Integrating Internal and External Resources

August 31, 1999

Robert Dow is Editor at PLC Publications. He can be contacted His company’s Website is at

Virtually every large UK firm has an internal note giving guidance on how tobuy a company. These notes, although independently prepared, are very similar toeach other – they rarely contain information that is specific to the firm orthat contribute to its unique intellectual property. And yet each note will havetaken many days to produce and maintain, at a real cost running into thousandsof pounds.

Figure 1

Take into account all the areas in which firms ought to have such notes andit becomes evident that vast resources are needed to create and maintain areasonable, generic know-how resource. As one person, who was responsible forestablishing a major know-how resource said ‘Before we started we thought wewould need a few professional support lawyers. Then we realised we needed anarmy to do the job properly’.

Only the biggest five or six firms will be able to afford to create acomprehensive resource. And even they will expend a huge amount of time andmoney preparing and maintaining generic information that does not really advancetheir firms competitively. A more efficient solution would be for a know-howlawyer to be able to take a generic note and adapt it to the specificcircumstances of the firm. Using this as a base, the know-how lawyer canconcentrate on adding value – creating and managing know-how in leading edgeareas that will truly contribute to the firm’s unique position.

The Web

The Web for the first time makes this close integration of generic externalresources with specific firm information practical.

Before the Web, someone assembling a library of resources for a fee earnerhad two choices: they either bought a book (in electronic or paper form) andaccepted its shortcomings and generic focus or they wrote their own book fromscratch. The Web means you can determine the shape and content of every book youchoose for the library. You can pick and choose chapters from individual booksand assemble them in the way you want – and if you do not like a chapter youcan re-write it.

This is possible because the Web uses a common, open format – users canmove between different publications easily, and you can group different parts ofthose publications together simply by creating links to them.

Take an example from PLC’s Practice Manuals, a series of looseleaf booksmodelled on a firm’s transaction file. Figure 1 is a screenshot of thecontents page of the electronic version of the Joint Ventures Manual, which isnow available on the Web. Behind each link is a chapter, including precedents.

Most of this information would be useful to any firm and it would bepointless recreating it. However, the firm may have its own relevant information– for example it may have its own precedents and its own views on certainareas of law.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows a mock up of pages from a firm’s intranet in whichinformation from the practice manual has been reordered to suit the firm’sneeds and combined with other information, both from inside and outside thefirm. Effectively, the pages are a collection of links to everything that a feeearner from that firm approaching the area might want to know. Thus the emphasishas been changed, with the focus on the firm’s precedents; chapters from thePractice Manual have been sorted into a series of general categories andcombined with other information or left out entirely.

Where the firm has a different view from that expressed in the PracticeManual, the know-how lawyer draws attention to this by including a hypertextlink to a note setting out the firm’s views. A fee earner is therefore madeaware of the firm’s position but without the know-how lawyer having to rewritethe entire piece.

The same integration is achieved with updating materials, merging links fromexternal sources, such as monthly Practice Manual updates, and internalinformation, such as firm specific news from its internal newsletter.

This area can also be used to collect together all sorts of informationrelating to joint ventures. So there might be links to:

  • other interesting articles on joint ventures
  • publicly available material (for example on the DTI’s site)
  • cases or primary sources.

This type of approach has a number of advantages.

  • It gives the fee earner a single, seamless point of access to a large collection of resources.
  • Maximum use is made of external resources, with access to a range of materials that no individual firm could match at a fraction of the cost of preparing the information internally. Yet the information is tailored to that firm’s needs.
  • The know-how lawyer does not need to spend so much time preparing and maintaining generic information, which is often the most routine part of their job. Instead, he or she can focus on more exciting, and more valuable, cutting edge information.
  • The same information can be presented in different ways to different groups of fee earners in the firm. Unlike with paper, the fee earner can be given different routes through the same information depending on the direction from which they approach it. Thus the same information could be presented differently to specialist departments.
  • The fee earner is presented with a single, trustworthy, up-to-date source of information on the area.

This last point will become more important as the Web expands. Two of themost common problems with the Web are that when you search for materials youretrieve too much or too little information and that you do not know whetherwhat you find is reliable or up-to-date.

Using the above approach, the professional support lawyer stands between thefee earner and the Web, endorsing or qualifying the accuracy of the informationto which he or she has created a link.

Achieving Integration

To take this approach to external information, the firm needs to have anintranet, and use a browser as its main know-how tool. The pages described abovecan be put together manually quite easily (for example, right click on a link inInternet Explorer, select Copy Shortcut then paste it into Word either directlyor by Insert/Hyperlink). With a minimum amount of training, know-how lawyerswould be able to put together simple pages of this type.


If you read the computer press XML (extensible mark-up language) will revolutionise the Web in the near future.

A limitation with current Web format (called HTML or Hypertext Mark-up Language) is that it only tells the browser about the layout of the document and not its content. Thus the browser knows what should be displayed as a heading, but not that Russell v Northern Bank Development Corporation is a case.

Agreeing on a common format that would deal with all uses that people might want to make of the information is impossible. The idea behind XML is that each industry agrees on a common way of describing the content that is relevant to its industry – it extends HTML to suit its purposes. Thus, the legal community would agree on a common code for a case that is hidden in the text so that anyone can find all cases involving Russell without finding references to pages that deal with say Jack Russell dogs.

This is obviously attractive, and the standard has been adopted by powerful software vendors, such as Microsoft. However, the technology is still very new and huge progress has to be made to agree standards before it can become truly effective. The revolution may therefore take longer than the press might suggest.

In a larger environment ideally the links and information would be managed byusing a database rather than manual pages. Each page would then be generateddynamically. This would give more flexibility in the views of the information byfee earners (ie it would allow reordering or lists) and help maintenance of thelinks.

There are still some problems with assembling this information.

  • The main problem is that most traditional legal information is not yet on the Web. But much progress has been achieved recently.
  • The way that some providers have structured their sites means that you cannot link directly to individual pages within their site at the moment.
  • Many law firms have legacy electronic systems rather than browsers. This problem often seems more difficult to overcome than it is. A browser can act as a front-end to diverse legacy systems, gluing them together behind a common interface. In time the back-end systems can be upgraded and improved without the user having to adopt a new interface or noticing any change other than improved functionality.
  • Searching across multiple sources is difficult. You can overcome this by importing the external information on your own intranet (PLC can supply content this way) but this limits the range of material you can include as few publishers currently supply information this way. There are various developments which may help and some publishers (such as Butterworths) are working on technology that will make it possible to search across their resources as well as your own, but generally a single search of all these resources cannot be achieved at the moment.

However, it is possible to gain huge advantages by using today’stechnologies and linking to materials that are currently on the Web. A simpleseries of links of the type described above can be extremely valuable to a feeearner without sophisticated searching solutions.

There is a real danger in overcomplicating the approach to electronicinformation – more sophisticated proprietary solutions existed before the Web,yet the Web format now dominates the world because of its openness and itssimplicity. The wise course is to let the technology catch up with you ratherthan trying to invent it.

The Next Two Years

The technology is likely to catch up quickly. Much of the world’sprogramming talent is focused on programming for the Web and many new tools willbecome available which will assist the integration. We are likely to seesolutions that will allow, for example, people to record personal notes againstmaterials on external sites.

Likewise publishers will begin to make their technology more accessible tocustomers with tools that will make linking to their sites easier. WestLaw inthe US apparently already has an intranet connection wizard that helps youconnect your intranet to its service. There is also much written in the computerpress about a new Web-based format, called XML, which may make Web contentincreasingly accessible.

In two years, we are likely to see firms that have seamlessly integratedinternal and external materials to create a powerful but cost-effective know-howresource. They will have small numbers of highly skilled professional supportlawyers that are focused on the cutting edge of legal knowledge. At these firmsthe distinction between information held on internal Web servers and on externalsites will become increasingly irrelevant.

No doubt there will be other firms with teams of support lawyers labouring tomaintain their own library of information in every area that the firm mightencounter but it is likely that the partners of the firm will begin lookingclosely at the costs of this approach. The law and its practice does not changequite as fast as technology but it runs a close second.