a short article I wrote on intranets in law firms.  Intranets are a huge topic and many of the articles I’ve read talk about how librarians can prepare their organizations for them: committees, discussions, business decision makers, getting buy-in. Since that ground has been well covered, I thought I’d jump to the “what next” piece. Now you have all of these folks thinking an intranet is a good idea, now what? I’ve included the full text of the article as well as a link to the edited-for-space version, below, as well as some other thoughts on intranets.

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the term intranet because I’m not sure that the distinction of intra- and extra- really exists any longer.  If I can get to my corporate intranet over a virtual private network (VPN) connection, it’s clearly an intranet still.  But wouldn’t it be more useful if, like my corporate Web mail, I could log into the “intranet” while I was outside the corporate communications network completely?  That’s rhetorical.  The answer’s yes.

Get Your Intranet Engines Started

Legal Division Quarterly (LDQ) Winter / Spring vol. 16, nos. 1 and 2

The intranet is an information sharing standard in many organizations.  These private Web sites, usually only available inside the corporate network and by internal personnel, spark delight in various parts of the business.  The COO sees the intranet as making the firm more progressive, the CFO can use it to cut down on paper, the CIO can automate some processes that are staff intensive, like updating the firm’s phone directory.

But what is an intranet and how do you create one?  Intranets are fantastic because there is no right answer as to what it looks like or does.  Numerous authors have discussed the social requirements to make an intranet successful, getting buy-in, acknowledging both the bottom-up and top-down participation, and so on.  In the end, it is not about the technology but about the people who are going to use it.

Build It

Where to start?  In many law firms, the first step is often to ask what other firms are doing.  In 2007, respondents to the International Legal Technology Association annual technology survey indicated that nearly 1/3d had no intranet, and another 1/3d had built a custom intranet.  ( http://tinyurl.com/2007iltasurvey )  The rest are using a mixture of proprietary applications that are heavy on search and document management.  Whatever technology you choose for your intranet, you can forget about “turnkey” systems.  You are going to need to customize whatever you select to make it useful for your organization.

Your reliance on your Information Technology staff will have a large impact on what your technology choices include.  If you are at a larger firm, you might incorporate a large search tool with customized applications that expose information from your other systems.  See Nina Platt’s list of case studies for examples.  http://lawfirmintranet.com/case-studies/.  Some intranets focus on using portal software, like Oracle’s Plumtree portal, Interwoven’s Worksite,  or Microsoft’s Sharepoint.   All of these will require additional customization to create intranet resources.  You will want to make sure there is a way to search the content on your intranet, as an alternative to whatever navigation you include.

Other alternatives  may fit your environment and, especially in our current economic conditions, your firm’s budget.  First, look at wikis to create your intranet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software ).  Wikis like Mediawiki or TWiki are free to acquire, which can make your project more appealing.  TWiki is an excellent intranet-friendly application because it has been extended by users to supplement its base functionality.  In addition to the wiki, you can add search enhancements (search Microsoft Word or PDF documents on the wiki) or blog tools.   The ability to extend your intranet will be important for future growth; don’t plan too narrowly.

Shovel Ready

A hosted wiki may suit your environment better.  There are many free hosted wikis, but a business oriented wiki like PBwiki provides special hooks.  For example, you can tie your login process to your firm’s logins, so lawyers and staff don’t have to learn a new username and password.  They even have a return-on-investment calculator (http://www.pbwikiroi.com/).  Although they blur the internal part of intranet, you can secure access to your organization even if it is outside your firewall.

Portal technology is an even better fit for intranets, since it can be customized and extended to open up more content, and your intranet content is key.  Many firms already own Microsoft Sharepoint but you may not have the IT support to make it as flexible as you need.  You can create an intranet quickly using open source apps like Drupal (http://www.drupal.org) or Plone (http://www.plone.org) and then extend the intranet with portlets or other add-ons that provide the types of content you want on the intranet.  They incorporate tagged content, allow for multiple editors with workflow controls, and are easy to manage by non-technical staff.

Not sure about open source?  Try them out.  Go to a Web hosting company like Siteground.com or Bluehost.com and sign up for less than $10 a month.  They provide free support for Drupal, Mediawiki, and other intranet-friendly technologies.  Like many Web hosts, they use the Fantastico installation system, so you can set up a Joomla or Drupal portal or TikiWiki wiki in about 5 minutes; the installation is automated.  You can try a free Plone installation at Objectis.org or work with one of the many Plone hosts listed at Plone.net:  http://plone.net/hosting-providers.  Plone 3’s Livesearch makes finding information easier within your site.

Get Organized

Once you have your technology framework, you can start to plug in the content that will be most meaningful for the intranet’s audience.  No matter what you include, make it valuable and if you cannot find a business value for the information, leave it out.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Value It.  An intranet is a great place for that ready reference information that is needed “just in time” and where you can add value by making it easier to find.  Frequently called numbers, periodically updated interest rates, policies or materials that generate frequently asked questions are all great places to start if they don’t duplicate another internal resource.
  2. Personalize It.  Tailor the content to the users.  Practice area pages are a no-brainer in many organizations, but you can likely segment your intranet in other ways.  If you use a controlled vocabulary in your Plone tags, for example, you can create links that pull together content based on tags.  Don’t let the burden of logging in outweigh the benefits of personalized content.
  3. Update It.  Work with the practice groups or other units to identify news sources that can be embedded using RSS feeds to make the site more than a document repository.  You may be able to use your Lexisnexis or Thomson-Westlaw subscriptions or even a public source like Google News or a scrape any Web page and turn it into a custom feed using Feedity.com.
  4. Reuse It.  Look for ways to leverage information that is already in your firm, without anyone rekeying it.   This can be as simple as taking an important email and republishing it to the intranet so it doesn’t disappear into an e-mail black hole.  Some organizations use a spreadsheet like Microsoft’s Excel to track event-like information.  Instead of posting it as a flat Web page, Google “convert excel to rss” for some easy tools for turning your content into feeds.  They can help automate updating, and you may be able to extend your feeds to mobile users.
  5. Get Closer to It.  Lexisnexis and Westlaw provide  intranet toolkits so that you can build deep links into your databases.  You can place search forms for Keycite or Shepards right on your intranet to save your lawyers from the extra clicks to reach the preferred citator.  Important new case?  Create a link directly to the opinion and add it to the intranet.
    Westlaw Intranet link builder for US, UK, and Canada:  http://intranetsolutions.westlaw.com/customize/wizards/Search/USDBBas.wl
    Westlaw Watch:
    http://watch.westlaw.com/signon/default.aspx?so=ns
    LexisNexis AU Link Builder:
    http://www.lexisnexis.com.au/aus/products/lexisnexisau/tools/
    LexisNexis Intranet Tools:
    http://w3.lexis.com/hottopics/intranetsolutions/
  6. Share It.  The intranet will be most powerful when it is kept current and contains significant useful content.  If your firm is concerned about who can contribute, use the workflow tools that are in many of the wiki and content management applications to create an editorial process.  Keep it light to encourage participation, and distribute ownership so that no single person  – especially you – is a bottleneck to adding content.

There is no one right way to create an intranet.  Roll it out and get feedback, create new iterations quickly and help it to grow into a powerful resource for your organization.

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