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What Can Lawyers Expect As the Internet Matures?

You need a good Web platform in order to be an effective e-lawyer.
Print Version

By LaVern A. Pritchard

Photograph: LaVern A. Pritchard WHAT DOES it take to turn yourself into an "e-lawyer?" While the label "e-lawyer" will not last long, the broader concept of lawyers who make effective use of Web-based technologies in the real work of their practice will. So what does it take? The first thing any self-respecting e-lawyer needs is a good technology platform on which to build. Today, and for the foreseeable future, that means you need a good dynamic Web page generator or Web application server.

A word of warning is in order. If reading the preceding sentence, which contained the non-legal words "generator" and "server," made you lose interest, feel free to stop reading. The fewer legal professionals who understand the power of dynamic Web page generators and Web application servers, the better for those who do.

Surely, I do not have to learn about such things, you say.

You may not, but it is time that someone in your firm does. These technologies are out there, used by Web-based organizations across the globe, large and small alike. Their availability is already changing law practice "as we know it."

The time is past when checking your e-mail regularly and knowing how to browse the Web qualifies as cutting edge.

Instead, e-lawyering is about changing the way you practice -- taking advantage of sophisticated Web technologies to project your capabilities across the Internet or all around your firm, streamlining your methods of working by moving real work into and out of Web browsers.

Static and Dynamic Web Pages

In a nutshell, here is how dynamic Web pages differ from their "static" cousins.

A static Web page is like a text file prepared on your word processor. It does not change unless someone changes it. Static pages were what we started with on the Web, but they are not where we are going. They represented a great leap forward in the last decade of the 20th century. Now, we can publish with ease to everyone on the planet who has an Internet connection. They, in turn, can read everything from everyone else in the world.

Wonderful as this is, it is just the beginning. Such electronic publishing is merely the prelude to electronic law practice based on dynamic Web page technologies. The static versus dynamic dichotomy is relevant even if you are not ready to practice law on the Web. If your current marketing Web site or your intranet consists of static pages prepared by hand, you will find, if you have not already, that it becomes cumbersome to expand and update as your page count mounts. If you want to globally update the appearance, subdivide the site into different content zones, or rebuild the site entirely, you may have hundreds, if not thousands, of pages to edit by hand and links to rewrite.

Diagnosis: Inadequate technological and information architecture.

Remedy: Dynamic Web pages technology that permits a whole new information architecture and adds the zip of real-time responsiveness to your site.

Dynamic Web pages work equally well on your Intranet, your public Web site, or your Extranet. They look just like static pages. But unlike their static cousins, dynamic pages do not really exist. Instead, they are conjured up on demand out of a set of instructions and data on your server. If you update your data (which should live in your database rather than in static pages), your site changes accordingly in a flash. If you update your instructions (programming logic), the same thing happens.

Static sites hit the wall when you try to make them evolve in unanticipated directions. Dynamic sites are far more resilient to the buffets of change. Because all sites are, or ought to be, in a constant state of evolution, dynamic sites are a genetically hardier species of Web sites.

With a dynamic site, you can do things that used to require traditional applications. On an Intranet, for example, you can navigate through your list of clients, viewing the list or any portion of it from different angles, in the detail you wish, sorting and resorting many ways -- newest clients, largest clients, clients by city and state, clients by practice area -- you name it.

Moreover, you can add, update, and delete information, right away, about those clients or their matters through your browser.

You can build in logic so your server will evaluate your content as the page is generating. This means that you can personalize your Web site to your needs. Knowing who you are and what you want to know, your personal home page may advise you of new content you asked to know about that has been posted since you last signed on.

To have such features takes a certain amount of database design and programming, but once built, it stays built and keeps working, regardless of the data that flows in, through, and out of the site.

Add enough content and enough flexibility to your site and soon you have a dynamic Web application -- more powerful than a mere site, capable of replacing your traditional Windows, Macintosh, etc. applications and doing one more useful thing -- going anywhere inside your firm or across the Web as you may command.

Yes, I want dynamic pages. What do I have to have?

What powers all this? A good database and some technological glue known as a dynamic page generator or a Web application server.

Databases have been around a long time, so we are not going to discuss databases. Just get a good one that adheres to the SQL standard, so you can connect it into your Web application. You can start out small, and move to a more industrial strength database later if necessary.

Figure out what data elements you need. Then design your database. Now, you have the backend.

You need a Web server of course. A Web server responds to a request from a browser. If the request is for a static file, it serves it up.

If the request is for a dynamic file, your Web server has to ask for some help. It gets that help either from little mini-programs that create some or all of the page or from full-blown Web application servers. When they have everything figured out, they send a completed, custom-generated page to the Web server, and it forwards it on to the browser.

Crossing the Rubicon

For all the talk about e-lawyering of late, not all that many firms are yet capable of generating dynamic Web pages through this sort of process in the ordinary course of their business.

Firms that cross this technological Rubicon -- setting up their own Web server and adding a dynamic page generator or Web application server -- are setting the stage for accelerating the pace of their own evolution.

What Are My Choices?

CGI Scripts: The original choice, and still a popular one on smaller public Web sites, was Common Gateway Interface ("CGI") scripts.

CGI scripts are mini-programs that run for just a moment to do some work for the Web server as needed. CGI programs are written in several programming languages, including plain text scripts that do not have to be compiled like traditional programs. You can find pre-written scripts for common needs or you can write your own from scratch (if you like doing that sort of thing.)

The downside? As Web projects become more ambitious, assembling many pieces of programming into a coherent application becomes harder.

Active Server Pages: Microsoft Corp. provides Active Server Pages (ASP) technology as a part of its Web server. Web sites and applications using Active Server Pages are easily identifiable by the fact that their pages end in ".asp." The newest evolution of this technology from Microsoft is ASP+.

Active Server Pages contain programming processed on the server to produce finished pages. If your organization relies on Visual Basic programmers, they may favor Active Server Pages over the competition.

However, Microsoft's role in dynamic page servers is not nearly so dominant as its role in operating systems and office systems.

Web Application Servers: Web application servers go beyond dynamic page generators. These days, they run on a variety of operating systems to provide a new sort of Web business platform that bears striking resemblance to the role filled by traditional operating systems. Like Swiss Army knives, Web application servers provide a variety of valuable tools and services to build and deliver sophisticated dynamic Web applications.

A good application server will connect with databases, communicate with e-mail servers, other programs or objects, read and write to file systems, provide logic to power your application, enable site indexing and searching, provide security, temporary storage (caching), and a wide array of other services.

Vendors in this group are in business to provide the infrastructure on which e-commerce and other advanced Web applications run. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Web application server business is growing by leaps and bounds. (One recent report described this product category as "more than hot -- flaming.")

Previously published reports have estimated expenditures for Web application servers at $67 million in 1997 and $585 million in 1999. According to Giga Information Group, such expenditures will total $1.64 billion this year and reach a lofty $9 billion by 2003.

So, mark this subject for the future, even if you are not ready to cross your own Rubicon quite yet. Businesses and professional firms, law firms included, will be adding this new category of software to their Web arsenals so they can take greater advantage of the Web before others figure out how to do it ahead of them.

The list of Web application servers is growing rapidly. Major vendors are now providing enterprise level products competing with earlier start-ups. There are too many entrants to discuss them all. Factors unique to your organization will influence your final choice. One size does not fit all organizations. Server makers increasingly, therefore, are providing a suite of products, ranging from entry level servers on up. Most law firms will not need or want enterprise-level solutions.

1. ColdFusion

ColdFusion at Pritchard Law Webs

Some of the ways we've used ColdFusion:

* Knowledge management, including integrating internal and Web-based resources.

* Contact management

* Web site generation

* E-mail generation

* Web slides generation

* Directory generation

* Document generation

* Timekeeping and billing

* Bringing data from customer and accounting applications to the Intranet

* Surveys

* Extranet data gathering

* Server to server data transfer

* Data conversion

* Web spidering

* Community-scale legal search engine/portal, LawMooseSM

One illustration of a Web application server is ColdFusion from Allaire Corp. (Disclaimer: At Pritchard Law Webs, we are ColdFusion users and an Allaire Alliance consulting partner organization).

ColdFusion is actually three inter-related parts: 1). A Web application server; 2). The ColdFusion Markup Language ("CFML"), a tag-based language created in the style of HTML with tags and modifying attributes, supplemented by a variety of functions and expressions that enable developers to build almost anything; and 3). An environment for developing and managing Web applications.

When Allaire introduced ColdFusion, it was almost the only choice around. (Active Server Pages, for example, did not appear on the scene until 1997.) ColdFusion 4.51 is the most recent version. You can spot a ColdFusion site by the distinctive .cfm file extensions.

Several pioneering law firms report using the ColdFusion platform for their Intranets, public Web sites, and Extranets.

ColdFusion users often say they selected ColdFusion because it allows them to develop applications quickly.

While users can create quite sophisticated programs with ColdFusion (see sidebar), ColdFusion started out having, and continues to have, considerable appeal to those who want to add dynamic elements to their Web sites but lack a traditional programming background.

ColdFusion applications do not require extensive code writing, although they require just as much planning as any other applications do.

The ColdFusion developer community is large and growing. Importantly for those jumping into a new technology, a wide array of conferences, user groups, books, E-mail discussion groups, training courses and Web-based resources exist, some for newcomers, some appealing to experienced users.

2. Java-Based

Java-based Web application servers have arrived as well. A new technical standard, J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition), is helping these servers move into large organizations where Java has already made headway.

3. Freeware and Open Source Options

Want something free? You will pay for it in limited function or the time it takes to figure it out, but you can certainly find free and open source options for generating dynamic Web pages.

In one sense, Active Server Pages are free, in that this function is built into Microsoft's Web server. If you own or have access to Microsoft's Web server, Internet Information Server, you can use ASP pages.

Allaire too offers a free, limited functionality version of ColdFusion, called ColdFusion Express. While it does not include some advanced features, the free edition can get you started using a Web application server inside your organization.

The open source community offers two additional alternatives.

PHP, now in version 4, is a hypertext preprocessor. It is a scripting language that, like ColdFusion and ASP, is embedded in html pages and processed on the server.

Zope (the Z Object Publishing Environment) offers a number of components that together make up a flexible application server package.

It is written in Python. If you do not know what Python is and do not want to know, you will find yourself in foreign (but open) territory.

Innovating Practices

For more information:

ServerWatch

Network Computing Interactive Buyer's Guide

ColdFusion

Homer, Alex, Sussman, David, Anderson, Richard, and Howard, Robert, A Preview of Active Server Pages+, Wrox Press (July 2000)

Sussman, Dave, Active Server Pages+ASP+ Improves Web App Deployment, Scalability, Security, and Reliability, MSDN Magazine (September 2000)

The CGI Resource

PHP Hypertext Preprocessor (open source alternative)

Zope

If you want to be an e-lawyer, you are going to need one of these platforms to innovate in the way you practice law.

Some will want this technology installed inside their firms where they can learn how to use it to maximum advantage. Others may rely on application service providers, who themselves make use of this technology. Public Web site hosting companies increasingly offer one or more of these Web application environments as a part of their service.

Either way, the power, flexibility, and ease of use of the Web application platform you adopt will substantially influence your own capabilities and evolution.

Dynamic Web Applications and Competitive Advantage

Some of your competitors use dynamic Web page generators and Web application servers. Some started years ago.

These organizations have learned valuable lessons in the school of experience about how to use this technology in law practice. The best are building momentum that may well redefine the legal competitive landscape.

There is absolutely nothing separating you from them except your commitment to acquire some good technology and figure out how to use it. Most of the true cost involves building intellectual capital in this new arena.

Small firms are definitely not precluded from doing any of this! (Many Web-based organizations evolve out of someone's bedroom, garage, or basement. Allaire, for example, started in a Minnesota college dormitory room.)

If you jump on board this bandwagon, do not keep it a secret from your clients. They are doing, or contemplating doing, exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons.

*****

Note Subsequent: After this article was written, Allaire Corp. merged into Macromedia Corporation. The most recent version of ColdFusion is now release 5.0.


LaVern A. Pritchard is the founder of Pritchard Law Webs, a Minneapolis legal Web research and development, consulting, development and publishing firm.


This article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Law Technology News, vol. 7, no. 12, pp. 128-129, 152 (December 2000). You can also find this article on LawMarketing.com at http://www.lawmarketing.com/tech/ELawyering.cfm under the title Becoming an Effective E-Lawyer. This article also appears on Martindale.com's LegalBiz OnlineTM. Feel free to add a link to this article from any related web site. Of course, no permission is required for such a link. If you wish to publish, distribute, reprint this article, please contact Pritchard Law Webs for permission.

*****

For more information about dynamic web sites and web applications or about Pritchard Law Webs, contact LaVern A. Pritchard, Pritchard Law Webs, 1350 Rand Tower, 527 Marquette Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402, Tel: 612-332-0102, E-mail: moreinfo@priweb.com, Web: http://www.priweb.com.

© 2000 LaVern A. Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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Pritchard Law Webs, 2100 Foshay Tower, 821 Marquette Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402. Tel: (612) 332-0102, Fax: (612) 332-3225.

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