Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Cut down the amount of time spent on searches

Robert Drake figures he spends about 15 hours each week searching for information.

“Fifty years ago, I think the entire bar would only have knowledge of six cases in an area of law,” says Drake, an associate at Goldman Sloan Nash & Haber LLP. “Now there are 1,000 cases for an area of law.”

Lawyers face this low-signal-to-noise conundrum each time they build a case. They want both — access to large amounts of information and to minimize time spent sifting through that information.

Search from the cloud

Peter Aprile’s firm has been configuring a document management system using the cloud-based tool Atlassian Jira to tackle such concerns. The system (nicknamed “Hank”) contains “articles explaining everything from complicated tax topics to how to use the coffee machine,” says Aprile, tax counsel at Counter Tax Lawyers.

“Hank instantly searches our client files and highlights any (relevant) cases, including examples of pleadings and arguments we previously used to successfully persuade the (Canada Revenue) Agency to reverse its position.”

Pro-search habits

Search tools prove more effective when users adopt effective document management habits like tagging documents and articles with pre-defined topic labels; using naming customs with common acronyms; and using standard folder organization.

While admitting staff has mostly been consistent, James Kosa’s experience with such habits hasn’t been encouraging. He considers a document management system without near-perfect compliance practically useless.

“It fails to provide you with the information you need,” says Kosa, a partner at Deeth Williams Wall LLP.

“Let’s say I put a form in front of users each time they need to save a file in Word. A certain percentage of the user population will not complete the form properly.”

An administrator has to audit, track and manage this complexity, and in his firm, such responsibility would fall on Kosa’s shoulders. “I have a day job already,” he quips. “We need systems that can tolerate some misbehaviour from users.”

Limitations of operating-system-based search tools

Some lawyers gravitate to search tools that ship with their computers (Windows Search, or Spotlight on the Mac).

Desktop-based search tools would not work in Kosa’s firm’s computing environment, with its terabytes of data. “In order to be fast, they must index,” he explains, adding that having multiple computers index servers simultaneously would slow servers and the network to a crawl.

“The Windows search tool is not robust enough,” Kosa continues. “It was designed to search a desktop environment only.”

Indexing is key

Kosa’s firm opted for MetaJure, a server-based search tool that has been configured to index data on the firm’s servers each night so it doesn’t place any load on the network during the work day. Users query the search tool (marketed as a document management system) instead of the whole network.

“The lawyers who helped develop this application gave the engineers input into what search terms might mean,” Kosa explains. “If you type ‘NDA,’ it searches for the string ‘NDA’ plus comparable terms within the legal dictionary it maintains, like confidentiality agreements and MNDAs.”

Kosa recommends law firms invest in hardware that can handle the extra load that search tools place on computing infrastructure. He offers the example of installing extra storage on the search server.

“MetaJure creates copies of some files in the index itself to return results faster to the user,” he explains.

Too much of a good thing

Law firms must be able to configure search tools to keep them from digging through documents nobody needs.

“The search tool was so good at its job, people worried that it would make personal correspondence too easy to find,” Kosa recalls.

He recommends finding ways to prevent search results from including documents like newsletters and spam result reports.

Kosa himself uses e-mail rules to sort messages into appropriate folders, and he configures MetaJure to exclude certain folders from search.

Search tool security

Aprile notes that Hank is “cloud-based and encrypted and has built-in safeguards to protect our information.”

Hank’s data and the practice management system reside on different servers “to minimize potential exposure in the event of a security breach.” (Aprile’s firm does not store client names or identifying information on Hank.)

Reaching outside the firm

Not all the information lawyers need can be found inside the firm. Drake notes useful external sources like LinkedIn (and other social networking sites), Canada411 and other websites. Aprile’s firm uses third-party tax-specific databases (TaxNet Pro, Tax Court Practice) for up-to-date case analysis and legislative references.

Could search tools probe these external sources as well? “Subscription-based services are unlikely to allow this kind of access but we have not explored this option,” Aprile says. “In theory, it would be possible. If TaxNet Pro and Tax Court Practice released an API, we would try to merge the systems.”

Note: The original article says Peter Aprile’s firm uses ActionStep. In fact, the firm uses Atlasssian Jira. I regret the error.

This article was originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.