Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
July/August 2003, by Delia Venables


Developing a Portal for your Law Firm
by Delia Venables

This article is based on the 2 day conference “Developing a Portal for your Law Firm” presented by Ark Group on 18th and 19th June, in London. Rather than covering each talk in turn, I have covered the topics as they seemed to fit together in a logical way and not every speaker is mentioned here. However, there is a full list of speakers and their email addresses at the end of the article, here.

A portal is a delivery vehicle which enables the user to find information and also provides services adapted to the user’s requirements. Early stages of portal development presented a menu of some form (perhaps as a series of “boxes”) from which the user would have to choose, but current and future portals are evolving to provide information across the different embedded systems and to provide a different “view” of the information depending on the role or previous choices of the user.

Information can come from a number of sources, both internal and external, and the job of the portal is to combine these in meaningful ways without burdening the user with the many interfaces and searching methods which probably lie behind the information returned.

A key aspect of a portal is that it is browser-based; thus it becomes a natural extension of the world wide web and the firm’s own web site, as well as the firm’s intranet (information available internally to the firm) and extranet (information provided to clients). As time goes on, the word portal will probably replace intranet and extranet, since in reality, they are all the same thing, differentiated primarily by the security applied to the different types of information contained within it.

Implicit within the browser concept is that the portal is available from anywhere so that the lawyer, or the client, can be at home, in a different office in the same country or the other side of the world, in an internet café, or indeed anywhere in the world that has internet access. One of the reasons that portal development is being driven by the very large firms is that they are the ones with offices in many countries, as well as international clients, and the prospect of easy access to the firm’s system across the world is a very attractive one.

Obviously, security is a key concept here. The conference was not itself concentrating on security but the need for very sophisticated, and very reliable, ways of determining who is allowed to have access to each part of the embedded systems was lurking behind several of the presentations. This is not a field to enter without serious technological resources to hand.

Eventually, the portal will provide the only framework for email, allowing a more structured and reliable framework for communication with the client and across client groups; at present, unstructured email is one of the big problems (and risks) for law firms.

Suppliers of the software

According to Janet Day, IT Director of Berwin Leighton Paisner, who chaired the conference, there are 57 varieties of software available! This is partly because the concept of the portal itself is very loosely defined, and many different software suppliers have added on an “umbrella” module to their own software and called it a portal.

Some of the systems available are based on the major Practice Management Systems, some on Document Management Systems, some on Knowledge Management Systems, some on major search engines and some on major database structures. All of these have different virtues.

In fact, if you have any of these types of system running in your firm, your supplier will probably be offering a “portal” to sit on top of it, and (hopefully) to integrate some of the other types of information system available in the firm.

The proliferation of types of software available make it particularly difficult to decide in which direction to go, since any false start could lead to considerable time and money wasted.

Beware also of buying a “portal”, probably at great expense, and then finding that it is really a bolt-on module with yesterday’s technology.

Microsoft’s own portal product, called Sharepoint, was mentioned a number of times, notably by Neil Cameron who said that it would probably win in the end, irrespective of whether it was the best product, but just because it was Microsoft.

Mainly Internal or Mainly External?

One of the interesting aspects of the conference was seeing the very different types of system which the firms were in fact describing as “portals”.

Kevin Doolan, of Eversheds, has developed a number of products for clients which can now all be accessed from a uniform entry point. One of these is a “Knowledge Bank” set up in collaboration with Lexis/Nexis and FT, which provides the client with relevant cases, legislation, news and analysis. Eversheds' own commentary on breaking news is included, as well as legal precedents in some areas (he thinks that clients will want more and more of these). The external content from FT has “metatags” which enable the client to select the type of information provided.

Eversheds also offer a “deal room” although Kevin says that this is really just a filing cabinet online - they have considered complex automatic transactional systems and discounted these, not least because they require the client to undergo a week’s training! However, the “simple” requirement of being able to share documents across a team is extremely useful. Eversheds host the deal rooms at IBM and use IBM’s own services to handle the security for this - Kevin says that this allows him to sleep soundly.

Incidentally, Kevin says that you can charge for deal rooms and Eversheds do indeed charge their clients - apparently, there has been some assumptions around that clients will demand these services for free.

Sarah Hillier, of Clifford Chance, on the other hand, described a “portal” which is intended to provide world wide access for the firm’s own staff rather than the firm’s clients (for whom there are other systems including “Client Connect”). Clifford Chance have more need than most for such as system, with 7,500 staff across 32 offices in 19 countries. Their system is based on Oracle and Keystone and actually brings 4 different packages together with one point of entry. The system provides 12 different “views”, of which 9 are for back-office staff. The content is all in English although the help files are in 5 languages.

More Types of Portal

Somewhere between the two extremes of “just for clients” and “just for internal users”, Heather Robinson, of Bevan Ashford, gave a slightly different definition of a portal as a framework that provides differing levels of intranet functionality and interactivity to members based on preferences and business roles. She sees the portal as a self-service environment, rather like a shop window, where people can find, and obtain, the information they need, and her “audience” includes members of the firm as well as clients.

She particularly wants to integrate internal and external sources of information, to reduce training and support requirements, and to promote a feeling of community. Although Bevan Ashford is one of the top 40 firms, with major regional offices, the large number of public sector clients limit the profit to be obtained from the work. Thus, value for money in portal terms is particularly important.

She discussed the importance of content management for a portal and the need for quality control (someone has to be in charge), procedures for updating and currency, and the need for revisions. From the client’s point of view, she suggested that you should look for “quick wins” (e.g. contact lists, the ability to track documents and legal guidance material) before undertaking the really difficult parts.

Talking of quick wins, Adam Westbrooke, of Taylor Wessing, described these, from the internal users point of view, as what the canteen is providing for lunch, and the vacancy list!

More seriously, he said that the portal is a gateway to the information rather than the information itself, and that even when you have a portal in place, the individual PMS, KM, CRM, DM and other systems will still be working away beneath the surface. The “real” workers will continue to use the underlying systems (e.g. accounts staff will still use the accounts system) but the portal will provide additional ways for non-accounts staff to view the financial information, possibly integrated with information from other systems.

He also said that the portal can only bring together information which is essentially already available - for example, Knowledge Management requires a proper KM system to be in place before offering it to users via a portal. He also said that quality control checks need to be provided in the “real” systems, rather than at the output stage (e.g. the need to check that work in progress is correct should be carried out by the accounts system not the portal).

Kate Hodgson, of CMS Cameron McKenna, said that a particular requirement, from her point of view, was to bring together different systems originating from the major firms involved in the merger. There were many “information silos” available across the present firm but there were problems with duplication and inadequate updating, as well as the fact that the information was organised by practice area rather than as required for particular tasks.

The firm is using software form a company called LawPort which is based in California. They were the first UK firm to use the software which gave its own problems although apparently now Tikit are also providing it. The system enables internal and external resources to be integrated on one screen and then can be “sliced” in different ways and the information, once included in the portal, can be “published” in multiple ways, e.g. across the extranet, the deal room, the website and so on.

She talked about how to develop a taxonomy, which should cover document types, geographical classification, language (not the same as geography), industry classification, jurisdiction and legal subjects - a topic which was then taken up by Neil Cameron.

Taxonomy

Neil Cameron is a leading consultant and visionary in this field, who has recently come together with a number of other consultants to form Neil Cameron Consulting Group. Neil has been talking about portals for quite a few years - long before it became a “buzz” topic.

Neil talked about the different types of information available in computer systems, particularly Practice Management Systems (PMS), back office systems and information/library systems:

In other words, the vital types of information contained in the firm cannot be brought together in any consistent way. This is why the firm needs a taxonomy - well actually, several.

It is better to have multiple taxonomies which essentially allow information to be categorised in different ways, including jurisdiction, language, industry, source, transaction type, client and matter. This avoids undue complexity as well as repetition in the structure.

He thinks that matters should be classified at inception and that this is where the burden of work should be placed, involving the professional support lawyer (PSL) at this very early stage rather than (just) later.

He stressed that no-one has produced a full taxonomy for a firm yet! However, it is only if you do classify information in this way that a portal can really “reach” all the information.

Personalisation

Dave Cunningham, of Baker Robbins & Company, described the move to personalisation as one of the factors which distinguish current types of portal from more advanced - and developing - ones. Different views of the information will become based on peoples’ roles and will make the information more instinctive to them.

Adam Westbrooke of Taylor Wessing spoke further about the need to provide different views for different people to improve ease of use and to provide just the relevant information to each user.

Personalisation can be based on the role of the person (or many roles), the particular user, where the type of information required has previously been selected by the user, or by the system itself trying to determine what a particular person would want to see (“other people like him have wanted.....”).

However, it is important to allow the user to select further information according to today’s needs and not to constrain him/her too tightly. It should be possible to navigate to the desired information in a straightforward way.

He made the point that “who is allowed to see what” is a matter of the security system rather than the personalisation system. It reminded the audience, however, that the security system is also vital.

The respective virtues of “push” and “pull” were discussed - the advantage of “push” is that you can be sure that important information reaches the person but this can be annoying for the user; this should be kept to a minimum. As far as possible, the user should be allowed to subscribe or unsubscribe to particular types of information, even if a “default subscription” is set up to start with.

If it is possible to give the user control over “trivial” things like colours, fonts and pictures, it is worth doing this - people like to personalise their workspace with a picture of their family for example.

Taylor Wessing use software called “Mentor” from Perceptive Technology.

Listen to the Users

As Paul Longhurst, of Herbert Smith said, lawyers do not care about the technology, so keep to concepts when discussing requirements with them! Generally speaking, lawyers want to see their matter files online, they want external access, from wherever they happen to be, they want the access to be fast and reliable, and they want the system to be easy to use.

Time and time again, the speakers came back to the theme of finding out what the users want before implementing new systems - or even selecting which system the firm should purchase. For portals designed for the clients, it is essential to bring the clients into the discussion process at an early stage. They may not tell you what you want to hear, but it is better to hear it earlier rather than later!

In some cases, you may find that you can provide what the users want without expensive new software - there may be some way of using what you have already to provide a limited objective.

For systems covering different departments, locations and support groups, a steering group across the firm is highly desirable, with all “stake holders” covered.

Return on Investment?

Several speakers addressed this issue but mostly to say how hard it is. The classic answer along the lines of “if every fee earner saves 10 minutes a day, then....” was generally agreed to be unhelpful since many firms consider that doing the work faster is a way of reducing fees rather than increasing them.

My own feeling here is that, eventually, providing a portal is going to be just one of the things that a firm has to do, whether or not a cost justification can be determined.

Content of an intranet

However, sophisticated the infrastructure, it is up to the firm itself to find the content. As Ian Figgins, of Lovells, indicated, it is important that the firm’s information can survive any particular software structure presenting it.

For “getting started” purposes, it is better to start with a portion of the firm’s knowledge, and get the show on the road, rather than wait until a perfect analysis has taken place (which may never be possible).

Where are we now?

The conference gave a fascinating snapshot of the way that the larger firms are now thinking. However, it was noteworthy that almost everyone was talking about “what they are doing” rather than “what they have done”. This is a moving field and one where the goals are changing as fast as the technology. Not only do “portals” mean different things to different people, but they mean different things to the same people, over time.

And the smaller firm?

It was also noteworthy that there was hardly a mention of the smaller firm - and by this I mean any firm not in the top 40. For every firm outside the first 40, the portal is an interesting idea but one which is a long way off.

For smaller firms, each step along the way has to be considered, costed and implemented in turn. At the moment, the provision of case tracking online, covered in the previous 3 issues of this newsletter, is probably the most realistic aim, with more exotic applications still far in the future.

Delia Venables is an IT consultant for Lawyers. She also provides one of the key legal websites for the UK and Ireland (www.venables.co.uk) and she is editor of this newsletter. email delia@venables.co.uk.

Speakers:

Janet Day, Berwin Leighton Paisner, janet.day@blplaw.com

Dave Cunningham, Baker Robbins & Co., dcunningham@brco.com

Paul Longhurst, Herbert Smith, paul.d.longhurst@herbertsmith.com

Ian McFiggans, Lovells, ian.mcfiggans@lovells.com

Sarah Hillier, Clifford Chance, sarah.hillier@cliffordchance.com

Kevin Doolan, Eversheds, kevindoolan@eversheds.com

Heather Robinson, Bevan Ashford, h.robinson@bevanashford.co.uk

Adam Westbrooke, Taylor Wessing, a.westbrooke@taylorwessing.com

Kate Hodgson, CMS Cameron McKenna, kbh@cmck.com

Neil Cameron, Neil Cameron Consulting Group, neil@neilcameronconsulting.com

Mike Robinson, Partnerships UK, mike.robinson@partnershipsuk.org.uk

Matthew Cleverdon, Wragge & Co., matthew_cleverdon@wragge.com

Julian Baker, Legal Technology Solutions, jbaker@legaltechnologysolutions.com

Henry Anson, Ark Group, hanson@ark-group.com

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