While US lawyers continue to embrace the Net with the boundless enthusiasm of a gold Amex-wielding kid in a candy store, the rest warily follow. The British, it seems, still prefer the peace of the library to the new-fangled technology of the Web browser. But while most watch and wait, Latest Information for Barristers and Solicitors (LIBS) is quietly redressing the balance. The result is a library of links that point to the best of British, Commonwealth and European law resources.
Today, the LIBS site hovers between 120 and 150 pages of legal links and is updated daily by professionals. Talking to the designers gives the impression that they understand the basic principles of Web design - well-compressed graphics to cater for those on slower modems, changing content to encourage repeat visits, and Zen layout to avoid inflicting headaches on visitors.
Frames divide the screen into two sections. On the left-hand side, a list of categories describes the main content of the site, including solicitors, barristers, associations, publications, international law and latest information. Clicking on Solicitors brings up a list of legal eagles in London, the provinces, Scotland, Australia and Canada in the larger, right-hand frame. Only companies with Web sites are included.
LIBS is what design company Mi2G calls a Lounge, a concept which stems from the view that search engines are inadequate for tracking down information.
A search on the Maastricht Treaty with AltaVista can return up to 10,000 links which could take you three days to sift through, and it still may not index the page you're looking for. Lounges index only industry-specific resources so there is no redundant information.
DK Mathai, a computer science lecturer at Imperial College and the Web site's principal benefactor, believes things should be no more complex than strictly necessary. 'The design philosophy is based on minimalism. We wanted it to save download time as well as the time it takes to search for quality information,' he says. A local search engine is an option but Mathai fears it could diminish the desire to go through the Web site. 'We want them to explore the site and give us feedback. Perhaps, when there are 10,000 pages, we will consider it.'
Despite a #100,000 investment, LIBS has no sponsorship or advertising revenue. Mathai remains undaunted and says the company will continue to pump equivalent amounts into the project over the coming years. 'Once the legal profession gets online in a serious way - so far only 20 per cent has embraced the Net - we'll have the consumer base to attract serious advertising.'
The wheels of an advertising campaign have been set in motion, with ads appearing in popular paper-based legal titles. Mathai has considered advertising on the search engines but with minimum ad rates at #25 per thousand impressions this is not really an option. As an alternative, LIBS has concentrated on reciprocating links between its own site and those it links to.
Japanese software giant Softbank, whose tentacles reach into many areas of the Internet, has shown an encouraging interest in LIBS and other Lounges.
Through its partner, Interactive Media Sales (IMS), it promotes Web sites and sells advertising on them. Clients include Fodor's, Hollywood Online, NBC's interactive weather site, Intellicast, the National Football League and the Yahoo Internet Index. Softbank is seeking quality European sites to add to its portfolio and, according to Mathai, talks with the company are now underway.
Ultimately, there may be a small user charge to bolster revenues. But according to Mathai, the Web has millions of sources and, given enough time, it is always possible to find one which is available for free. 'The main principle of any pricing policy has to be a sufficiently large user base,' says Mathai. 'The emphasis for any young Web site has to be on developing this.'
Mi2G has shown remarkable faith and patience in the Web medium given the relatively small number of lawyers online today. But whether folly or visionary, the LIBS site remains one of the best and most comprehensive legal resources on the Net today.
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