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Fool-proofing the legal maze

Fool-proofing the legal maze

One lawyer's bright idea to cut down the time his staff spent trawling the web for legal research has turned into a national portal for managing legal information. Angela Priestley reports While…

One lawyer's bright idea to cut down the time his staff spent trawling the web for legal research has turned into a national portal for managing legal information. Angela Priestley reports

While online research takes up a good portion of a lawyer's day, it serves as a vital function for solving legal problems and delivering conclusions to clients. But the amount of time lawyers, paralegals and secretaries alike spend navigating through search engines, websites and links to get to what they want is nothing short of time wasted.

Worse still is the fact that such dead time usually occurs around various online resources that lawyers and their staff have used, or referred to before - but have simply lost track of in the process of getting on with their daily tasks. According to Andrew Rogers, who once owned his own law firm and is now determined to organise the online legal resources of lawyers across the nation, such dead time is also a constant source of frustration: "With lawyers, it's always that thing of 'I know something is there, I've see it before, now where the hell is it'," he says.

Enter Foolkit, an online resource that points visitors to direct links across a broad range of legal research tools. It's a portal that this week went national, after growing a significant following in South Australia over the last couple of years and originally revolutionising the workflow habits of a group of lawyers, paralegals and secretaries at Rogers' former law firm, Andrew Rogers & Associates.

The fact is that some people have well organised online resources - via bookmarks and the like - while other people don't, explains Rogers. Meanwhile, the degree of web literacy varies dramatically across the legal profession and being proficient in updating a status on Facebook does not always translate into an automatic ability to sift through the numerous legal-related resources available online.

Rogers set about organising the World Wide Web's vast amount of legal resources relevant to South Australia to ease the burden of legal research for himself, and his staff. He wanted to put some structure behind the endless links, bookmarks and numerous mouse clicks required to navigate through to the relevant sections of a website. He originally organised such information via a page on his server, but found that placing it on his internal Intranet, and later on the Internet, actually encouraged staff to use the resource.

Very quickly, Rogers realised that by organising links to be available at the finger-tips of those who required them, he could save time. "When I started using it myself on a daily basis, even though I can rattle these things off my head, I realised I was saving an hour or so a week via that 'everything at your fingertips' approach," says Rogers. "The other lawyers in the firm say it's between half an hour and an hour. The secretaries were saving somewhere between a quarter of an hour and half an hour."

After becoming well acquainted with the tool internally at his own firm, Rogers decided to take it to the outside world. First, he shared it with lawyers he knew, and then by Google crawling the site, he found the site had gone viral, with lawyers and non-lawyers alike across South Australia regularly logging on for assistance with their legal research.

From there, he was determined to take it national. As of last week, the site now boasts resources for every state in Australia except Western Australia.

But why, after so much work, would a lawyer share it with his competitors? "I could see that it was useful ... Australia is such a small place, we don't have a lot of things produced for us, it's a small market," explains Rogers. "When I was a practising lawyer, I would prepare a really good precedent but I knew there would be ten other lawyers on the same day doing the exactly the same thing."

It also comes down to easing the burden of explaining legal research to those not familiar with it: "I was frustrated by the fact that no matter how many times you explain to people how to do things - like go to look up the legislation on AustLII - that people would come back and say, 'how do you do this'?

And while he did start sharing the site with other lawyers, Rogers admits he never really anticipated launching it out to the general public until the day Google crawled the site and thus invited plenty of unintended individuals in. Rogers was happy to share the resource wider than the lawyers and legal staff he knew but was concerned when he discovered that non-lawyers and members of the general public were clicking into the site for personal legal advice.

"A little bit of law is such a dangerous thing for the public," says Rogers. "I was worried that they were looking at it, and would use it so I wanted something that was safer for them to use."

To overcome such concerns, Rogers separated the site into two distinct areas: the first for lawyers and the second for the general public. He used the section for the general public to point those with legal concerns in the right direction and to also provide advice on how they could obtain the services of a lawyer.

The method worked. The site receives thousands of hits a week even with little work completed by way of launching and marketing it. The audience is mixed and varied, and for Rogers there is little more satisfying than walking into another law firm's office and seeing the website he created set as the homepage of staff.

So convinced is Rogers for the necessity of such a site, that he packed up his firm last year to pursue the initiative fulltime. Rogers, who works with a number of programmers and developers but still personally checks around 5000 links a day, is now preparing to launch version 7 of the website - which will see it released in more than 20 different languages.

It's a long way from a once humble Intranet page. See it at www.foolkit.com.au

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