If you suffer from sticker shock after shopping for most computer hardware or software, there is a real bargain for lawyers that you may have overlooked. It doesn't cost much. It's easy to set up. It's easy to use, and it's very, very cheap.
This good deal is an "intranet," which might be described as an internal Internet for your law office or legal department. Intranets are systems that run on your existing computer network and use the same language and graphics programs as the full-blown Internet.
If you'd like to see how they work, check around. While they are terra incognita to many, some firms or departments already have intranets up and running, filled with information that lawyers or their assistants need at their fingertips.
In-house counsel have led the way toward the intranet construction boom. Mountain View, Calif.'s Sun Microsystems Corp., for example, uses the company intranet to explain legal issues to its far-flung sales force, to offer continuing legal education courses to its lawyers and to keep attorneys informed of all company developments.
Intranets also can save money. Intranets are "the biggest step towards the paperless office," says John Saroka, information systems director at Philadelphia's Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. He says Ballard Spahr's intranet is "in the works."
An intranet is "a more focused way of distributing information," adds Sun Microsystems' vice president and general counsel, John Croll.
The intranet at Dallas-based J.C. Penney soon will display a law department home page. It will contain an organizational chart of the company's 70-lawyer department, with information on whom to contact about real estate inquiries, OSHA inspections, employment questions and intellectual property matters.
While intranets invite newcomers in, the invitation goes only so far. All of the intranet's legal department information, for example, is stored behind the company's computer "firewall." Firewalls, while designed to keep the unauthorized out, are not impenetrable, but they're as secure from hackers as employees' computers are safe from burglars.
As with most new technologies, implementation of an intranet raises a cloud of questions. Should the information on the intranet be edited to ensure that only final drafts of documents and non-offensive materials are displayed? Who takes on the additional task of intranet gatekeeper? Since it is easy to download and forward electronic documents, is privileged information threatened? If a corporation's law department places legal materials on its intranet, will it be too inviting to non-lawyers in the marketing or business departments to practice self-help lawyering without consulting the company's attorneys?
An intranet's apparent freedom from space or "page" limits invites a flood of information. The intranet at Santa Clara, Calif.'s Intel Corp., for example, holds, among other things, a news clipping service, weekly staff meeting agendas, contact numbers for its 46,000 employees worldwide in a data base searchable by everything from first name to job specialty, employee classes, travel information and instructions on how Intel's logo, "Intel inside," should be properly used.
Intel's intranet has been up for about two years. Now with new, sophisticated browsers that more easily allow anyone to author and place information on an intranet, even small operations are getting involved. This new technology allows even the most cyber-wary lawyers to mount their own home pages, with personal profiles explaining their expertise or displaying family photos. Users can search such profiles by name, department and a multitude of other criteria.
Some companies' intranets have already soared beyond merely placing information in a common--albeit virtual--area.
With 550 lawyers in 95 locations around the world, Giuliano Chicco, manager of legal information resources at Fairfield, Conn.'s General Electric Co., believes an intranet is essential to provide equal access to the company's resources, particularly to lawyers in smaller offices. He developed an intranet in early 1995 and invited a few people into his office to show it to them.
"[GE executives] had to see it in operation, or they wouldn't buy it," he says.
Today, it would be difficult to run the company without it, he says. The resources of the firm's library are available to a sole practitioner in Hong Kong. "But the intranet goes beyond the library," Mr. Chicco notes.
Mr. Chicco contends that it dramatically enhances everyone's ability to communicate. It can connect all attorneys who are not on one standard e-mail system, allowing them equal access to the central file system and to the same templates and forms, he says.
"It's a document archive and brief bank...The labor group uses it for their internal materials, like union contracts. The transactions folks have their confidentiality agreements up there; litigators have templates for pleadings and deposition forms," he says.
Mr. Chicco is now discussing a pilot project with one of GE's outside counsel, whom he declined to identify. They are planning a shared workspace in cyberspace--a virtual war room--for materials that they both tend to use when working on the same matter.
"But do we let them into our firewall, or vice versa?" he wonders.
He says there are concerns about protecting privileged documents from business rivals, opposing counsel and a host of unauthorized hackers who could copy the data base without being detected. They will probably decide on a third-party provider to set up a neutral work area for files, documents and some interactive forums about the case, he says.
"The benefit to that firm is they have a direct line to the documents, with no faxing, marking up and returning," he says. "It's a lot faster."
Some have argued that a shared intranet would be ideal for handling the immense volume of documents in complex trials and big deals. But there is a fear that critical documents might be lost as a result of a computer glitch.
"No one wants to try untested technology on a major deal," Mr. Chicco laments.
Even on daily matters the intranet can be stalled by human speed bumps.
"I still get documents to put on the [law department] home page on paper," sighs Mr. Chicco. "They just don't get it. In the next year, maybe they'll get it."
Even a Lawyer Can Do It
Unlike most legal technology, the basic installation of an intranet is lawyer-friendly. For example, Barry Levinsky, an assistant general counsel at Chicago's Inland Steel, built his law department's intranet when he was under doctor's orders to stay home for a week to recover from a foot infection. His seven-lawyer department had recently been wired to the Internet via Netscape's browser, but no one could find time for training.
Mr. Levinsky started writing an Internet training manual, intending to place it on the company's local area network, or LAN, to encourage people to use their Web browsers. But soon he realized there was no reason to stop with the training manual. He placed links to the Internet on the intranet, enabling users to view, for example, federal and state law sites, a wide range of trade publications and other companies' Web sites.
"We recently handled an IPO, and people followed the stock using the links on the intranet site," he notes.
Inside the company-wide intranet, the law department's own intranet provides information covering a spectrum of legal topics from securities law to employment discrimination. Mr. Levinsky decided that Inland Steel's site would be visible only to the law department, choosing not to attach it to Inland's Web server because he did not want non-lawyers in the company practicing law without the law department's guidance.
Mr. Levinsky says he is frustrated because not everyone uses the technology to its full potential. For example, the company's compliance manual is still distributed on paper. On the intranet, such a reference would be less likely to get lost or discarded.
Such frustration is slowly being replaced by high hopes in some quarters. In a response that was e-mailed to the National Law Journal, Theodore Banks, associate general counsel of Kraft Foods Inc. in Northfield, Ill., said he now is planning the law department's contribution to the company intranet. To that end, the department designed the intranet's features based on the findings of a survey of Kraft executives. The site will offer data about compliance issues and procedures to follow if served with a lawsuit, he added.
Kraft's investment was minimal. The law department bought a copy of HotMetal Pro for approximately $150 to design the pages. "So far that's the only cost," Mr. Banks said.
It is sometimes difficult to visualize what to put on an intranet. If anything goes, does the intranet risk becoming as cluttered as the Internet--and nearly as useless? What about the company clown who posts material of questionable taste? Mr. Banks is working on editing guidelines for vetting unsuitable material. Each division--called a content owner--will be responsible for controlling home-page material so no one individual will be burdened with screening mountains of material.
Law Firm Needs
The needs of outside counsel are quite distinct from those of in-housers. The latter not only need to share information with other lawyers in the department but also need to disseminate policies to many separate but interrelated departments, each of which may have disparate information requirements.
Kingsley Martin, director of legal technical information at Minneapolis' Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P., expects to complete the firm's intranet soon. But, he acknowledges, "In-house counsel are much more business managers, co-ordinators of activity, and thus their coordination/communication tools are much more sophisticated."
For example, by sharing legal guidelines with the business executives, inside counsel can place answers to frequently asked questions in an online FAQ file, freeing themselves to concentrate on more sophisticated matters. But outside counsel are generally focused on discrete tasks for external clients, and the need for shared information beyond administrative matters is not as clear.
Ron Friedmann, director of computer applications at Washington, D.C.'s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, also is building his firm's intranet while wrestling with a host of questions.
"Where is the information going to come from?" he asks. "Do we just take our existing documents and place them online--like the Wall Street Journal on the Web?" Mr. Friedmann says Wilmer Cutler has found that such a system does not add much value because a search of an intranet's brief bank that unearths too many documents is as unhelpful as a search that reveals nothing.
Mr. Friedmann says he thinks a large law firm's intranet needs an editor. He is working to develop an intranet with pointers to documents. And, he says, he will not just invite lawyers to throw home pages on the intranet without content guidelines.
Security and privilege issues also loom large, he notes. Though it is desirable for associates and support staff to have access to their own time sheets, health insurance and vacation information, they should not have access to anyone else's.
A major advantage of an intranet for a law firm is that it provides one interface, or method of interaction, with the computer; only one set of commands is needed to view, save and print a document. But as in most firms, Wilmer Cutler's accounting department uses software that's different from the word-processing department's, and the conversion of the documents to one standard is an enormous task. A firm has to decide if the result is worth the time investment, he notes.
For Small Firms, Too
Smaller firms are joining the intranet frenzy. Take Boston's 17-lawyer Lucash Gesmer Updegrove. "We are heavy e-mail users," says partner Peter Moldave.
Just seven months after leaving the corporate legal department at Cupertino, Calif.'s Apple Computer Inc., Mr. Moldave is heading up Lucash Gesmer's intranet construction. He says there will be a big payoff. When Apple decided to use its version of an intranet, Mr. Moldave immediately noticed that the legal department reviewed documents more quickly and fewer papers got lost.
Even at a high-tech firm such as Lucash Gesmer, he says, some lawyers still rely on "sneaker net"; that is, they walk around exchanging paper and diskettes.
Intranets, while a boon to communication and efficiency, won't help lawyers net clients or bolster collegiality.
"It does not do the work for you," Dorsey Whitney's Mr. Martin cautions. "And it does not replace face-to-face meetings."
This article is reprinted with permission from the November 18, 1996 edition of The National Law Journal. © 1996 NLP IP Company. LawNewsNetwork.com.