Intranet: Walk before you run
by DANA H. SHULTZ
Many years ago, when I was selling litigation support software and services, I observed that firms went through three phases regarding their effectiveness in using the technology my employer was promoting.
In the first phase, which I called experimentation, firms dabbled, trying to understand the characteristics and benefits of automated document management and transcript research. In the second, or consolidation phase, firms identified internal litigation support gurus who would guide other litigators and paralegals in selecting software and using it appropriately.
The third phase was routinization. In this rarely-reached Nirvana, firms identified standard products for firm-wide use and implemented procedures by which litigation support was automatically applied to every case.
I see something similar happening with respect to intranets.
An intranet is an internal network that uses Internet-based technologies, such as Web servers, browsers and discussion groups, to share information within an organization. The intranet resides on, and coexists with, the network currently in the office. The principal attractions of an intranet are low cost (relative to other methods of storing and retrieving information) and ease of use (anyone can use a Web browser).
Looking at the small but quickly growing number of firms implementing intranets, I see three phases developing here, too.
In the first phase, the firm seeks to save money by making available, via the intranet, reference information that historically has been distributed on paper. Telephone directories, policy manuals and other administrative documents are distributed online. In this phase, the intranet serves as an archive of relatively static information.
Firms often will provide, in addition, a page leading users to helpful sites on the Internet. These might include, for example, legal research services and major clients web sites.
An attraction of the first-phase intranet is its relatively low cost. Once the internal web server is up and running (costing, at most, a few thousand dollars), existing word processing documents can be converted to the proper format and loaded quite easily.
In the second phase, the firm focuses on adding practice-related information for example, profiles of judges or latest developments in specific practice areas.
Few attorneys are likely to spend hours or days doing a brain dump of everything they know in a given area. Accordingly, one of the most effective ways to implement Level 2 is to create threaded discussion groups akin to CompuServe forums that will aggregate practice-related information over time.
Groups can be set up to reflect various aspects of the firms practice. Within each discussion group, users post queries and comments. Other users can post responses and replies to responses, ad infinitum, with each set of related postings constituting a thread.
Software for the second-phase intranet might cost another few thousand dollars. The greater cost is related to and the greater benefits are derived from the time attorneys put in to make contributions to the firms knowledge base.
In the third phase, the firms focus shifts to facilitating communication with clients, who tap into the intranet to retrieve work product, receive matter status updates and see how actual fees and expenses compare to the matter budget. (An intranet that has been extended to clients, but not the rest of the Internet-using public, is referred to as an extranet.)
Setting up a third-phase intranet can require advanced data base software and communication technology. Depending on the specific services provided and sophistication of implementation, the investment in hardware, software, security products and installation services is likely to be at least tens of thousands of dollars, and perhaps far more. For this reason, third-phase intranets currently are hard to find in law firms.
Nevertheless, I believe the third level is worth striving for. As intranets become more widespread, prices will go down. And as the legal marketplace becomes more competitive, clients will demand ever-higher levels of service. An intranet just might be the boost you need to stand out from the crowd.
Dana H. Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer, certified management consultant and speaker specializing in office technology and online marketing. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the World Wide Web at www.ds-a.com.