If you ever have the opportunity to hold an off-the-record conversation with law firm knowledge management personnel, ask them if they are delighted with their intranet. Many will confess that they are not. Equally, they will tell you that they did not have much choice about the software because their IT colleagues did not believe there were credible alternatives, and everyone agreed that it would be too expensive and time-consuming to build an intranet from scratch. Consequently, they defaulted to the standard law firm approach to software.

Law firms generally use three types of software:

1. Purpose built: Software that was created specifically for a legal practice. Examples of this would be Diligence Engine, Exemplify and KM Standards. These applications were created by lawyers to address specific challenges that arise in the practice of corporate law.

2. Client preferred: Software that law firms use because doing so makes it easier to share information with clients.  The leading example of this would be the Microsoft Office suite of tools. There is nothing about those applications that was created specifically for the practice of law, but we use them because the results are in a form clients recognize.

3. Herd default: Software that was not created for the practice of law, but we use in the legal industry because other firms use it. This is software that was not designed to address the challenges of legal practice and may present its own challenges to lawyers and law firm administrative staff, yet we contort ourselves to make it fit. A perfect example of this type of tool is Microsoft SharePoint.

Using the first two types of software makes sense: In the first case, because it makes the lives of lawyers easier and, in the second case, because it makes the lives of clients easier. So what is the rationale for using software that was not created for law firms and is not required by clients? In the case of SharePoint, there seem to be several reasons that, taken together, can make the decision nearly inevitable in some firms:

  • No CIO of a law firm was ever fired for buying Microsoft products.
  • Some firms received SharePoint “for free,” in that it was bundled into the enterprise Microsoft license for no additional cost upfront.
  • A survey of IT colleagues indicates that SharePoint is “industry standard”.

If everyone else is using it, how bad can it be? An honest conversation with knowledge management colleagues working in firms in Australia, Canada, England and the US suggests that it can be pretty bad. This does not mean that they are unable to create something that works, more or less. However, few truly are delighted with the results. And even fewer are happy with the actual costs of implementing and upgrading SharePoint, much less the logistical challenge of finding and keeping experienced developers and administrators to maintain the resulting intranet.

So why do we adopt the herd default? Often it is because we simply lack information about alternative options. This would be excusable if information about intranets was hard to find, but the reality is that a simple search online will turn up many credible alternatives. In fact, the Nielsen Norman Group (who are leading intranet experts) reports that there are lots of credible alternatives to SharePoint:

“Many organizations are happy to report that a variety of tools, including open-source tools, are catching up to their needs. Everyone cannot necessarily afford to integrate and support large, complex intranet portal solutions such as SharePoint. But as technology matures, the barriers to entry are lowered, and more portal technology options become available.

This is not a new concept for intranet portal design. In 2000 when we first began studying intranets, open source was used heavily. Not until 2008 did we see SharePoint taking a strong hold. Even that year, our 10 Intranet Design Annual winners used 41 different products for their intranet technology platforms. In our most recent (2014) Intranet Design Annual, 5 out of 10 winners used SharePoint. In our intranet behavioral-research studies, organizations used about 20 different portal-software tools. So there has never been a paucity of intranet portal technology that can produce worthwhile portals. What’s different today is that technology has advanced to a point where a fairly nontechnical team can create a highly functional portal without an advanced design team in-house.”

Here’s the rub: according to the Nielsen Norman Group, it should be possible today to implement an intranet without significant technological expertise. Tell that to the law firm KM departments that struggle daily to modify and maintain their SharePoint intranets. It would be their dream to be able to create, modify and maintain an intranet without any intervention by their IT staff once the active directory was hooked up.  Sadly, they consider this to be an impossible dream.

In fact, this dream is not only possible, but the reality for organizations that have chosen intranet software that does what good enterprise or consumer-facing software should do: it does all the heavy lifting so that the user can work more productively without getting bogged down in development challenges.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about one of the alternatives to SharePoint. It is intranet software created by Interact. The folks at Interact retained me to learn about their software and then write about how software like theirs might be helpful to law firm KM departments. I have done that and the resulting white paper will be available within the next few weeks.

While I don’t want to steal a march on the white paper, I must confess that seeing the Interact software in action made me sad for my colleagues in law firm KM departments. When I compared the sheer ease of implementing and administering Interact’s intranet with the stories my colleagues told about their own intranets, it was clear that many were struggling unnecessarily.  Given the general approach of law firms to software, I realize that moving away from Microsoft may be a challenge. However, before following the herd, do yourself and your firm the favor of investigating the alternatives. It would be a crying shame to resign yourself to unnecessary struggle just because you did not know there were better alternatives within reach.

Intranet ignorance is NOT bliss.