The Future of Knowledge Management in Law Firms - The Answer is Out There

Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson
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Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson

Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson

At the turn of the 20th century, many companies created the management position of “vice-president of electricity.” These executives were charged (sorry, pun intended) with ensuring that their factories and offices had ample access to the power sources, wiring, converters, switches and all of the complex equipment necessary to harness the electricity that would power the burgeoning second industrial revolution. These were professionals whose mastery of the new electrification technology would give their companies a competitive advantage in their markets. But as it became ubiquitous and its critical importance obvious, electricity became less of a competitive advantage and more of a commodity; electricity became less the province of vice presidents and, more, something that was built into the walls of every facility and workplace.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this in how law firms approach knowledge management? I think perhaps there is. Until now, many firms that have developed and promoted knowledge management programs have done so expecting that their ability to harvest, curate and distribute their internal knowledge resources would enhance their competitive advantage. Law is a knowledge-based business and effectively and efficiently managing knowledge would seem to be a prerequisite for success in an era of tightened corporate legal budgets and constant pressure on billing rates. Firms that have invested in knowledge management may have taken to heart former Hewlett-Packard CEO Lew Platt’s famous quote – now a mantra of KM professionals – that “if only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”

So, law firm knowledge management professionals have built and deployed knowledge databases, search engines, intranet portals, and other tools designed to enable employees within their organizations to collaborate, share their knowledge and access the expertise of their colleagues. They tout these technologies as enabling their organizations to deliver services to clients more efficiently than their competitors, urge their internal colleagues to use these knowledge management tools to collaborate with each other more effectively and promote knowledge management as a competitive differentiator.

  Law firm knowledge management professionals must move beyond their traditional role as curators of internal knowledge assets   

But will these knowledge management solutions provide a competitive advantage in the long run? How long will it be before knowledge management-based services are just table stakes? How long will it be before every organization, including every law firm, can claim that knowledge management is embedded in their basic business operations? Indeed, isn’t that the goal of a good knowledge management program: to integrate knowledge-sharing and collaboration into the day-to-day processes of knowledge workers. A successful knowledge management program should make access to critical knowledge readily available and not something for which a knowledge worker needs to search. That is the very objective of the knowledge management tools – expert databases, search engines, precedent libraries – we deploy; they become baked into the corporate infrastructure.

Consider also the knowledge management tools that are now readily available on the market. In the legal industry, we have artificial intelligence-enabled legal research tools such as Fastcase, CARA by Casetext and Ravel. We have contract analysis tools such as KIRA, RAVN and eBrevia. We have expert advisor tools such as Neota Logic that enable practitioners to embed their subject expertise into user-friendly software. We have data analytics platforms such as Lex Machina that enable intelligent modeling of litigation outcomes. And major legal publishers including Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters are now offering comprehensive practice portfolios such as Practical Law and Lexis Practice Advisor. These tools enable sophisticated knowledge management practices without sophisticated practitioners – ubiquitous electricity coming out of the walls with no vice-presidents of electricity. They offer an advantage only to those firms willing to pay the subscription price; put another way, if all firms subscribe, none have a competitive advantage.

These internally-developed and market-based tools represent a turning-point for the legal industry – changing what have traditionally been bespoke practices into standardized practices. And they represent a turning point for the field of knowledge management. With these standardized offerings, what is the future role of knowledge management professionals as strictly internal resources that help attorneys access their internal knowledge?

The answer, I believe, is the opportunity for firms to leverage their knowledge-based resources as not just tools that make them more internally efficient, but as client-focused legal service delivery solutions. This is the future opportunity: law firms that will take the next step by combining their knowledge management resources with intelligent application development to offer client-facing service solutions will truly extend their competitive advantage. 

Think about it: in competing for business with potential clients most AmLaw 200 firms pitch fairly amorphous differentiators: we have better lawyers (really?); we partner with our clients more effectively (seriously?), and we understand your business better than the other guys (you’re kidding, right?). But those firms that can offer knowledge management-enabled, client-facing technology solutions and online service offerings can legitimately distinguish themselves from their competitors.

More critically, those firms that can elevate their knowledge management programs beyond enhancing internal collaboration and focus them on delivering real and effective client service solutions may - I repeat, may – help prepare themselves for the imminent and impending disruptive challenges confronting the traditional law firm model head on. Like it or not, the traditional model of law firms as the exclusive and dominant provider of legal services is under attack. Despite the best efforts of state bar associations to protect the traditional law firm monopoly, corporate purchasers of legal services now have multiple alternatives: bringing more work in-house, legal technology start-ups, alternative legal service providers, newly-structured law firms, and the Big Four consulting firms, now among the most prodigious providers of legal services on the planet.

Law firm knowledge management professionals must move beyond their traditional role as curators of internal knowledge assets if they are to avoid the fate of the vice presidents of electricity. Managing knowledge will inevitably be built into basic corporate functions and commoditized by off-the-shelf products. Knowledge management professionals must focus on developing creative approaches to deploy their content-management skills and expertise to create new ways of delivering valuable services to their firm clients. They must become design thinkers that explore and understand client needs and develop new legal service delivery methodologies. They must understand the new service delivery options being offered by alternative legal service providers and legal technology start-ups and work within their firms to develop effective competitive products.

Or, they can watch knowledge management become just an invisible, embedded corporate function, much like electricity coming out of the wall.

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