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July 2001
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I.T.@The State Bar Of Texas

The Road to MYTexasBar

A bumpy trip but worth the effort.

By Craig Ball

The Road to MYTexasBar IN June 2000, Lynne Liberato was installed as president of the State Bar of Texas, and I was appointed chair of the technology advisory committee. My marching orders: Use emerging technologies to enable the bar to deliver something to the lawyers of Texas that would support their practices.

We held a brainstorming retreat, and focused on the need for Web resources -- an area where the bar lagged. Our lawyers were going online in large numbers, but we had little to offer them.

I'm an early adopter of Web technologies and have given hundreds of CLE speeches about using the Web and computers. An ardent fan of portal sites, online legal research and electronic calendaring, I knew these technologies were ready for prime time, but would have to be simple and affordable if we were going to see widespread adoption by lawyers.

We set out to build a portal geared to the practice of law in Texas; one that would offer real estate lawyers tools and information suited to that practice; while litigators or I.P. specialists could have a different custom-tailored set.

I began scouring the Web, looking at the features common to portal sites, and figuring out which would be best suited to law practice. The list included the usual stuff (news, weather and stock quotes), but also included calendaring, browser-based e-mail, time-billing, lawyer humor and -- the Holy Grail-- online legal research. I dubbed our potential portal "Junior Partner" and registered the domain.

Two Hurdles

Initially, I assumed we would build and host the portal ourselves: co-locating servers with a broadband provider; purchasing and configuring portal software; and licensing content feeds.

The first hurdle would be time. If we built something from scratch, it wouldn't be operational within the term of the bar president spearheading the project. For a project like this to succeed, you can't just build it and wait for it to be discovered and used. As in the for-profit realm, promotion and instruction would be as much a key to success as the quality of the product. We would need to use Liberato's presidential clout to get the product out in front of the lawyers and to generate excitement.

The second hurdle: Cost. It quickly became apparent that we didn't have the resources to build a portal from scratch. How could we fund the equipment purchases and hire the people needed to create and support a portal to serve all 66,000 lawyers in Texas? How do you offer an adequate library of cases and statutes without charging a subscription fee?

The answer to the first question came about by happenstance. While vetting online calendaring offerings, I was steered to a new feature at www.findlaw.com called "MYFindLaw." The site already offered many of the features we were wanted, in an easy, customizable portal. If we could build on what FindLaw had begun, we wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel, and our hardware and software dilemma would disappear. We needed a partnership.

If FindLaw would build a unique version of MYFindLaw for Texas lawyers, the State Bar of Texas would, in turn, share development costs and aggressively promote the site. FindLaw would gain a large lawyer audience for its content, and the Bar could deliver a first-rate portal product without substantial cost. Win-Win.

I contacted Suhrud Shah at FindLaw and had the good fortune to find people that were receptive to our proposal.

Working Model

My next step was to create a working model of what our site would look like. It's a lot easier to sell something if your target doesn't have to imagine how it looks and works. Especially where branding and content are at issue, being able to "show" rather than "tell" puts reservations to rest. I used Microsoft FrontPage to build a ramped-up version of MYFindLaw, complete with co-branded logos and working interfaces for the new modules.

To promote the site to content providers, I put together a slick PowerPoint presentation touting the demographics of the Texas Bar as the third largest lawyer market in the nation and detailing how each component of the portal program would work. President Liberato and I traveled to Mountain View, Calif. to meet with the FindLaw team and returned to Texas confident we were moving in the right direction.

In an effort to expand upon the content we would get from FindLaw and generate internally, I approached other content providers, including law.com (for access to online content from Texas Lawyer magazine, an American Lawyer Media Inc. publication), Red Gorilla (for online time-and-billing) and the Cartoon Bank (for New Yorker magazine lawyer cartoons).

To line up the online legal research component, I went to Westlaw (West Group), Lexis (now LexisNexis Group), National Law Library, Loislaw (now a division of Aspen Publishers), and several others offering Texas case law.

The pitch was, "If you furnish a core group of Texas research materials, we would help you cross-promote and up sell your other offerings."

Westlaw, already enjoying most of the Texas market share for online legal research, was willing to offer five years of Texas cases. Lexis, with little to lose in Texas, was willing to furnish most of the data we sought (sans official page numbers), but only on the condition that they host the portal. We weren't about to dump FindLaw, but it wouldn't have mattered if we were because Lexis was behind in its development of a full-fledged portal product; we wouldn't have seen the project take shape for many months. Loislaw was in upheaval and subsequently bought by Aspen Publishers (Wolters Kluwer), so its lack of interest came as no surprise.

Other Internet-based research providers offered workable schemes, but the company that best understood the opportunity and could deliver the goods turned out to be right in my own backyard. In exchange for cash and promotional opportunities,

The National Law Library, a Houston-based online legal research provider, agreed to furnish a Boolean and proximity searchable database of 50 years of Texas cases, all of our statutes, the Texas Constitution, court rules, a Texas brief bank and a legislative tracking system. With the help of an underwriter, we would be able to offer these services to every lawyer in Texas for free. We had our killer app!

Development Timetable

The development timetable called for beta testing to begin in November. If it was to succeed, the interface would have to be bulletproof and as user-friendly as anything out there. We would need glowing word-of-mouth to bring in the skeptics.

Beta testing was designed to help us find the glitches before any bad buzz might emerge. Our goal was to have 500 to 1,000 lawyers putting the site through its paces for at least two months before we went live to the entire Bar.

The FindLaw team was wonderfully supportive. They worked with me night and day to get the job done. Two of the FindLaw folks in particular, Vasu Kappettu and Cicely Wilson, deserve special mention for the many, many hours they put into this project, and for finding a way to incorporate the dozens and dozens of modifications we requested.

The project had its rocky moments. For one, we had to change the name late in the game when it was decided that "Junior Partner" wasn't very Texan. This meant redrafting everything that used the old moniker and coming up with a new logo.

In keeping with Internet conventions, the portal became known as "MYTexasBar" and, fortunately, that domain name was available.

We dodged a bullet when Red Gorilla, the company that was tapped to host the time-billing component of the site, went belly up before being added to the site. I shudder to think what would have happened if thousands of Texas lawyers had lost access to their billing data when Red Gorilla bit the big banana!

The latest close call came when West Publishing Company acquired FindLaw. How, we wondered, was West going to react to its subsidiary hosting a site giving away online legal research? Thanks in large measure to FindLaw's husband-and-wife founders, Tim Stanley and Stacy Stern, and to West's credit, the commitment was made to support the Texas partnership, including its legal research component. Contracts are important, but personal commitment and integrity make all the difference.

The portal emerged from development with nearly every feature I'd hoped to see. We had a powerful and flexible online calendar and contact manager that synched with Microsoft Outlook and Palm applications; a legal research tool with a 50-year look-back; news feeds from Associated Press and Reuters; legal news and case updates from FindLaw; a daily cartoon; a 20 MB-per-user storage repository; specialty-specific CLE offerings; regional news from The Texas Lawyer; a searchable Federal Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court decision database; weather data; financial market monitors and stock quotes; discussion boards; libraries and forums; daily State Bar announcements; a Texas lawyer locator; an S.E.C. EDGAR interface; a forms library; legal dictionary; browser-based e-mail; and more. All free.

The beta helped us identify features that needed to be added, and it showed that, despite a user base of highly skilled, well-educated attorneys, you couldn't underestimate a user's computer skills. You simply can't make it too simple.

The portal debuted on Feb. 5, 2001. In four months, we had more than 20,000 registered users, roughly one-in-three practicing lawyers in Texas. In April, we recorded more than 100,000 log-ins, with the average time for each visit exceeding 25 minutes.

But we are not content to rely upon "if we build it, they will come." The success of the project is as much attributable to a coordinated program of promotion as to the high quality of the product promoted.

Continuing commitment of the leadership was essential, and our techniques included direct mail, viral marketing, merchandising, brochures, posters, newsletters, contests -- even a video trailer at most CLE coffee breaks.

We are already at work on MYTexasBar 2.0, with more tools, a comprehensive lawyer link list and an improved interface. To stay valuable, we must keep the content fresh, the platform stable, the product support patient and friendly and, above all, the price free. The next challenge for the bar's Technology Advisory Committee: statewide electronic filing.

Craig Bell practices law in Houston.

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