The World Wide Web For Law Firms

Why to get on the Internet, establishing a budget, and designing a Web site.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 10/2/1996; Law Firm Web Site Home Page Conference; publisher: Glasser Legal Works

1. Why to Get On

If 1995 was the year of the Internet, then 1996 is the this-time-we-really-mean-it year of the Internet. The hype of the past two years has worn off, but the incredible growth of the Internet continues. Are you still excited about the Internet? You should be. Most new major technologies (electricity, telephone, television, fax) took about 10 years to be embraced by a majority of US residents. The Internet is being adopted at twice that rate. Yes, 1996 will be a telling year for the Internet as companies attempt to get your attention without the benefit of media hype. For legal professionals, the message appears to have been received loud and clear. Of the top 100 law firms in the country, 93 have registered domain names, and about a third of those have their own Web sites. And with good reason. Your clients and potential clients are there, your colleagues are there, law-related resources are there, and cost-effective Internet solutions are available.

Back in 1992, I started compiling my book “The Legal List, Law-Related Resources on the Internet and Elsewhere,” the seventh edition of which is now published in paper and on the Web by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing (http://www.lcp.com/The-Legal-List). The bad news is that the Internet is growing so rapidly that it is becoming increasingly difficult for authors to compile (and for paper publishers to cost-effectively publish) such compilations. The good news is that big-name legal publishers are making their way to the Internet with compilations of their own. For example, on June 1, 1996, Martindale-Hubbell (http://www.martindale.com) put its directory of 900,000 lawyers on the Internet, giving every lawyer in American a de facto presence — or home page — on the Internet. Martindale-Hubbell, already THE name in paper-based lawyer directories, is now THE name in Internet-based lawyer directories. Did I mention that 1996 will be a telling year for the Internet?

The Internet is being used today by legal professionals to supplement other forms of legal research. And while it’s true that there is a great deal of information that is not there, more and more information is being published on the Internet every day.

On the federal site, you can find the US Code (http://law.house.gov/usc.htm), pending legislation (http://thomas.loc.gov), the Code of Federal Regulations (http://law.house.gov/4.htm), and the Federal Register (http://thorplus.lib.purdue.edu/gpo/). These sites are all free, and many of them are searchable.

Business and financial resources are also available. Some examples include the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval) database (http://www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm), which contains searchable 10K and 10Q filings. InterQuote (http://www.interquote.com/cgi-bin/search) provides a searchable database of stock market symbols and company names. And PC Quote, Inc., offers stock market quotes (http://www.pcquote.com/index.html) online.

On the state level, you’ll find much of the same information, especially in large states such as New York. For example, many state bars and bar associations are getting on the Net. For a list of what I consider to be the top 10 state bar and bar association Web Sites, see the monthly “Law Links” column that I write for Martindale-Hubbell’s Web Site (http://www.martindale.com/profession/legal_links.html).

Still not convinced? The Internet has a wealth of secondary law. Many law firms are publishing articles online, such as one published by Frank A. Lattal, of Connell, Foley & Geiser entitled “Ex Parte Interviews of Employees and Former Employees: Balancing Ethics and the Unfettered Discovery of Facts” (http://www.cfg-lawfirm.com/lattal.html).

Legal periodicals are also available online. Law journal articles and papers to which the authors have retained copyright can gain second life on the Internet. In fact, there are already many law journals on the Net (http://lawlib.wuacc.edu/washlaw/lawjournal/lawjournal.html). One of those journals is JOLT, the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology (http://www.urich.edu/~jolt/). Created by Richard P. Klau when he was a student at the University of Richmond School of Law, JOLT was the first law journal published exclusively online (the Internet, Lexis-Nexis, and Westlaw). JOLT is an excellent example of how the Internet is changing legal research and legal publishing as many now know it. My company, Inherent.Com Inc. (http://www.inherent.com) is now offering a content plug-in for Web sites called LawMagNet (http://www.lawmagnet.com). LawMagNet takes the idea of publishing online one step further by distributing the content of the LawMagNet magazine to multiple Web sites.

In addition to Web sites, there are many e-mail-based and Usenet-based discussion groups related to law. “Law Lists” (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/lawlists/info.html) is the best compilation of law-related electronic mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. It is maintained by Lyonette Louis-Jacques, Foreign and International Law Librarian and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago (llou@midway.uchicago.edu). It is also searchable (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists).

Of course, not all Internet info is law-related. You can also make plane reservations (http://www.itn.net), find people’s phone numbers (http://www.switchboard.com), and check the HTML from your Web site with Doctor HTML (http://imagiware.com/RxHTML.cgi). And Internet search engines (Web sites that either manually or automatically compile searchable databases of Web pages) such as Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), Lycos (http://www.lycos.com) and Alta Vista (http://altavista.digital.com) make finding information easier.

Of those three, newcomer Alta Vista (from Digital Equipment Corporation) has the most powerful search language, but it is still not nearly as developed as the Lexis-Nexis (http://www.lexis-nexis.com) search language. One of the nice features of Alta Vista is the ability to run an advanced query of the form “link:http://www.compuserve.com/ AND NOT url:http://www.compuserve.com/” (displaying the results “as a count only”) which tells you how many Web sites — excluding the site in questions — link to a particular Web site. This gives the Internet user an instant read on the popularity of a particular Web site. In case you’re wondering, CompuServe (http://www.compuserve.com) is linked to by 17,706 other Web sites, America Online (http://www.aol.com) by 8.516, Prodigy (http://www.prodigy.com) by 3,470. By comparison, Yahoo is linked to by 581,731 other sites, Lycos by 92,274, Alta Vista by 121,881. And I think Alta Vista is going public in 1996 (a telling year).

Finally, one of the best ways to deal with Internet information overload is to use one of the many law-related Internet sites, such as FindLaw (http://www.findlaw.com).

It’s 1996. If you’re still asking your partners “What has the Net done for me lately?”, perhaps this section has convinced you to start asking “What could the Net do for me now?” If so, read on.

2. Establishing a Budget

Beware of hidden costs when establishing a Web site. In no particular order, here are the elements of a Web site that you should consider when setting you budget. You should consider all of these elements whether you choose to do your Web site in-house (purchasing the hardware, software, and Internet connectivity yourself) or outsourcing the project (where the Web server hardware and software reside at the network operations center of your Internet Service Provider). Outsourcing your Web site means that you do not have to purchase any hardware or software. But be sure to ask if you are paying for each of these elements separately, or if they are included in a package deal.

A. Web Services

Web server hardware – the computer that runs your Web site.

Web server software – the software that runs your Web site. Can be freeware, shareware, or commercial software. Commercial server software, such as Netscape’s Commerce server, allows for data to be transmitted securely via you Web site. Vendors, such as Amazon.Com books (http://www.amazon.com) use secure servers to take orders (in this case, for books) with credit cars.

Design time – establishing the directory structure and content strategy. Design is very important, and is often overlooks. If you plunge head first into establishing your Web site before you have given any thought to the file/directory structure or what you are going to put there, you will experience problems. A little planning goes a long way.

Development time – for HTML content files and supporting program files. After you design is done, you’ll have to convert you text content to HTML format, convert graphics to de facto standards such as JPG and GIF, and write any programs required for interactivity (such as for clickable image maps or fill-out forms).

Hard disk back-ups. You should back up your data periodically.

Channel capacity – the bandwidth of the connection from your Web server to the Internet backbone. You can connect via modems at speeds as low as 28,800 bps, but this is not recommended. Or you can connect via leased-line connections (56 Kbps), via ISDN connections (64 Kbps to 128 Kbps), or via T1 connections (1.5 Mbps).

Content plug-ins. Does your Internet Service Provider have any content plug-ins that you can put on your site? What about links from your site to other Web sites? What about links from key law-related sites TO your Web site?

Dedicated server – a computer running just your Web site.

Shared server – a computer running multiple Web sites. Internet Service Providers can provide Web site solutions at affordable costs in large part due to being able to spread the cost of server hardware, software, and Internet connectivity across several Web sites.

Disk space allocations. If you are outsourcing, does your Internet Service Provider charge for how much disk space you use? What happens if you go over your allocation?

Domain name registration. Is this included in the package? Is it included at all? With your own domain name, your Web server would have an address of the form http://www.your-firm.com.

Java program applets – programs that users can temporarily download from your Web server to their Web browser that add functionality and interactivity to you Web site.

Password-protected pages. You may want password-protected pages for internal use or for use by your clients.

Plug-in Support, Adobe Acrobat. Adobe Acrobat files preserve the page layout features of your word processing or other files. If you want files to look exactly the same on the Web as they do on paper, consider using Adobe Acrobat.

Plug-in Support, RealAudio. Allows you to put sound on your Web site.

Plug-in Support, ShockWave. Allows you to put multimedia features on you Web site.

Secure Server – for commercial transactions. See “Web Server Software” above.

Statistics Logging – raw “hit” counts. Does your Internet Service Provider provide this raw data? A “hit” is the transfer of one file from your server. A page with two graphics on it is made up of three files, one for the text, and two for the graphics. Raw hit counts are not very useful.

Statistics Analysis. There are programs that can analyze hit statistics to give you meaningful information.

Traffic allocation and surcharges. Does your Internet Service Provider charge for the amount of data transferred from you site?

Updating and Administration. Will your Internet Service Provider provide periodic updates to your site after it is designed and developed?

B. E-mail Services

Auto-Responders – E-mail accounts that automatically reply with information, such as info@inherent.com.

Email-To-Fax Forwarding Account – E-mail messages can also be sent to fax machines.

Forwarding Accounts – If you already have an Internet Service Provider for e-mail, you can keep that provider, and contract with another Internet Service Provider for Web services. Your e-mail can be forwarded from your new domain name to your current e-mail accounts.

Mailing List – Listserv lists allow you to have online e-mail based discussions without having to manually add and remove people from the mailing list.

C. FTP Services

FTP Client Account – If you are going to update your Web site yourself, you should get FTP (file transfer) access to do so.

FTP Server – Larger files can be served to you users via FTP. Your FTP server would have an address of the form ftp://ftp.your-firm.com.

D. Other Services

Other services that your Internet Service Provider may provide include advertising and promotions you Web site, related books and newsletters, and software from an Internet Access Provider or for client-updating of your Web site.

3. Designing A Site

There are many things that you must consider when designing your Web site, some of which are enumerated above. Below is an overview of some of the more subtle issues relating to Web site design and development.

A. Advertising Considerations

In an article that I wrote for the ABA Student Lawyer magazine “Online” column, I discussed what it means to advertise on the Internet (http://www.abanet.org/lsd/sl-may95.html). Basically, the bottom line is don’t annoy your customers. One of the worst things you can do is to buy a quarter-page advertisement, as one law firm did, and list a URL that is invalid.

B. Security and Unexpected Results

Another issue is security. If a particular World-Wide Web server is set up improperly, you may get a listing of files — rather than a home page — displayed to you. That’s a security hole that’s pretty easy to close and shouldn’t ever happen. If you choose to buy service from and Internet service provider, how do you ask these questions? “Do you set up your servers properly?” And when you have registered you domain name, test out what happens when you go to http://www.your-firm.com before your Web site is even started. For over a year, when you did this for the Indiana State Bar Association, you got the home page not or not the Indiana State Bar Association, but for their Internet Service Provider! That’s because their Internet service provider had misconfigured their server. I would ask my Internet service provider, “If somebody guesses my World-Wide Web home page as http://www.your-firm.com, will their WWW browser return nothing — as it should, since I don’t have a World-Wide Web home page yet — or will it return your home page, which is not what I want to happen. Because then you should be paying me, and not the other way around.”

C. Designing a Home Page – Less is Less

If you are designing a home page, you should be conveying, in my opinion, at least as much information as a business card conveys, at least as much information as letterhead conveys, and at least as much information as a fax leader conveys. If your home page does not list your mailing address, telephone number, and fax number, then I think you’re making a fundamental mistake, because people might be accessing your home page for that information only. Similarly, if your home page doesn’t include the address of the home page itself, then those who simply e-mail a text version of your home page to a friend might not retain that information in their e-mail message. If you choose not to put this information on you home page, at least make in only one or two clicks away.

D. Files Names Are Part of the Design

Another subtle issue use of long file names and long directory names. That assumes that you’re running on a Unix-based platform or an Apple Macintosh-based platform that allows long file names. If you use short file names that are not descriptive, then you are making your particular server more difficult to find, not necessarily for people, but for intelligent agents that are designed to search the World-Wide Web for specific strings of data. There are a great deal of software agents, and there will be increasingly more of them. Some of them are called web crawlers, others spiders, others go by other various strange names. All they are is computer programs that, in one way or another, go out to various Internet servers and search the directory and file structure at that server for particular strings of information. If you are a “legal information provider” it might behoove you to include the world “legal” somewhere in your file or directory structure, so that these intelligent agents will find you. This information can also be encoded in the HTML of particular pages, using “meta” tags, so that it is not visible to uses, but so that agents and will find that particular text.

E. Identifying Potential Content

People have a very difficult time trying to figure out what to put on their home page. What should we put there? How should we design it? What should we say? I don’t think that you have to reinvent the wheel. If you have a firm brochure, that’s terrific material. Law review articles, to which you have retained copyright, can gain a second life on the Internet. Other types of information that you distribute to your clients on a regular basis, such as newsletters, are terrific items to publish online. You don’t have to reinvent a lot of things to publish a compelling home page. You just have to think about what kinds of information you would be looking for as a consumer.

4. Conclusion

If you decide to outsource your Web site to an Internet Service Provider, rather than doing it all in-house, be sure to ask lots of questions. Know what you are getting and how much it costs. And don’t neglect the design process. Visit lots of other Web sites when you are finalizing your design. A little design goes a long way.

The very first users of coffee cooked the beans and threw away the water. That’s called not knowing what your product is. In the same way, you shouldn’t be throwing away your product, whether it’s the files that created the brochures or the files from which a law review article was created. You have the product already. It’s just a matter of transforming that into a World-Wide Web site, and not pouring it down the drain.

Appendix – Definitions

agent – A software program that can perform tasks for the human user in his/her absence. Many agents are designed to search WWW servers for particular types of information. The “Eclipse” feature on Lexis/Nexis is a software agent.

BBS – Bulletin Board System. A computer that is accessible via one or more dial-in modems. BBSs can also be connected to the Internet.

browser – The client software program used to access the World-Wide Web. Netscape and Mosaic are the most popular World-Wide Web browsers.

client – The user side of a client/server-based system. Clients receive information from servers.

domain – The hierarchical naming structure used to identify organizations on the Internet. The domain for the University of Maine system is “maine.edu.”

E-mail – Electronic mail. An e-mail message is (usually) a plain text message that is sent from a user on one computer over a network to a user on another computer. Internet e-mail is sent from one user on one computer network over the Internet to another user on another computer network.

FTP – File Transfer Program. FTP is a software program that allows users on one computer (the FTP client) to connect to another computer (the FTP server) for the limited purpose of copying files from (and sometimes to) the FTP server. FTP also stands for File Transfer Protocol, the standard protocol on which the FTP program runs.

Gopher – A menu-driven software program, much like an ATM machine at a bank, that allows users on one computer (the Gopher client) to connect to another computer (the Gopher server) for the purpose of viewing files or connecting to other Gopher servers. By allowing one Gopher server to connect to another, Gopher allows users to look at menus and submenus from Gopher servers all over the world–so once you have connected to one Gopher server, you can connect to them all. Gopher clients and servers follow the standard Gopher protocol.

hits – Requests for information from a WWW client to a WWW server. If a WWW home page contains some text and pointers to three graphics files, then there would be four hits on the WWW server every time the home page was accessed by a WWW client. The number of unique users that browse a particular WWW server is less than the total number of hits on that server.

home page – The starting point for a particular individual’s or organization’s WWW presence. The home page for LCP is http://www.lcp.com (which is the equivalent of http://www.lcp.com/home.html, because the home.html document is loaded by default).

HTML – HyperText Markup Language. The file format used on the World-Wide Web. Many word processing programs now let the user save a particular file as type .HTML (or type .HTM), just as a file can be saved as type text or as RTF (Rich Text Format).

HTTP – HyperText Transport Protocol. The standard protocol on which WWW clients and servers run. Unlike FTP and Gopher, where the protocols and the programs that run them use the same name, the World-Wide Web uses different names for each. This is why and FTP URL uses the word “FTP” twice, once for the protocol, once for the program. The FTP URL for “The Legal List” is ftp://ftp.lcp.com/pub/LegalList/legallist.txt. The WWW URL is http://www.lcp.com/The-Legal-List. The former says to use the FTP protocol to connect to the FTP server in the lcp.com domain (and then to download the file legallist.txt from the “/pub/LegalList” directory). The latter says to use the HTTP protocol connect to the WWW server in the lcp.com domain (and then to download the file home.html by default from the “/” directory).

Internet – The Internet (uppercase “I”) is the international network of interconnected computer networks. Estimates of the number of individuals on the Internet vary widely, but it is safe to say there are probably 50 million users worldwide. This makes the Internet the world’s second-largest communication network, after the telephone network.

internet – An internet (lowercase “i”) is a series of interconnected computer networks.

ISDN – Integrated Services Digital Network. The functional equivalent of digital modems. ISDN technology turns and ordinary analog phone line into two 56 kilobit/second channels that can be used for voice or data. ISDN allows for faster transmission feeds than analog modems provide.

ISP – Internet Service Provider.

Internet Service Provider – Companies that sell various levels of Internet services. National ISPs include UUNET, PSI, and NetCom.

Online Service Provider – Companies that sell online services. Many online service providers allow some level of access to the Internet. National OSPs include Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, and the Microsoft Network.

RFC – Request For Comments. The documents that specify the Internet’s standards. Promulgated by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the volunteer Internet standards organization.

server – The publisher side of a client/server-based system. Servers make information available to clients.

SMTP – Simple Mail Transport Protocol. The protocol used by Internet e-mail software programs.

Telnet – A program that allows a user on one computer to login to another computer for general use. A telnet connection is a virtual circuit, much like a telephone connection.

URL – Uniform Resource Locator. The shorthand used to describe various Internet services. URLs are used by WWW browsers. The format of a URL is method://machine.domain/directory/file. The URL ftp://ftp.lcp.com/pub/LegalList/legallist.txt means use the FTP protocol to connect to the FTP server in the lcp.com domain (and then download the file legallist.txt from the “/pub/LegalList” directory).

WWW – World-Wide Web. A hypertext software program that allows users on one computer (the WWW client/browser) to connect to another computer (the WWW server) for the purpose of viewing files or connecting to other WWW servers. WWW is easier to demonstrate than to describe. By allowing one WWW server to connect to another, WWW allows users to look at files from WWW servers all over the world–so once you have connected to one WWW server, you can (theoretically) connect to them all. The main difference between Gopher and WWW is that Gopher uses text-based menus while WWW uses text and graphics-based hypertext pages. WWW is used to describe both the software programs (WWW clients, called browsers; and WWW server) and the virtual information space that they create. WWW is only one of the many programs that run on the Internet, but lately “The World-Wide Web” or simply “The Web” has been used interchangeable with “The Internet.”

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