The Need for Search

March 1, 2006

At the beginning of 2006, the editor of this magazine asked me to identify innovation trends in legal technology, and technology’s subsequent influence on legal practice, for the coming 12 months. One of only two areas identified in that article was Enterprise Search, and since its publication in January, the prediction has already been validated by a market that is quickly embracing the trend. For those firms who have not yet reviewed their options, or investigated the details behind the trend, the following article outlines the issues.

Lawyers spend their days looking for, gathering, and processing information. Parts of that process are what economists call high economic value-added, where the value of the work output is made substantially more valuable than the sum of the inputs. 

The high economic value-added portions of the legal process are where legal expertise is mixed with the right information to produce advice and legal documentation. Other parts of that process add very little real economic value – those parts where a lawyer’s intellect is not being engaged in processing information. 

As clients face rising legal costs and are themselves reaping the benefit of increased productivity as the result of deploying information technology, increasing pressure is being brought to bear on firms to make their processes more efficient. Our experience is that clients are becoming ever more demanding and, in fact, using firm productivity (and hence value received by the client) as a criterion when selecting panel member firms. 

The high-value-added portions of a lawyer’s day are inherently manual – the real value of what lawyers do is found in the use of their intellects – so technology productivity gains must be concentrated in those activities that are not inherently high-value-added. 

Recent research indicates that up to two hours of a typical knowledge worker’s day is spent looking for information. As we all know, lawyers are no different. Of all the areas in the practice of law where technology can be deployed to provide value to the client, the information gathering (search) process is now the foremost.

User Needs: Many and Varied
UK firms have made strides in recent years with the development of know-how systems. These systems provide a valuable tool when searching for generic precedent documents, but don’t address users’ many and varied needs. 

These needs form what has been described as the “long-tail” search phenomenon. The “long-tail” moniker describes what a chart of search queries versus number of occurrences looks like. As one would expect, a small set of queries is very frequent, but a much larger set of queries are infrequent, resulting in a “long-tail” of queries. 

Know-how systems help by making the set of frequently-used documents explicit and ensuring quality for these documents. The interesting lesson from other domains is that there are often more total queries in the “long-tail” – hence the need for firms to augment know-how systems with enterprise search. 

This can be taken further, however, in that an effective deployment of enterprise search can actually change the way a firm deals with its know-how. Consider your own firm. Lawyers in your firm may go to the know-how system to get documents to begin drafting, but undoubtedly there are many times when what is found is not quite right – after all, there is a reason that all your firm’s other documents were created in the first place. Perhaps certain clauses are missing or the precedent documents don’t match the style of your practice group’s senior partner – there are many reasons why documents outside of the precedent library might not be appropriate. Suppose, however, that you had a search system that included the precedent library as one content source amongst many, but with a special weight. In this case, the enterprise search system provides one place to go, one place to log into, and one place to find both your senior partner’s precedent documents and the broader firm-blessed ones, which can then be compared. Such a system addresses both the desire for standardisation and the reality that information needs are many and varied. 

But search needs in a law firm extend beyond just finding documents, they are also varied in kind

Sometimes the information need is not for a document at all, but to understand more about a client, about a matter, about a deal, or about your colleagues. Perhaps you need to find someone in your Brussels office who can assist with a case, or determine whether or not you have a conflict in representing a particular client. The most advanced search systems, like Recommind’s MindServer Legal offering, can assist with these information requests by keeping track of lawyer work product. Combining very effective document search across multiple repositories with these kinds of tools for providing a holistic view of matters and expertise within the firm is a very powerful combination for the firm.

Product Needs
So what capabilities should an enterprise search product possess?  There are several considerations but the most important capabilities are:

  • effective and tunable relevance algorithms

  • the ability to utilise metadata to narrow down your result set and pinpoint exactly what you’re looking for

  • a highly-developed security model

  • easy interfacing with all of the content systems that will be searched

  • a flexible and industrial-strength architecture.

The first two capabilities described above, effective and tunable relevance ranking and faceted search based on the available metadata, go hand-in-hand. The law firm environment is a difficult one for simple keyword search systems. Law firms have very large numbers of documents, most of which contain the same words. Hence it is important to have additional capabilities that can help capture the sense of the user’s query and match this to documents – in other words “conceptual” search. At the same time, these ranking algorithms must be tunable by the system administrator in order to ensure that your users don’t encounter a black box where the reasons for results are not understood. These ranked results can then be narrowed down using metadata filters to arrive at a small, very relevant result set in only a few clicks.

Security, content system interfacing, and architecture are also highly related. In a law firm, document and matter security is a very important requirement. When interfacing with multiple document repositories, the search system’s security model needs to be sufficiently powerful to reflect all the appropriate security requirements for every document, but also sufficiently flexible that it can reflect the security settings of the document contained in the original system. 

These capabilities need to be encapsulated then in a system with an architecture that is robust and flexible in deployment, in order to fit easily into the diverse systems that make up the infrastructure of most law firms and in order to ease maintenance over time.

Conclusion – The Benefit of Meeting the Enterprise Search Needs
The benefits of enterprise search over and above the simplistic search functionality of the standard document management applications are clear, and the excuses used by some trailing firms concerning the basis of conceptual search are no longer valid in today’s technical world. The adoption examples from leading New York firms who have implemented enterprise search solutions, and the subsequent interest shown already this year from the leading UK firms, has only validated the fact that this technology eases the pain of finding information, thereby providing more value to clients and more satisfied users.

Justin North is a consultant at Baker Robbins & Company.