Back in April 2015, I wrote that knowledge management “at smaller law firms is made relatively easier, not because there’s any less to remember, but that we externalize our knowledge to other people and our systems.” The point I was trying to make was that a smaller team means you know who or where to get the expertise you need. The idea is that you can knock on your neighbour’s door to grab that precedent to use as a starting point in your case or deal. This works perfectly for the one in need, but it is rubbish for the expert on that topic who may field a barrage of interruptions throughout their working week. It is also highly inefficient for the organization, particularly as a way of learning for new or lateral hires, to have experts repeat the same piece of advice. This informal method of sharing knowledge also contains an element of risk; of not knowing what you don’t know and not realizing that there’s something more recent or relevant out there.
These are the three key reasons that lead many to initiate a knowledge management strategy: enabling efficiencies, continuous improvement and managing risk.
KM does not happen by itself, however. I used to think that KM should not be outsourced to a separate department; that everyone at the firm should “do” KM. But that’s not how the billable hour works in law firms. Getting expensive and busy experts to turn client-specific documents into models and checklists for others to re-use is not the greatest use of their time.
KM needs leadership at the strategic level to embed a culture of sharing and collaboration and at the tactical level in co-ordinating across teams to identify, create and then manage the knowledge lifecycle and its re-use.
KM needs a plan. You can’t do everything at once, regardless of the money or resources you might have to throw at it. Think of KM (like innovation now that I think of it) as a set of building blocks. Certain slightly dull and uninspiring blocks need to be in place before setting the cool and funky, bright blocks on top. However, take note: Structuring this foundation first may hide early evidence that your investments will pay off. You will need commitment to see the plan through.
KM also needs balance. You need to balance your strategy and focus among four elements: the content building blocks, the process blocks, the people and the technology blocks. Some KM initiatives can fail when building with just one type of block (often, the technology).
Identifying where to start your KM program when faced with a forest of trees can be tough. Yet that well-worn cliché of the low-hanging fruit is helpful. In KM we look for the well-trodden paths. Undertaking a current state/knowledge inventory is a great first step. There will be shortcuts and work-arounds that lawyers have already figured out to save time. Uncover that binder or shelf that’s full of their own collected precedents or the computer desktop littered with the documents they refer to most often. Discovering these often personal attempts at knowledge management is your low-hanging fruit.
The next step is to understand where the most efficiencies might come from or where the most improvement is needed. Often, these are the most repeatable processes or those documents that need producing most often. The upfront investment in KM must be offset by creating long-term savings in time, energy and/or cost. Choosing something performed only a few times a year (and often requiring specialized knowledge) to simplify will not be worth your time.
Once you are clearer about the “what” that will form the centre of your collection and focus, the next step is to figure out the “how.” But leaping straight to the technology with no stepping stone in between may not deliver the stress-free wins you desire. For example, implementing a document automation system without having first agreed on the best drafting language and variables needed will slow your development efforts considerably.
This pause between the content or process and leaping to the technology solution has a side benefit too. It allows teams to learn collectively what they have, what is valuable about it, as well as what should not be replicated or kept. To build a culture in which KM will flourish, you need to create this shared journey for your team.
Managing knowledge in small firms also requires considering the tacit knowledge stuck in people’s heads. This stuff is much harder to codify into tangible documents. Personal contact with the experts is needed, such as through job shadowing, mentor programs or small group discussions. It is behind some of the more familiar training that junior lawyers go through at firms. Recognition of these “tacit knowledge transfers” should become part of your standard operating procedures for KM and be valued for the learning opportunities they provide.
Once the building blocks are in place, you can then begin a review of the technology options to support your types of knowledge, sharing practices and processes. Smaller firms can exploit simpler technologies that don’t have to integrate or play nicely with the large, creaky, legacy systems of Big Law.
To initiate and run a successful KM program, you need to work at getting the right balance of building blocks that will drive your specific strategy for managing your intellectual capital.
Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP. Opinions expressed are her own.