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Getting the Most out of Law Firm Portals in SharePoint 2013: DO THIS, NOT THAT!

Tim KenneySummer is about here and you know that means two things:  

  1. A deluge of insipid and obvious diet advice segments on television (EAT THIS: grilled chicken on a bed of lettuce NOT THAT: triple bacon cheeseburger a la mode. Shocking!) and 
  2. The year is moving along and it’s time to get serious about upgrading your law firm portal.   

As we all learned in the classic movie Groundhog Day, sometimes repetition and experience make all the difference. Having worked with law firms on various Microsoft SharePoint intranet, extranet and Search projects for the past 18+ years, we’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) what to do and not to do with your portal upgrades.

So, as you watch the diet advice given by the waif on TV choking on her breakfast of two breath mints (too much food all at once!) please chew over this (not-so-obvious) advice regarding your SharePoint 2013 upgrade. 

DO THIS: Consider SharePoint Search, regardless of the Enterprise Search platform you are currently using. The SharePoint 2013 Search reality is living up to the hype! The SharePoint Search engine is at least as robust as any other search engine being used for legal intranet portals. It’s now possible with your own development or commercially available third party add-ins to get all of your enterprise data indexed for search including full text search of your documents from your DMS, metadata from your accounting system and people information from your CRM a well as third party integrations such as Lexis Search Advantage and West KM.  

NOT THAT: Expect SharePoint Search to be magic. A search project, regardless of the search engine, involves thought and preparation of data and content before roll out.  If your data is junk, your search will return junk. Also, if you data is not secured in the underlying sources (DMS, accounting system, etc.); you will get some very unpleasant surprises as users turn up data in searches under the “security by obscurity” model. SharePoint is a fantastic search vehicle, but it still involves thought and work in the implementation phase as well as maintenance once deployed.

DO THIS: Primarily use data driven template sites for matters, clients, users, offices and practice group sites. The “matter centric” environment is the staple of your typical legal intranet portal. Here you’ll want your users to find the most important and relevant information regarding any particular matter. By extension, most good legal portals have similar sites for clients, users (not necessarily “MySite”), offices and practice groups (sometimes called “departments”). An effective best practice here is to create a dynamic web-part page for each of these “X-centric” sites. By that, I mean a SharePoint page with controls that will display the content for each type of site (office, practice group etc) that the user has selected through the site navigation. Doing so ensures an identical look and feel for each “X-centric” site. When an end user chooses a specific client, matter, office, etc., the content of the pages (not the look/feel or format) will deliver the data specific to that choice. These types of pages are better for end user navigation and require much less maintenance.


NOT THAT: Create individual sites for every client, matter, office or practice group. It’s shocking how often firms make this mistake.  Creating an individual SharePoint Site for each client, matter, office and practice group not only makes your project almost impossible to complete, it makes navigation for end users much more difficult (because every page seems to be different, you don’t know where to find anything) and a nightmare to maintain. In addition, user-centric sites are a great idea, but don’t necessarily require “MySites” to accomplish this task. As noted above, the data driven template is a much better idea … a vast majority of the time. Have a practice group or matters that require a unique page? Okay, go ahead and hang a Site for them as an exception, not a rule. 

DO THIS: Create attractive financial dashboards targeted to end users. So – first things first:  If you don’t think you should be putting financials on your portal for whatever reason – reconsider. The mantra for several years was “you want your lawyers billing time and doing work, not analyzing their financials”. Wrong!  (BTW – I think that mantra was started by portal companies who couldn’t handle financials ☺). We see that the more useful financial information is presented to lawyers, the more they request them.  That’s a good thing.  However, that begs the question – what is “useful financial information”.  Consider these scenarios:

  1. Target specific financial items to particular lawyers based upon their business goals. So, for example a new associate really may not need to see a top down dashboard of all the firm’s A/R, WIP,  Cash Receipts, etc. but would be very interested in their time this month, YTD and vs. target and maybe as compared to their peers. Save that dashboard for a partner responsible for several matters.  
  2. Make the financials visually appealing and understandable. Use brightly colored charts, graphs and speedometers to draw attention.  Don’t put too much in front of them at once. Allow users to hover over drill downs when possible, but make sure the data is actionable.  

NOT THAT: Rolling out complicated, boring financial tools and reports. Feeding your lawyers relevant financial information in the right places (landing page, “my” page) is very successful. Giving them a link to some overly complicated, spread sheet looking dashboard cubes with multiple drop downs and drill downs is not.  While this type of dashboard is loved by the finance team and a few of the lawyers, it tends to overwhelm many and distract them from the key metrics they need to care about. The web parts and dashboards you roll out should be simple, attractive and actionable.  

DO THIS: Personalize your portal to each end user. Continuing on the theme above, targeting information to your end users is the best way to get users engaged and returning to your portal. SharePoint has the ability to let you take many types of information and target it to specific end users. This ability is greatly enhanced with specific third party tools that can take data from various systems as well as SharePoint List-based items such as news, tasks, calendars, .RSS feeds and alerts and send them to specific people or groups of people.  Why would a person in your New York office want the weather in Chicago on her home page? If I am in the Securities Practice Group, do I really want to see the latest news and announcements from the taxation world? Maybe – eventually, but not primarily.  Targeting information to people on “my” pages or landing pages is the best practice, and then allowing them access to more information on other pages is the approach to take. 

NOT THAT: ‘One size-fits-none’ generic pages. This was fine when that’s all a portal could do. But now, users expect more. The modern user experience, with their phones, home entertainment systems and other technology that they are familiar with, enables a personalized environment with the ability to modify it to their preferences. Take this approach with SharePoint 2013 portals. It may require a little more thinking and planning, but easily pays off in user satisfaction. 


SharePoint 2013 is an excellent platform for law firm Intranets, Extranets and Search. But those expecting it to be the “miracle diet” of portals are likely to be disappointed. Feast (in moderation!) on what is available there and supplement it with practical experience.  Bon appetite! 

About the authorTim Kenney, Esq., is the Vice President of Client Success at Handshake Software. As part of this role, he regularly reaches out to clients to discuss their strategic SharePoint-based business goals and how they can leverage Handshake and other technologies to enhance their SharePoint experience. Tim plans and coordinates the Handshake Software User Group to facilitate company-firm communications and is currently touring the country as part of a ‘Legal SharePoint Case Studies and Best Practices’ roadshow for the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA).

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