Microsoft SharePoint in Law Firms

Many North American law firms have developed their intranet portals using Microsoft SharePoint 2007 software (soon to be released in a new 2010 version).

There have been numerous posts on SLAW discussing SharePoint; in addition, Microsoft has an industry page for law firms that provides some useful links to case studies.

There are several reasons why many law firms are using SharePoint:

- Content aggregator/organizer: SharePoint can be used to create a true intranet portal, being the interface – via a web browser – between the user an a variety of data sources such as your document, financial or content management systems as well as linking to external WWW sites (free and subscription).

Software integration: SharePoint can work well with other software (of course, including other Microsoft products which are heavily used by most law firms); in addition, there are many third party vendors providing value-added software add-ons to make SharePoint easier to use or to improve functionality.

Better search: Whether using SharePoint search “out of the box” or incorporating third-party search engines, SharePoint can usually often better search – including faceted searching – than the native search in most document management systems.

Better browsing: Using SharePoint Designer, one can create well-designed portal interfaces to improve access to information for those who browse (as oppose to search).

Web 2.0 capabilities: SharePoint has “built in” wikis, discussion boards and RSS feeds to make Web 2.0-like collaboration easier within the organization.

The TechnoLawyer Blog has a post from last year from Sara Skiff setting out, with permission, Chapter 17 from The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies (by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell) that discusses SharePoint and provides an excellent overview.

Having been immersed in a SharePoint intranet project, I see the power of this software tool, although there was a fairly high, initial learning curve and a need for a lot of “back end” technical support. However, adding and integrating content is fairly easy. One aspect I have always liked with web development is the immediacy of implementing change. Don’t like a particular page or design aspect? Change it and see the change immediately.

Although there is not likely any particular “Canadian” aspect of deploying SharePoint in a law firm (although there is the English/French bilinguality requirement for those firms with offices in Quebec, which is a challenge in itself), I would be interested in hearing from those of you in Canadian law firms or corporate or government law departments who are using SharePoint and would be willing to join an informal “Canadian Law Firm SharePoint Users” group to share ideas and best practices (contact me offline).

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Comments

  1. I’ve heard an awful lot about SharePoint recently, but usually only in reference to law firms. Does anyone think this resource would be useful in an academic law library? I don’t know enough about it to know whether or not it would be useful in that environment.

    Thanks.

  2. Hi Sue:

    Thanks for your comment. I haven’t heard too much about SharePoint for an academic law library.

    As you may know, SharePoint can be used for deploying or creating external websites. However, I suspect many academic law libraries might be subject to their central university web management policies, etc.

    For internal information management, there could be lots of useful applications using SharePoint: internal research and writing guides, wikis to create and publish manuals/guides, tracking faculty requests for research materials, integrating (assuming this is possible) with BlackBoard or other electronic classroom/teaching sites, and so on.

    If you assume a law school professor/library/law student total head count of say 700 people, you are close in size to a mid-sized law firm, although there would perhaps be less need for internal communication in a law school setting than in a law firm.

    One benefit of SharePoint I forgot to mention in my post is the easier implementation of automated document workflow, something which might have less application in academia.

    However, I would defer to someone else’e comments, if any.

  3. Having participated in two Sharepoint portal projects, I can’t say enough about the flexibility of the product. I seems that, if you are willing to learn the vocabulary of Sharepoint and spend some time getting to know the back end, you can literally do anything you want.
    That said, it is incredibly tempting to do *everything*. Mistake! Mistake! The literature is full of “Sharepoint gone wrong” horror stories. Some observations:
    – Governance is important. Each project/product should have a clear goal and audience, and deviation should be discouraged.
    – For your first project, use Sharepoint “out of the box”. Customization is tempting, but can be a killer (and won’t make you any friends with your IT department). You can do a remarkable amount of great work with the product as it is. Get good at that first.
    – Don’t reproduce your shared drives inside Sharepoint. Shared drives become a nightmare when anyone can create a folder, nobody is responsible for records management in there, and junk accumulates. The same thing can happen in Sharepoint if there is no control.