One Access Point to Information and Knowledge

June 30, 1999

Jane Henderson is Know-How Systems Manager at Macfarlanes andVice Chairman of the SCL London Group. She reports on the most recent LondonGroup meeting.

Are you tired of endlessly switching between different software applications fordocument management, practice management, accessing internal know-how holdings,library and commercial online information sources? Are you wasting valuable timefamiliarising yourself with the different protocols for searching the Web withyour browser, searching online products and searching library catalogues? Wouldyou like to have just one simple front-end for all of these activities? Wouldyou like to be able to do all of this from outside the office? If so, you needto talk to your firm’s knowledge manager – and ask about one-stop access.

In the burgeoning field of knowledge management, Internet and relatedtechnologies have created a new challenge for e-publishers, IT specialists,managing partners and knowledge managers – to provide one-stop access toincreasingly sophisticated in-house and external repositories of information andexpertise for both large international law firms and smaller niche practices.

This was the subject of the SCL London Group’s seminar on 25 May 1999 atHammond Suddards. A large audience of SCL members from city law firms, chambers,publishing houses, commercial organisations and software houses heard papersfrom two legal publishers and one legal support lawyer: Ivan Darby, fromButterworths; Robert Dow from PLC Publications and Chris Muris from HammondSuddards.

Ivan Darby

Each speaker approached the topic from a different angle. Ivan Darby’spresentation included an overview of some of the latest advances in searchingtechnology. He began his presentation by referring back to his article entitled,‘The Law on Your Refrigerator’, in the 25th Anniversary issue of Computers& Law (Vol 9, Issue 5, pp 16-18). In that article, Ivan wrote about theemergence of the World Wide Web as a key medium for communication and aboutopening up access to it from anywhere – the car, the mobile telephone, andeven the refrigerator. He is confident that this will become a reality in thevery near future as the limits of bandwidth, and therefore speed, cease to be anissue.

This preamble set the scene for an introduction to some of the recentadvances in searching technology and techniques that make one-stop access areality. One technology of particular interest in this area is a new type ofdynamic reasoning software from a UK-based software house, Autonomy. Thesoftware uses a concept-based approach to analyse a piece of text and then isable to find similar documents by looking at patterns of symbols and concepts.Because it uses a purely mathematical analysis, based on patterns in the text,it is not language specific. The approach is taken one step further by enablinghypertext links to be added automatically to the documents at run-time.Butterworths have used the software to provide the search facility for theironline publication of Halsbury’s Laws of England and to providehypertext links to relevant cases and to other parts of Halsbury’s LawsDirect. The obvious question is: to what extent can this technology betransferred from large-scale, structured, publishing ventures to bespoke,in-house knowledge management systems? Will the pattern-matching approach workas well when it is applied to the diverse and detailed holdings of law firms’legal expertise? This is yet to be tested.

Another application of this concept-based approach to searching is somethingthat Ivan describes as serendipitous searching. The example he used was a searchengine that remains in the background monitoring the user, so that when the userposes a question, for example in an e-mail communication, the search engine isactivated to search for relevant information. It’s a background helper,available at any time.

Powerful, innovative search engines are essential, but we are also interestedin cross platform searching and being able to provide a single screen foraccessing all information resources. In this regard, Ivan mentionedMicrosoft’s OLE DB, which is a programming API providing an open standard foraccessing all kinds of data, including non-relational data. The supportive listof programming languages and operating environments for OLE DB has begun toexpand rapidly, and this new standard is now making its mark.

Robert Dow

In contrast to the first presenter, Robert Dow thought that there wassometimes too much emphasis on the search engines. He went on to explain that,while the Web and the browser offer a central point for searching, the quantity,quality and relevance of the results can lead to headaches and disillusionment.Hence the strong case for simultaneously deploying more traditional indexing andeditorial techniques to achieve successful integration of external resourceswith internal know-how systems. These techniques need to be applied byexperienced legal know-how practitioners who are able to select and organiserelevant sources systematically and use hypertext links to create virtualcontents pages for the firm. This process allows the external informationprovided by the legal publishers to be used effectively to support andcomplement the wealth of internal expertise inside the firm.

Robert went on to look at the need for common standards and at advances inmarkup languages for the Web. HTML, despite its popularity, is very limited andthe increasing demand for more flexibility in Internet systems has led to therise of XML (Extensible Markup Language). XML is a new data representationstandard. It is best described as a metalanguage, ie a language that can be usedto define new markup languages specifically for your application.

Chris Muris

The final speaker for the evening was Chris Muris, a professional supportlawyer at Hammond Suddards. One of the issues raised during the earlierpresentations was the risk of information overload for lawyers when vastinformation resources are supplied to the desktop. Chris touched on this problemand its solution when he looked at the multifaceted role of the support lawyerin today’s law firm. This includes: gathering, filtering, thinking, refiningand applying more closely to client circumstances; organising and disseminatingrelevant information and know-how; selecting and monitoring commercialinformation sources; research activities; precedent development; education andtraining; acting as in-house counsel; interfacing with other support areas; andmarketing activities. One can see from this checklist that a key role of thesupport lawyer is to provide a professional filter for the fee earners byscreening and appraising the sources and tools available to ensure that they areboth relevant and appropriate.

The introduction of knowledge management is inextricably tied to culturalchange and Chris saw the support lawyer as one of the change agents within thefirm. He emphasised the critical importance of ensuring that the support lawyerrole continues to suit current business needs. He explained that appropriatemonitoring, review and evaluation methods will help to reduce the risk ofsupport lawyers drifting into inefficiencies by helping them to identify andrespond to strengths and potential weaknesses more quickly. In this way qualityassurance is directly built into the role.

As one-stop access becomes a real possibility, knowledge management can movebeyond the artificial distinctions between centralised, computerised databanks(internal and external) and personalised expertise and know-how wherever thatresides.

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