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December 1999

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MIS@ The San Francisco Public Defender's Office

Growing Your Own Intranet Is Easier Than You Expect

Sometimes, when push comes to shove, you just have to do it yourself.

By Grace L. Suarez

SAN FRANCISCO Public Defender Jeff Brown, the only elected public defender west of the Mississippi, heads an 80-lawyer office that handles the vast majority of the criminal and juvenile cases filed in San Francisco.

Though our office is fortunate in being relatively well funded (by public defender standards, which are notoriously bad), we have large caseloads, short time frames, and very little money to spare.

Last year we were fortunate enough to secure funding from the city to provide a computer on every attorney's desk, all networked together.

Shortly after we set up the system, I suggested that we implement an Intranet site, where we all could post calendars, our brief bank, our motions, etc.

Our Chief Trial Attorney Jeff Adachi, (the second-in-comand), decided to hire a professional Web site designer to do the job. This seemed like a good idea, because my own qualifications for the job are nonexistent. I am the office's head of research, and while I am considered very computer literate, I am completely self-taught, and certainly no programmer.

Using the services of the vendor who had supplied our equipment, we contracted with a designer. We had one meeting, where he saw a simple prototype I had designed using WordPerfect's Web features. (I told you, I'm no programmer.)

He asked a number of intelligent questions, and accepted the CD-ROM I had burned with my prototype, as well as samples of the content we would be putting on the site. He told us he would be using Microsoft's Front Page, as it would be an easy package to learn for the maintenance and updating, which would be our responsibility. That is the last time we ever saw him. The deadlines came and went. Finally, after two months of waiting, Jeff Adachi terminated his contract.

Do It Ourselves?

In the meantime, I had taught myself to use Front Page, and had designed a little site. I suggested to Jeff that we do the whole thing ourselves. He agreed, and said, how long do you need? I said, "How about two days?" In two days the site was up and running.

Since then we have added content on a daily basis, and the site is now about 500MB in size. It resides in a dedicated server on the network, a simple Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM running Windows NT and Front Page Extensions.

I create the new pages on a version of the site that resides on my computer, and I publish to the server almost daily. The site's design is very simple. I use one of the themes supplied by Front Page, and very little in the way of animated GIFs or fancy buttons.

The site is maximized for speed and simplicity of use. Each department and practice area has its own home page and as many subsidiary pages as necessary.

Brief Bank

After setting up the basic site, I tackled a huge project: our brief bank. Like most law offices, we had a collection of paper motions, briefs, and forms that we had created over the years. The brief bank resided in six file drawers, arranged alphabetically by client's last name.

A paper index in a three-ring binder provided cross-referencing by topic. An attorney looking for a motion to suppress evidence would look under "Suppression" in the index, find a brief description of the motion and the name of the client, pull the paper document and photocopy it.

This system worked only in theory. In practice, attorneys in a hurry, (public defenders are always in a hurry), would take the original, promising to return it. Then it would get lost in the mess on their desks, never to be seen again. If the document was there by some miracle, it would be torn, dirty, and after a while, illegible.

I decided to go through every document, scanning the ones that were still of value, and putting them on the site. I acquired, (with my own money because there was none in the budget), a Hewlett Packard 6250 ScanJet with document feeder. We already had Adobe Acrobat 3.

One by one, I pulled the briefs, looked them over and then fed them into the scanner. I set up the scanner next to my computers, so I could do other work while the scanner screeched along. The only drawback was the noise, which got annoying after a while. After scanning, I transferred the documents to the site, and dragged the document's title to the Web page, which established a link to the document.

Now, all our attorneys have to do is click on the document's title, and Adobe Acrobat Reader fires up within the browser, and the document may be viewed, saved on the hard disk or printed.

It was a lot of work, but well worth it. Once I finished the scanning and indexing, I threw away the old paper brief bank. That was a red letter day for me, and the attorneys recovered from the shock in a short time.

Electronic Documents

Electronic documents, created in WordPerfect, are indexed in the same way. Another great feature is the ability to post up-to-the-minute calendars. Our attorneys are assigned to preliminary hearing courts on certain days, and the schedule is constantly changing because of trials, vacations and illnesses. We wasted a lot of paper before, and could never be quite sure that the calendar we held in our hands was current.

Now the supervisors create simple calendars in WordPerfect, send them to me by dropping them in the Intranet Inbox (a shortcut to a network folder placed on everyone's desktop by our system administrator, Tom Brown), and I import them directly into a Web page. Phone lists are kept up to date in the same way.

Our Intranet also has numerous links to Internet Web pages. This simple trick saves a lot of updating time. Instead of entering the Superior Court's current phone list, I just set up a link to its Web site. The information is as fresh as that site's Webmaster keeps it.

Our "Investigation" home page has many links to people finder, map and other information sites. Our "Research" home page has links to sites offering legal information. This means our attorneys don't have to worry about keeping up their own bookmarks.

My goal at this time is nothing less than to create a complete repository of the collected knowledge of our office. There are so many bits of information floating around that have never been reduced to writing. They are just handed down from attorney to attorney, and a new deputy may spend precious minutes just trying to find out the exact directions to the county jail (which is in another county).

Why shouldn't she be able to log on, check out the directions, and even print out a map? Now she can. I've started a new page called "How Do I," where I collect those frequently asked questions. I created the document in WordPerfect, which I then publish to .htm format and transfer to the Web site.

Only a few short months after it went online, our homemade Intranet is becoming the place where attorneys go to intuitively. Whether they are looking for a phone number, a vacation request, or a sample habeas corpus petition, they know they can find it there. And if they can't, they send me an e-mail, and what they want will be there tomorrow.

It's easy and fun to design and maintain, and I feel that I'm making a lasting contribution to the office, one that will be here long after I retire. It's a good feeling.

Grace L. Suarez is the head of research, and Webmaster, at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office.

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