What KM can mean in a Law Firm?

Vic Peterson, CIO, Stinson Leonard Street LLP
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Vic Peterson, CIO, Stinson Leonard Street LLP

It would seem that modern law firms are all about knowledge management. What is the practice of law, but the analysis of codified knowledge?

Unfortunately, law firms turn out to be some of the weakest practitioners of knowledge management in any programmatic sense. Law firms are collections of individual lawyers who manage their particular assigned matters individually or in small teams. As collections of practitioners, however, law firms have not fared well in maximizing the aggregate of their collective experience. They often do not recycle or repurpose information. They often do not even know where data is, as those who have watched firms scramble to respond to a subpoena for email can attest.

The lesson that administrators of law firms can take away is that lawyers are probably not going to practice knowledge management without the leadership of their administrative delegates in this area, "knowledge managers.” Lawyers will likely even actively resist. Once that sociological fact is accepted, the model to follow is that of large enterprises that are building enterprise platforms that identify and deliver information on a "just-in-time" basis. These platforms gather information without the user necessarily knowing they are contributing to the collective bucket.

The devil is in the details. The more specific and strategically defined the valuable knowledge is, the easier it is to get out of a system. The key to a knowledge management ecosystem in a law firm is to understand what the client is looking for.

Corporate clients increasingly mention efficiency as an expectation. Not only will firms be required distribute work to the appropriate level service employee, billing at a rate appropriate to the complexity or risk of the work,they will also have to retain and share information about the client or client's industry that will advance the client's legal and business goals.

  ​Unfortunately, law firms turn out to be some of the weakest practitioners of knowledge management in any programmatic sense 

The following is a list of examples where "knowledge management" broadly defined can be useful in the changing legal services market:

• Legal spend analytics
• Legal project management
 Experience management
 Business development analytics
 Bundling/unbundling services
 Product development
 Resolve cases with data
 Mitigate unreimbursed costs
 Litigation meta-analytics
 Data breaches
 Exposure to risk
 Patent examiner biases
 Judicial patterns and biases
 Trend visualization

The first task for the knowledge manager becomes identifying what information is useful to client service. Identifying useful data can be a significant initiative in itself because clients and attorneys are frequently inexperienced in articulating what they are looking for. Interviews and methodical collection of data points are critical. The knowledge manager must be very familiar with the attorney workflow, as well as be able to "read between the lines" and help interviewees identify their needs.  Knowledge managers must play midwife to their interviewees' thoughts.

The secondtask is to find out in which systems actionable data resides. While law firms are chocked full of client data, as well as administrative tools such as financial or HR systems that help run the business, a large percentage of such information is not collected for reuse for any of the items in the list above. For example, for business development purposes it may be useful to know specific firm diversity statistical information, which might be gathered from an HR tool.  Other information such as historical information about client profiles or pro bono work housed in document management systems or in quarterly reports to the firm pro bono committee will need to be identified.

The third step is to begin to create a firm-wide platform that moves value-creating data from one tool to another and includes an actionable delivery or reporting method. In the example of the HR diversity information mentioned above, the diversity data may be co-mingled in the internal HR database with personal information that is unlawful to disclose to unauthorized parties, e.g., health information or social security numbers. However, the data may contain reasonable information to share, such as the sex of the individual or languages spoken. A large client for whom diversity is strategy- or market-critical, may want on-demand access to real-time statistics that include the diversity profile of the teams assigned to its projects. In this scenario, a pipeline of relevant filtered data from the HR tool to the client extranet or mobile app may be the right solution. 

The key to a successful electronic platform is that the data transmission must be automated.  Hard coding directly from one program to another is not a favored method.  Rather, a master data dictionary will need to be created that integrates databases and passes data without direct connections—i.e., without bogging down resources with infamous “spaghetti code.”

There are more steps to this "knowledge management" process than my broad brushstrokes above indicate. Strong leadership skills from the knowledge manager will be required to envision, sell, and implement the process. "Knowledge management" in this sense changes from being a conceptual abstraction to being a pragmatic task that can be executed with tangible results.

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