Why Legal Intranets Let Users Down – Four Core Problems and Solutions

In today’s modern world, time is money. Long gone are the days of pulling dusty volumes off library shelves and searching for relevant case law. Long gone are the days of calling the corporate switchboard and asking whoever answers the phone for the name of ‘that one guy who did that thing’. Long gone are the days of being lost in a sea of partners, associates, and paralegals whose names and faces you can’t seem to put together, much less remember which cases they’re currently working on.

The future is here – it moves fast and everyone has to keep up. Nobody has time for clicking multiple times to find a single document, waiting for search results to be accessed, or not finding the results they were looking for. Even more importantly, nobody has time to track down the location of the information they need, go to that location, search, maybe find it and maybe not, and possibly even have to start all over when the results are negative or totally unrelated to their interests. If time is money, wasted time is theft – from your associates, your clients, and your bottom line.

Many legal firms are realizing the need for one easily accessed repository for the entirety of their corporate knowledge. Many legal firms are also failing at creating just such a Knowledge Portal. The problems with legal Intranets can be boiled down to four core issues – not finding information, finding too much disorganized information, a lack of responsiveness, and a lack of personalization.

Not Finding Information

Legal Intranets present a unique challenge not necessarily faced by other corporate Intranets – namely, the necessity to integrate knowledge sources from a wide variety of external document management systems, legal industry systems, emails and archives, file shares, intranets and extranets, the Internet, HR systems, CRM systems, financial systems, and people directories, to name just a few.  Are you overwhelmed yet?  I’m tired just from typing all of that.  Imagine how your users feel, trying to figure out where the exact information they want is housed!  Most users want the efficiency of Google for their own company’s internal knowledge.

How do you give the users what they want? 

  • Create a Knowledge Portal You need to create a single window into your company.  Your Knowledge Portal needs to be able to access every other document management system and find the relevant information each user is looking for.  Do not – DO NOT – try to move your data!  You can never expect to put all of your content into one system.  Enterprise search is about taking all of the various document management systems and connecting them through a single search index.  This can be done incrementally, but eventually you want your users to have the capability of searching across different systems to find what they are looking for.
  • Think big, and think forward.  Don’t focus only on your Intranet and your documents – the knowledge your users need may be located in a subscription service, an email, a personnel profile, or a financial statement.  For that matter, your users may need more than a simple document.  People searches account for a little less than half of all searches done on corporate search centers – and most Intranets utterly fail to provide appropriate results on this kind of search.  Just because a user searches for “Hastings vs. Sacramento” doesn’t mean they want the ruling – they may need to contact the lawyer who argued the case.  Be aware of this possibility and provide for it.
  • Understand your users This is not a “Build it and they will come” situation.  They are already here – they’re already working hard for your firm.  Your search is a service to them, a way to help them do their jobs more efficiently.  You need to know what your users are looking for, and then provide it.  This is an on-going process that requires you to collect and analyze usage data, not just from analytics, but also from actual users.  Have discovery sessions.  Form committees.  Actually walk around and talk to users.  Visit your clients.  Talk to them, but more importantly – listen.  Lawyers are not IT professionals; they know what they need but they may not know the most efficient way to get it.  That’s where you come in.

You need one search that can access all of the different places where your data is stored, and you need to talk to your users to find out where all of those places are.

Finding Too Much Disorganized Information

According to a report published by the Radicati Group on email usage statistics, the typical corporate email user sent and received about 105 email messages per day in 2011.  By 2015, that number had risen to about 125 per day.  They further indicate that “despite spam filters, approximately 19% of email messages are spam, or ‘graymail’” – unwanted or unsolicited items of little interest.

In those 125 emails, one may be relevant to a case your user is working on, but finding that particular email is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.  Now multiply that problem by five, ten, or even twenty different possible locations for the specific information needed, and a clear picture of the scope of this problem is starting to emerge.  Try searching for ‘iPhone cases’ on Amazon, for example.  You’ll get a screen that lists items 1-16 of 57,872,113 possible results.  Too much is simply too much.

NOBODY wants to click to the second page.  What your users are looking for should be at the top of the first page.  How do you accomplish this?

  • Make it Organized.  You need to organize both your content and the metadata that leads to your content.  Use filters to allow your users to narrow down their search, and provide ways to search even if the user isn’t exactly certain of specific details like document name or client number.  Allow them to search by the name of the email recipient, or the judge who presided over the case.  Allow them to narrow their search by type (document, profile, email) and location (London office, Boston office).
  • Make it relevant.  Your system should automatically understand relationships.  It should know who your users are and what they’ve recently searched for in order to bring up the most relevant information.  It should know everything from where they are physically to whom they’ve collaborated with, what they’ve done in the past, and how that information relates to the search they’re currently doing.  The more information your Knowledge Portal has about your users, the better your relevancy.  Two attorneys, both typing in the same search terms, do not necessarily need to get the same results.  Their top results should be individualized to meet their individual needs.  This is not something that you can do once and then forget about.  Relevancy, like pets and small children, must be constantly tended to in order to flourish.  Google, for example, has approximately 2,000 engineers dedicated to relevancy.
  • Make it Actionable.  So your user has found a document that looks like the one he needs – how many steps must he go through to see if it really is what he was looking for?  Don’t create additional hurdles for your users; search is a SERVICE.  It needs to work FOR them.  Provide the ability to preview results to ensure relevance.  Make all results links that can be clicked on.  Create a dashboard that can collect all of the relevant information together in one place that is easily accessed.  Don’t make users repeat searches – give them a place to store what they’ve found so that the next time they need it, they can go directly to it instead of having to start the search all over again.

Make it organized, make it relevant, and make it actionable.  Finding too much information can be worse than finding nothing, if you can’t easily access what you actually need.

Lack of Responsiveness

“Find it, fast” is second in importance only to “Find it, period.”  Time is money.  Nobody has time to wait while ‘results are loading’.  Your search has to be efficient and quick, no matter how many different locations it needs to access to find the desired results.

  • KISS – Keep it simple well, you know what I mean.  One of the things that slows down search functionality is too many controls.  The interface gets too technical and complicated, and it not only slows the entire search process down, but it can make your users uncomfortable.  As a general rule, you shouldn’t give people more than seven options.  More than that and it gets harder for them to make a decision, and thinking about it takes up too much time and frustrates them.  It’s a good thing to give people quick links and suggestions, but don’t overwhelm them.
  • Follow the ‘one click’ rule Don’t make your users have to click seventeen times to finally get to the place they were going.  Would you take a flight that had six layovers?  Providing previews can really help here, to keep users from heading down a wrong path.  Take them where they want to go immediately, and provide an easy way to get back if they do happen to go in the wrong direction.
  • Make it fast, and fault-tolerant.  Design the system to exceed the needs of your users.  The moment your Knowledge Portal goes live, it becomes mission-critical.  It’s much more cost-effective to provide MORE functionality than you need than it is to have to go back and apply bandages and work-arounds when everything starts breaking down because there isn’t enough hardware to support your users.  A quote popularly attributed to Bill Gates says that “640K of memory is more than anyone would ever need.” Whether he said it or not – and the Internet is hotly divided about it – the lesson is, don’t assume you’ve done enough.  Expect growth, and plan for it.
  • Keep it standard Ask yourself, “Is our Knowledge Portal useful, simple, and standard?”  If it’s not, go back to the drawing board.  If you deviate from standard, you’re going to have to invest resources in teaching people how to use it.  Some people will resist from mere obstinacy or technophobia.  Your Knowledge Portal needs to be intuitive and use the same kinds of functions found on Google, Amazon, and so forth.  People are already using those, they’re comfortable with them, and they recognize their value.  You aren’t in the business of selling your Knowledge Portal – nobody should have to be convinced to use it.

Design your Knowledge Portal to be fast and efficient – very much like your users.  Allow for growth potential, keep it simple, and avoid complexity.

Lack of Personalization

Finally, personalize your Knowledge Portal for your users.  People want their Intranet to understand who they are, and make it easier to find things that are relevant to them.  The whole point of a Knowledge Portal is to help users do their jobs.  Searching for a list of open cases for a specific date range, when you’re in Boston, and finding a list of open cases in Los Angeles, is not helpful.

  • Integrate My Context Your search needs to know your users.  It needs to know who they are, where they are, what they specialize in, what they are currently working on, what they’ve worked on in the past – and it needs to respond to search requests based on that knowledge.  User profiles can be built into SharePoint, or you can offer custom query expansion if the profiles are located in another directory.
  • Provide Quick Links.  Each user should have his own customizable dashboard that stores frequently used links, current work, user-specific financial data, etc. Embrace the concept of ‘My’ as it relates to search being a service for your users.  Personalized, individualized dashboards save time for all of your users, which translates directly into efficiency.

Once you have all of your data accessible through a single window, and have organized that data and made it relevant, personalization is the final step in making a Knowledge Portal that serves your users instead of the other way around.

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