Computer Counselor

Private Portals Mark the Latest Advance on the Internet Front

Productivity and  client service needs are leading firms to create their own private portals

By Carole Levitt

Carole Levitt, attorney and president of Internet For Lawyers, provides Internet research MCLE seminars and electronic marketing consultation.

First, attorneys had to learn how to use the Internet. Then came intranets and extranets. Now there are portals. Most attorneys are familiar with public portals such as AOL or Yahoo, but lately private portals are appearing. Many private portals belong to corporations with tens of thousands of employees. Some of the more well-known vendors of corporate portal technology include Hummingbird, Plumtree, Sequoia, and Verity. Members of the legal field are slowly joining the private portal trend either by using portals originally developed for corporate sites (Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, for example, uses the Sequoia portal), building their own portal (as Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison has), or using portals that are designed specifically with the requirements of the legal marketplace in mind. One recently published report has estimated that large numbers of companies in the United States will soon have private portals and that eventually the users of private portals will outnumber those of the public ones.

According to Michelle Vivona, who is Lexis-Nexis’s vice president of large law market planning, a private portal replaces a firm’s intranet by taking it “to another level.” A private portal aggregates and provides access to internal company documents (such as briefs, letters, motions, and so on), internal company data systems (client contact-relationship databases and time and billing), and external resources (commercial databases, Web sites, and news feeds). The purpose of a private portal is to increase a firm’s productivity and efficiency by enabling attorneys not only to manage their documents but also to mine information from fellow attorneys’ documents, the firm’s data systems, and outside resources. In a nutshell, private portals provide users with one site from which they may access all or nearly all the information, internal and external to the firm, that they need to do their jobs.

Many of the more robust portal systems—which include the Lexis-Nexis portal (which uses Plumtree’s platform) or SV Technology’s Law Port—allow users to search both internal and external resources simultaneously. A law firm’s portal can also employ customized pages for specific practice areas and provide desktop access to the firm’s accounting, conflict checking, e-mail, calendar, and docket systems. The portal can also lead users to information that is kept by a firm’s other departments (such as human resources and records). Portals can also be connected to the firm’s library catalog. This integration does require new software and the need for an implementation plan. For example, to bring each separate data system to an attorney’s desktop, a program called a gadget is needed.

The Lexis-Nexis portal was released on January 29, 2001. Although Lexis-Nexis calls its portal an out-of-the-box knowledge-management solution, it can take from four to eight weeks for certified third-party vendors to install and customize a portal for a firm. The time factor is dependent upon integration—in other words, the number of the firm’s data systems that will be tied, using gadgets, to the portal. The number of gadgets that need to be customized, the number of users, and whether there are any hardware or software upgrade requirements (for example, the Sequoia portal needs Windows 2000) are some of the factors that must be taken into consideration when a firm is planning its implementation of a portal.

Currently, Lexis-Nexis has out-of-the-box gadgets for the Lexis-Nexis research database, PC Docs, QuickSift (an SEC EDGAR data extraction program), and InterAction (a relationship intelligence program). Lexis-Nexis also expects that it will soon have a gadget for Elite time and billing. On the Lexis-Nexis portal, users create customized pages that facilitate their searches within internal and external data. The portal filters and categorizes documents and data by employing a taxonomy of 40 predefined major legal topics and 3,600 subtopics. Building a taxonomy from scratch can be a monumental task, but to ease it Lexis-Nexis was able to engage legal taxonomy experts from its subsidiaries (Shepard’s, Michie, and Matthew Bender). Another useful capability of the Lexis-Nexis portal is an extranet that allows attorneys to grant limited access to selected users who do not belong to the firm. Clients, for example, may be allowed to check on the progress of a case by accessing the firm’s data (rather than by calling a busy attorney for an update).

Other Choices

Using the Lexis-Nexis portal is not a law firm’s only option. Another portal developed for the legal environment is SV Technology’s Law Port. Martin Metz, former chief technology officer for Brobeck, founded SV Technology in 1999. A year later, he was joined by Adam Bendell, who had been the knowledge manager at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher when SV installed Law Port there. Bendell notes that Law Port can be used not only to search internal and external documents but also to publish them. With Law Port, attorneys can simultaneously publish information to a law firm’s intranet, extranet, and Web site. Attorneys can also allow clients with security rights a look within the firm’s firewall.

While Lexis-Nexis outsources portal installation and maintenance, SV uses its own in-house staff. Lexis-Nexis and SV partner with some of the same companies, but SV partners with Lexis-Nexis’s main rival, West Group.

According to Don Zinter and Terry Dick of Westlaw, instead of developing an entire portal, West has developed portal delivery modules (PDMs), which are akin to the Lexis-Nexis gadgets. The PDMs allow Westlaw content to be integrated into a firm’s existing intranet or portal. To accomplish this, West has partnered with numerous portal companies (including SV, Hummingbird, Plumtree, Sequoia, and Verity) and with system integrators who work alongside West’s technology staff. Some West PDMs currently available include: 1) Current Awareness, which allows users to read headlines and synopses from the Wall Street Journal (and 80 other news publications) and click to enter the Westlaw database to read the full text version, 2) Client or Company, with which a firm can choose from among 500 predefined company page templates to monitor news about selected clients or companies, 3) Find and Print, which allows users to enter citations into a template to print either a case or KeyCite results, 4) topical and practice area alerts, and 5) Intranet Clipping, which establishes customized searches to be run automatically, with the results sent to up to 30 e-mail addresses. Gibson, for one, has integrated the Westlaw Find and Print PDM into its portal, and a large firm based in San Francisco is currently comparing West’s PDMs to others, including those of Lexis-Nexis and the Bureau of National Affairs. The potential for increased productivity is clear, but one remaining question is cost.

Now or Later?

Is a portal in your future, and if so, should you buy one or build it yourself? This decision is usually made by many stakeholders at the firm, with the IS department and the knowledge manager being most involved in the installation and integration of the system. According to Vivona, it could take one to two years for a firm to create a portal on its own, which makes Lexis-Nexis or SV appealing options. In view of the cost (as much as $300,000 to $400,000), portals will probably only be an option for medium and large firms. Vivona was unable to put a dollar figure on portal installation because of the customization involved, but she stated that the Lexis-Nexis portal is oriented toward firms of 50 or more. SV also could not put a dollar figure on the cost but said that the smallest firm with an SV portal has 100 attorneys. Lexis-Nexis offers to have portal payments spread out monthly and added to a firm’s regular Lexis-Nexis database bill, and SV offers a subscription fee. Smaller firms (20 to 30 attorneys) seeking a competitive edge may see a portal in their future—if they think they can gain enough productivity to offset the cost.