Law Technology Product News Law Journal EXTRA!
Law Technology Product News
December 1996

The Intranet Is Coming! The Intranet Is Coming!

Law Technology Product News (p. 115, col. 1)
December 1996

And lawyers in the United States could harness its power by adopting the model used by the U.K.'s corporate market.

By Bill Cannings

Usually, there is very little new in the computer industry. Faster, more powerful, smaller, yes, but rarely new. Right now, however, there is a revolution under way in the United Kingdom, and it has nothing to do with our Monarchy's troubles.

Computer users in general and lawyers, in particular, are looking very seriously at the route that the computer industry is mapping out for them. They have a multitude of different systems on their desks; time recording, imaging, accounting, case management, word processing, litigation management, precedents, library, know how and marketing to name but a few. In an effort to leapfrog competitors, software suppliers are adding more and more features and "must-have functionality." The resultant diversity and complexity of front ends--all complying with "the industry standards"--is compelling law firms to spend more and more money on training and maintenance, in an attempt to keep their staff and infrastructure up to date.

Enter a White Knight: the HTML front-end with a supporting Intranet. This is fairly recent news in the United States. But we here in the U.K. market have been using HTML for nearly three years as a front-end for business applications. One of the first installations in the United Kingdom was at Saatchi & Saatchi, the international advertising agency. They have a secure corporate Intranet, allowing access from desktops in all their London offices. This includes access to images, word-processing, press cuttings, advertising and library information.

Why is the U.K. legal and corporate market ahead of its American counterparts in embracing this so-called "new" technology? The adoption of specialized software applications, such as image processing, followed the same pattern, the United Kingdom first, then the States. And the answer lies in demography and market power.

Once Upon a Time

Markets in the United States are spread throughout the country. The United States also dominates computer development, as well as operating system and package production. The result: There is a ready market for U.S. products throughout the nation. Software developers also can produce packages, which will be accepted internationally as well as domestically, as part of a "bundle" of hardware and software.

But the mindset of U.K. lawyers is quite different from their U.S. counterparts in that they are less prepared to have their system modified to fit the demands of a package.

When image processing started to become acceptable in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a rush of package products appeared in the United States. Their penetration into the United Kingdom was hardly spectacular. Instead, in our domestic law firms and corporations, homegrown products met with enormous success.

The reason is quite simple. If two litigators use different word processors, it would make little difference, because their printed copies would look the same. But if the documents in a case must be imaged, then everybody involved in the case needs access.

A plan for scanning and indexing the documents must be in place. A standard set of rules must be applied and a database developed that satisfied everybody's search criteria. The client may need to approve the use of the system and the judiciary may need to be satisfied with its use in court. In a multi-party action other lawyers may also need to be consulted.

London, because of its concentration of commercial activity, is served by a large number of specialist developers, who can adopt a turnkey approach. The U.K. population is about 56 million people, with about 20 percent living in the Greater London area. A disproportionate number, however, about 70 percent of the commercial activity, is centered on London.

London lawyers wholeheartedly embraced specialized, image-based litigation support systems on a wholesale basis. Firms such as Herbert Smith purchased such a system for every one of their 950 desktops.

And Now--The London Fashion

The adoption of the HTML front-end seems to be proceeding in exactly the same manner.

All the browsers in use have been developed in the United States and that domination is unlikely to change. You cannot pick up a newspaper anywhere in the world without reading about the Internet. This very powerful tool has a big part to play in the future of information provision. But alone it does nothing to deal with the real problem at desktop--simple access to all of a case's information. To complete the picture one needs what many London lawyers already have: Software applications feeding into a single HTML front-end.

The provision of, and access to, information, affects everybody in the organization. Most lawyers are data rich and information poor; and information is the key to a lawyers' success or failure. I already have mentioned the diversity of systems that sit on many lawyers' desktops. The systems approach taken by U.K. vendors of Intranets is to view this information as two distinct forms--dynamic and non dynamic--and to aim to provide access to all users with the minimum of disruption to existing methods.

The two issues, therefore, are the data types, be it dynamic or non dynamic, and access. To understand the implications of dynamic and non-dynamic, we should consider the various processes through which the data passes. A word-processing document during drafting and redrafting is dynamic. Once it has been printed, faxed or e-mailed, it becomes non-dynamic. Information stored in a library is always non-dynamic. Accounting applications are always dynamic, but at certain times of the day or month the transactions contained within them take on more of a non-dynamic profile.

In building a corporate Intranet, a parallel database of the dynamic data is created. This may be a mirror copy of the dynamic data, or, in most cases, is a dump of transactions at a previously defined stage. All data that is non-dynamic is passed to the same warehouse. This includes forms of data that previously would have been lost forever, such as third party correspondence, incoming faxes, microfilm converted to image and paper copies. A powerful metafile index is created that allows sorts to be conducted for all the data forms.

While this underlying structure may seem complicated, users are presented with a simple point-and-click HTML front-end that has been designed with their specific requirements in mind. It shows them, in graphical form, the sources of all their data.

So, if they know that the information they require is in the library or precedents database, they just click on an icon. If they do not know where the information they seek may be stored, they click on a search icon and are presented with a search screen that permits Boolean or keyword searching. A schedule is produced, showing the sources and incidence of the relevant information. They then can click and browse, whether it be text data or image.

Because this information is sitting in its own non-dynamic area, it has little impact on the transaction-processing systems that are running in parallel. Sometimes, having conducted a search the lawyer may wish to open--for example, a precedent file, that sits in the word processing file--so that he can use it, the lawyer clicks on his source icon in the schedule produced from the metafile, and the word processor is launched.

It Can Be Quite Secure

It should be stressed that although this is an open corporate Intranet, the information is under strict security control. Data is protected to such an extent that, if the user does not have sufficient clearance, they will not even know that it exists.

Security exists down to page-within-document-level and even redacted parts of images are under security control. Lawyers also can add hidden comments to documents that can be retrieved only if you have the right level of security. Data also is passed around the Intranet in encrypted form, so that if the users are at remote sites, or wish to pass data over the Internet, it is fully protected.

It can be seen from this methodology, that the transaction-intensive applications and the information retrieval systems are able to work in parallel. An analysis of lawyers in the United Kingdom showed that in more than 80 percent of cases, the lawyer used only the transaction processing system to look at historical information, thus placing an unnecessary burden upon it. Adoption of this method allows speedy implementation of an Intranet and means that you do not have to wait, until your legacy system supplier makes their product Intranet-ready. And that is a good idea because some of them are still struggling with the move from DOS to Windows.

The Warehouse Is Forever

Providing, in some cases, parallel data, does increase the amount of disk space required. But this is a small price to pay for having access to all the information. In any event, disks are a commodity that have continued to drop in price. Also, once this data warehouse is built, you have it forever and it is a simple matter to add. More important, from a law firm's point of view, while a lawyer is working for you, they put all their data and research into a structured form, which is understood and available to all their colleagues. Too often in the past, when a lawyer leaves a firm, they carry in their heads, information that becomes lost to their previous employer.

But what about the technology and its associated costs? Well, all the lawyers I know in the United Kingdom have a network infrastructure in place already and see the HTML technology forming a strategic part of their desktop strategy. And such companies as Microsoft and Netscape appear to be falling over themselves to give us better and better browsers free of charge.

How is your firm handling the front-end and Intranet issue?

Bill Cannings is managing director of YMIJS, the largest supplier of software solutions to the legal community in the United Kingdom and president of the newly formed Valid Information Systems in San Jose, Calif.






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