The Importance of Knowledge Management for Law Firms (and Other Businesses)
Knowledge management (KM), often seen as removed from central business functions, is actually a critical component that helps companies be profitable in this era of tightening budgets. Take the legal industry, for example. I work in a law firm environment and am a former practicing lawyer. The law is a knowledge-driven profession—lawyers don’t make and sell widgets, they bill clients for legal advice and counsel. And while lawyers have not historically experienced reservation from clients regarding the cost of legal services, in recent years, things have drastically changed. Clients are savvy and demanding for increased efficiency, cost effectiveness, and transparency. They want to know what they are receiving for their legal fees. The mantra has become “Clients want value.”
A seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked, point about law firms is that they are businesses. And like all businesses, law firms seek to make a profit from their operations. As I wrote in my book, Knowledge Management for Lawyers (American Bar Association, 2015), “At the very core, the main reason that any organization should pursue knowledge management is to help build a better, more sustainable, and more profitable business.”
How can KM help businesses, including law firms, be better, more sustainable, and more profitable? The main focus is on ways to improve quality, consistency, and efficiency. But to understand how KM can help, we must first understand what knowledge management is. While there has never been a universallyaccepted definition of KM, most focus on an organization’s collective knowledge, specifically what employees know through experience, and the things (typically documents) they have created. The focus of knowledge management, and therefore its definition, has centered on specific activities: creating, capturing, organizing, making accessible, sharing, and reusing employees’ work product.
While the “activities-centric” definition of KM is good, I prefer to focus on the concept of “connections.” Knowledge management is about connecting people with people, connecting people with knowledge and information, and the processes, procedures, and technologies required to make those connections. This broader definition expands the scope of KM and, therefore, its potential to have a positive impact on a business.
When you expand your knowledge management focus from specific activities to connections, you see more opportunities for improving quality, consistency, and efficiency. There are many examples, but I’ll discuss two that are very simple and have great impact. Both can be applied in just about any business context, but I’ll use law firms in the examples.
Connecting People with Information and Knowledge
First, connecting people with information and knowledge. One of the best ways to ensure efficiency and consistency is to reuse existing work product, or business content, when creating new work product. Think of the adage, “don’t reinvent the wheel.” In many businesses, especially large law firms and other professional services companies, most cases, projects, and issues have been addressed before by someone in the organization. While a new case or project is rarely ever exactly like a previous one, there are usually some similarities such that previous work can be repurposed to make the new work more efficient. The challenge is how to find the existing work product so it can successfully reduce the time to create the new one.
"While the “activities-centric” definition of KM is good, I prefer to focus on the concept of “connections”"
Finding this content is no small task. Various studies have shown that so called “knowledge workers” spend 15-30 percent of their time searching for information, leaving only 70-85 percent of their time for production. One way knowledge management helps make finding content easier is to organize it. For example, highquality forms, models, samples, and templates can be arranged on an intranet page for easy access. And while this is helpful and recommended, such “best practices” resources are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Typically, large law firms have millions of documents that can potentially be used as starting points for new work. To help find other documents that can help drive efficiency, a powerful search engine is your best bet. Unfortunately, pointing a Google-like search engine at millions of documents containing unstructured data doesn’t work well. That’s where the collaboration between IT and KM professionals becomes important. The IT specialists focus on the technology and the KM specialists, who typically have subject-matter expertise, focus on the taxonomy, or classification, of the documents being indexed by the search engine. Together, the result is easily-accessible, high-quality content that can really drive efficiency.
Connecting People with People
A second example of using KM connections to improve quality, consistency, and efficiency focuses on connecting people with people. While connecting people with information is useful, sometimes workers simply need to “pick the brain” of a coworker. This is especially true if a colleagues’ knowledge has not been captured, or codified, in a document and made accessible to others. In knowledge management parlance, we call this “tacit knowledge;” know-how that results from personal experience and only exists “between the ears.” This tacit knowledge is trapped, hidden away from others, and not readily findable and shared, unless the person with the knowledge is asked or volunteers it. Because it is so personal and hard to access, tacit knowledge is extremely valuable.
A good example, again in the law firm context, of the challenge of sharing tacit knowledge by connecting people with each other is when a lawyer wants to learn about the intricacies of an esoteric area of the law. How can a lawyer in a large law firm find a colleague with this know-how? One way is to use an enterprise search tool to analyze documents, professional biographies, time entry narratives, and case information recorded by fellow lawyers. These systems can point to the people with the most experience on a given topic. Once identified, a lawyer can have a conversation with his or her colleague to better understand the esoteric legal topic.
Knowledge management is about building a better, more sustainable, and more profitable business by focusing on quality, consistency, and efficiency. Connecting employees with an organization’s collective knowledge and information, and connecting employees with each other can have a profound impact on any company’s bottom line.