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Legal enterprise search grows sophisticated

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Many large law firms have been working for the past few years to implement enterprise search solutions that have profound knowledge management implications. But the transformation process is never easy.

Most firms have deployed document management systems (DMS) at the core of their operations, but the legacy approach to searching them was ineffective. "They were bottomless repositories with little navigation," says Shy Alter, president and CEO of Toronto-based consulting firm ii3. With Recommind leading the way, enterprise search providers saw DMS vendors as asleep at the wheel and jumped into the market. "So for the past five years, this has been a very popular initiative to undertake in law firms," he says.

Jeff Fried, chief technology officer of BA Insight, one of the vendors challenging Recommind in the legal niche, says there has been a commoditization of high-end search. "We have seen the total cost of ownership go down, so that firms can get the level of sophistication they couldn't afford a few years ago," he says. "An enterprise search solution that would have cost $1 million a few years ago now costs $100,000."

Trial run

But Alter says firms just starting down that path should expect some bumps in the road. It's critical to do a pilot project involving KM and IT stakeholders who can assess technical aspects, and librarians and KM lawyers who can provide feedback on the complex searches, he says.

"The pilot is important not just to see that it functions well technically, but to deal with security issues," Alter explains. He is referring not to technical security, but to people finding firm documents they couldn't find before, such as spreadsheets with employee salaries. Firms have to do cleanup to make sure those sensitive documents are properly secured.

"Previously firms had security through obscurity," he says. "No one could find the documents. But now documents that are not properly secured will show up in searches."Alter tells people doing a contained pilot to encourage users to find things they are not supposed to find. "If it is a structural issue of a certain matter or library, that is easier to fix universally," he says. "If there are specific holes or things not properly secured, that is an issue of communication. You want to make sure nobody freaks out. I have seen this security issue shut down projects for three months, with finger pointing by partners at the CIO or KM staff."

Cassels Brock & Blackwell

John Gillies, director of practice support at Toronto law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell, stresses that enterprise search is still a relatively new endeavor. When his 200-attorney firm implemented it in March 2009, it was the first Canadian firm to do so, he believes. "The attorneys weren't really aware of the existence of tools like this," he says. "They just knew that we had millions of documents and they weren't able to find what they were looking for." The DMS vendors had originally focused on the organization of unstructured content, he explains. They weren't really envisioning repositories of millions of documents, and the search technology itself was still developing.

Cassels Brock & Blackwell initially chose an enterprise search tool called iManage Universal Search (IUS, acquired by Autonomy, which is now an HP company) because it was from the same vendor as its DMS system. The rollout went smoothly, he recalls. "One of the partners said to me, ‘This is going to transform the way I work,'" Gillies recalls.

A few years ago, the firm decided to upgrade to a newer version of IUS because it had a number of features they were interested in, including tagging, commenting and extracting names and addresses. But following a merger, the new version didn't have the same underlying search engine, he says. After a short period of using the new version, the firm's users were dissatisfied and eventually made the decision to transition to Recommind. Looking back, Gillies learned a few lessons. "We did a limited pilot with the new version, but the mistake we made was not to do a detailed use case and compare the before and after," he says. "We are KM pros and we use our own expertise to extrapolate how it would work in hypothetical cases, but there is no replacement for the attorneys using it on an actual matter."

Gillies' goal is to develop a user interface that more closely resembles how attorneys work. When they created document management systems, vendors didn't reflect that workflow well, he says. "We could use search as a platform for attorneys to see on one screen the core documents they are working on, as well as those of colleagues in the practice and the firm, better reflecting how they work," he adds.

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan

Sarah Stephens, former chief knowledge officer at the Washington, D.C., firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, says that several years ago the firm recognized it needed a KM initiative, but that can mean different things to different people. For marketing, it can mean managing contacts; for librarians, searching information. For IT people, it can mean automation. Stephens spent time talking to attorneys, starting in the energy practice group, asking what made their life difficult.

"The similarities we heard were that outside their floor and their group, they didn't know what was going on in the firm or how to find out," she says. If they were talking to a prospective client, they had no way of knowing if that company was already a client of a different practice group. They had trouble researching prior work.

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