Legal Intranets: The new law library

November 1, 2000

Intranets are developing rapidly. Robert Dow explains how theintegration of legal resources through an intranet can create a new focal pointfor law firms. He also explains how it is done, and makes a plea forstandardisation of classifications.

This article first appeared in the Autumn issue of The Law Librarian, thejournal of the British and Irish Assocation of Law Librarians. It is based onthe author’s presentation to the BIALL Conference.

Some people believe that law firms of the future will competewith publishers. The theory is that legal documents will evolve into automated,quasi-intelligent self-service solutions that both firms and publishers willwant to supply to the client.

This is not a future I subscribe to. Publishers have always beenin partnership with lawyers. We provide information cost-effectively thatlawyers use to do what they do best – to give unique advice tailored to aspecific situation. The focal point of this partnership has been the lawlibrary.

In the future, I believe that most publishers will focus onsupplying these innovative self-service solutions to lawyers to allow them togive better, cheaper advice to their clients, rather than to clients directly.Instead of the library, the focal point of the partnership will be the firm’sintranet.

Why integrate?

One day soon, the answer to the question ‘should I integrateexternal resources within my intranet?’ will seem as obvious as the answer tothe question ‘do I need a law library?’

Compare the task of creating a new law library with creating anintranet.

You either buy the book for the library or write a similarversion yourself. The only influence you have is where in the library you shouldput it, and how it should be indexed.

But when you are filling the shelves of an intranet you can pickand choose chapters of different books. And you can give different people usingyour virtual library different views of those chapters or different chaptersentirely. Effectively, each page on your intranet can bind together a collectionof internal and external materials in a single source – a virtual contentspage to everything important in the area of practice.

The diagram ‘Integration’ (in the Basic guide to thetechnology at the end of this article) shows an example of this sort ofintegration. PLC Publications produces a series of transaction manuals that areavailable on our Web site ( contain practice notes, checklists, precedents and updating material. Formost firms, 80% of these manuals are relevant. But some firms may have their ownprecedents and want to inform staff of their own developments.

The illustration is a mock up of a firm’s intranet page inwhich some links point to a firm newsletter, while other links point to PLCupdates that keep lawyers abreast of generic developments in the area.

This type of integration has huge benefits:

  • It creates a single, seamless source. Integration overcomes the first criticism people raise of the Web, which is that people can never find the information they need. The intranet becomes the gateway.

  • Users do not have to relearn different, inconsistent, navigation systems and search syntaxes – by going through your intranet they can by-pass the other site’s navigation system.

  • The information they find is trustworthy and up-to-date. This is the second major criticism of the Web. By going through an intranet, frontline lawyers know that the information selected has been verified. Unlike paper publication, information can be up-to-date to the day, and the publisher of the information maintains it, not the librarian. Goodbye looseleaf updating.

  • Maximum use is made of external resources.

  • Information is tailored to that firm’s needs.

  • Information is tailored to different needs within the firm (and perhaps its client base). For example, a junior lawyer or a general lawyer can be directed to introductory resources, whilst a more senior lawyer or specialist can be directed to detailed information.

  • Firms can focus on adding value to their information, not on maintaining generic information, saving huge costs.

Integrating materials in this way will help to solve a problemthat has been growing over the last 15 years. During this period, there has beenan avalanche of information and new regulations. Clients have demanded better,faster service. Firms have grown, and have had to provide resources to educatejunior lawyers and achieve quality and consistency across their practice.

Publishers have failed to keep up their side of the partnershipin providing for these needs. Larger firms have thus had to develop more andmore materials in-house, employing armies of information specialists to do so.Smaller firms have struggled to compete.

The result is that there is a tremendous duplication of effort.Firms are producing very similar information – standard notes on transactions,precedents, updating materials.

By using external information more effectively, larger firms canachieve a far higher quality of information much more cost effectively. Theirinformation staff can use the external information as a base, tailoring it totheir needs and focusing on high value, firm specific, information that adds tothe competitive advantage of the firm.

Smaller firms can compete against larger rivals in anenvironment where clients expect the type of service that depends on the lawyerbeing supported by an advanced knowledge management infrastructure.

Achieving integration

There are two issues in achieving such integration:

  • Technical issues

  • Management issues

The biggest challenge is management. In many firms there are awide range of people dealing with knowledge gathering and dissemination:librarians, information officers, professional support lawyers (qualifiedlawyers who do not fee earn), front-line fee earners, information technologists,training staff. Often the lines of responsibility between these groups are notclear, and they do not have much understanding or influence over what the othergroups do. Sometimes the reporting line is ultimately to a fee earner who doesnot have the time or understanding of the possibilities that is required tocreate an achievable common goal.

The first task is therefore to look at how information ismanaged. How does it flow into the firm, how is it collected and retrieved? Howis front-line experience captured and made available to others in the firm? Whatis the true cost of managing information in this way?

This analysis will show where big improvements in effectivenessand quality can be made relatively simply using available technology, and howthe groups can work better as a team. When set against the ultimate savings intime, apparently large technology costs seem small.

Technology is not the solution in itself – as argued below,people will always be needed. The key is to use the technology to make theirefforts more effective.


To integrate effectively, both internal and external issues needto be addressed.

Some publishers are still not able to make their underlyinginformation available in the form needed. For example, some cannot (or will not)allow you to link directly to documents – you can only point users at theirhome page and they have to navigate from there (which defeats the whole point ofintegration). Some move documents around the system or delete them, makingmaintenance difficult. Many textbooks are still not available on the Web. Asimple issue like passwords also causes problems.

But most forward-looking publishers are trying hard to givepeople more access to their system and to make their materials available on theWeb. Good publishers can solve the password issues in a number of ways –usually all you have to do is ask.

We are working with other publishers to create links between ourrespective information (for example, to source materials) and we are creatingtools that make integration easier (see Basic guide to the technology).Sufficient publishers with this approach exist to make close integration viable.Sufficient materials are available on the Internet now, and a huge volume willbecome available over the next few years.

As far as internal technology goes, to join the future you needto have the following:

  • an intranet

  • a Web browser on every desktop

  • computers and connections to the Internet for all fee earners.

If you have the computers, the software costs of these are lowand are essential to move ahead. If you do not have them you are falling behind.They do not mean you have to abandon your old systems – one of the greatbenefits of intranet technology is that you can glue together disparate, oldersystems relatively easily. There will be an immediate saving in maintenancecosts.

Once you have an intranet, anything is possible. The techniquesin Basic guide to the technology at the end of this article illustrate some ofthe methods available. The technology is often under-utilised because people donot understand it. Often very significant benefits can be achieved without mucheffort.

The main rule is not to treat the technology as the solution, orto try to create the perfect answer. Technology is moving quickly – most ofthe world’s best programmers are working on Web technology – and integrationwill become easier and easier. Use the available technologies now.


One example of trying to use technology as a solution is tryingto implement a ready-made system that relies on fancy technology or a searchsystem. Frontline lawyers seem obsessed with searching for no good reason:

  • Unlike, say, medical terminology, legal terminology is imprecise. Philip Wood, head of knowledge management and legal education at Allen & Overy, mentioned at PLC’s conference on intranets that he had identified over 30 different words for a security interest. Searching for such terms is therefore difficult.

  • Legal searches are intolerant. For example, if you find 99 out of 100 documents for a marketing presentation, that is excellent – you have a huge amount of information at your disposal. But if it is a legal search, and the hundreth document is a case overruling the rest, the search has no value.

  • The information avalanche, and lawyers’ obsession with having to have read everything in case they have missed something, quickly makes searches ineffective.

Searching in the right situation is helpful and is relativelyeasy to implement (see Basic guide to the technology). But:

  • restrict the external sources that are indexed

  • make sure people know exactly what is being searched (the full text or abstracts) and the syntax being used – and spend time on education

  • use a classification system to improve the accuracy of the system.

Towards classification

The classification system, used for finding legal informationover hundreds of years, is in danger of being downgraded in the information age.

I believe it is a mistake to abandon manual intervention orclassification. As indicated, lawyers need to be shielded from an avalanche ofinformation; they need to be able to find answers quickly (a summary view of theinformation with links to more detailed resources) and they need to trust it asbeing up to date.

Manual effort, like abstracts or an overview resource, can helpshield lawyers from detail until necessary.

Likewise, a classification system is an invaluable tool for bothnavigation and searching. People can rely on the consistency of what they findbecause an experienced person has classified the information. Classificationsystems have their own problems which librarians will be very familiar with. Itwill take a significant amount of time, but it will be worth it.

One excellent way for the legal industry to move ahead would beto agree a common classification system. If we could do that then integrationwould be easy. Internal and external systems would agree on what is meant by aphrase and the front-line lawyer could obtain a comprehensive, accurate,up-to-date list that combines internal and external information. Large amountsof manual effort would be saved, but with the benefit of an editorial view.

We classify all our information using a developing open standard(see would be happy to use this as the basis for a future open standard of legalclassification. There are other initiatives in developing legal terminology(such as using the XML standard) that will continue to harmonise references andmake cross-linking easier.

If we can achieve this future, then we will have a strengthenedpartnership between publishers and lawyers and lawyers will be able to makeavailable cheaper, better solutions to clients. The future will be upon usquicker than you think.

Robert Dow, PLC Publications ( be contacted on Publications will be hosting a discussion on internal management issues andmaking more materials on the subject available – if you would like moreinformation please e-mail him.

Basic Guide to the Technology

Manual links

The easiest way of integrating information is to create a link manually to the external document (for example, by right clicking on the link, copying then pasting it onto your intranet page).


  • Easy to use, no technical expertise needed.


  • Very difficult to maintain.
  • Not all sites allow you to link directly to documents.
  • Limited views and manipulation of the information possible.

Link management software

Links created in pages on your intranet are to an intermediate table. This table contains the address (URL) of the external link. This means that if the external URL changes it only has to be updated once – in the link table – and checking that the links are still valid can be automated. You do not have to search through thousands of documents and update the links in them, because the link from the document to the link table remains consistent.

This is sometimes extended to include a classification system. This allows the external link to be classified using your taxonomy without having to embed metadata in the external document (which you cannot do). In the case of internal information it assists the maintenance of the information – if you change the description you only have to change it in one place, not in every document within the class.


  • Easy to maintain and essential in a more sophisticated environment.


  • Expensive to implement, requiring technical skills. Ready to use packages, unsophisticated.

Integrating searches using your engine

Most decent search engines (including some free engines) allow you to index materials held on a remote site. Materials on these sites often have key words that can help make the search more accurate and flexible (These keywords are known as metadata – data that describes the document. There are conventions that are followed in preparing this information, one of which is the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative – As shown by the diagram ‘Searching – your engine’, when the user addresses his search to his engine, the engine returns a list that combines links to internal and external resources – following the link takes the user to the remote site. A variant on this theme is the ready-made portal – often a search engine that seeks to maintain the remote links using search or agent technology.


  • Users can use consistent logic when making the search.
  • Integrated list of external and internal materials.
  • Easy to do.


  • Some sites do not like it or allow it because indexing their materials slows down their sites.
  • Sometimes there is no access to internal conventions used by the local engine, reducing the power and accuracy of the search.
  • You do not know how frequently to update your index – you do not know when they update their materials.
  • The indexes take up a huge amount of room on your computer.

Integrating searches using a remote engine

In this scenario, when the user fills in the search form and presses Go, the form sends the search query to the remote sites’ engine. Each site sends back its list of links resulting from the search, which are then combined into a list that is displayed on your intranet. Following the links takes the user to the external site (see ‘Searching – remote engine’).


  • The local engine’s indexes are more likely to be up to date.
  • The local search will be tailored to their information.
  • No indexing burden on you.

  • Overall probably a better way of integrating searches than using your own engine.


  • The remote site may not allow you to return results within your intranet page.

  • Search syntax differs from engine to engine, making it difficult or impossible to get consistent results across the different sites from a single search query.

  • It is more difficult to implement, and to combine results because inconsistent key link information may be returned.

  • Sites may change their search logic or engine from time to time, when you will have to rebuild the search.

Other methods

Many publishers and software companies are beginning to provide tools that allow you to link to them. These are easy to implement and do your work for you.

For example, we can provide code that can be inserted into an intranet page. This effectively acts like a search of the remote site. A further example is where codes inserted into a corporate finance intranet page and lists the latest developments there. The code ensures that the most recent developments are always shown.

Likewise Context provides J-Link software, a program that will automatically link case references in your documents to its site without changing your documents. It also licenses the software to allow you to create links.

Application Service Provider solutions will also emerge in the future – this is where you can use a ready made external knowledge management system that automatically integrates your information with external information. An interesting example of this type of technology is, where Butterworths’ information and a firm’s information is made available to a firm’s clients through an Internet site that looks as if it is the firm’s site. In fact the site is managed by Butterworths and personalised to look like it is the firm’s.