Deploying a knowledge management system is essential for any law firm, but it requires buy-in from those who will use it, and those resistant to change.
Managing knowledge has become a huge priority in many law firms, and should be in all. Making lawyers more efficient and productive by helping them easily and quickly find documents, firm precedents, research material, and experts can pay enormous dividends, especially in big firms where the problems related to those activities are more vexing.
But as too many firms have discovered, simply deploying knowledge management (KM) technology won't magically guarantee a big pay-off. You also have to convince partners, associates, clerks, and administrative assistants to actually use new systems — and use them properly. It often starts with engineering a change to a more sharing culture.
Consultant and lawyer Joshua Fireman, vice-president of market development at ii3 Inc., a Toronto-based KM consulting firm, says he can tell within a few minutes of talking to lawyers in a firm whether deploying KM systems is going to cause "cultural" problems. He hears the same tell-tale gambits from lawyers over and over.
Some, for example, say they're all for sharing, but they're concerned that making precedents and research readily available electronically might encourage others in the firm to try and practice in specialized areas where they don't have adequate expertise — with the result that they'll make mistakes, with the attendant risk of liability for the firm.
"That, in fact, almost never manifests as a result of any kind of KM effort," Fireman says. "It's a red herring, it's an excuse that means, 'I don't want to share my stuff.' Some may be genuinely concerned about guiding lawyers properly, but more are concerned about giving up competitive advantage."
Another excuse he often hears from lawyers is that they're afraid if their work is made readily available within the firm, colleagues will see it and be judgmental about its quality. Lawyers also sometimes over-emphasize the importance of maintaining ethical walls to protect against allegations of conflict of interest. Restricting access to an unnecessarily small group of lawyers obviously works against the notion of broadly sharing knowledge.
Abusing ethical walls
"Ethical walls are needed but they can be abused," Fireman says. "And you can often already see those kinds of behaviours before you even begin implementing a system."
Resistance to the whole idea of sharing knowledge can scupper a KM initiative, and removing resistance is not always easy. The key is consulting with lawyers and support staff and building a consensus around the firm-wide benefits. Part of the resistance, though, may not be so much to the principle of sharing, as to making a change of any kind.
"Every year lawyers have to deal with change for change's sake," Fireman says. "They have a constant sense of the administrative burdens being placed on them — and it's often a pretty well-merited concern, too. So if you're trying to introduce anything new, it has to resonate with them. The only way is if it comes from them."
Lawyers need to know why they'e being asked to change their work processes, how requirements for the KM project were developed, what it will or could mean to their practice, and whether their colleagues are buying in. If something is not going quite right in the project, there needs to be discussion about it. "Transparency is absolutely critical," Fireman says.
Eugene Cipparone, acting director of KM at Goodmans LLP, says much the same thing in a slightly different way. Goodmans, a KM pioneer that hired its first KM director six years ago, is now in the process of refining its KM best practices.
"There is no point in me on my own coming up with a system for a practice group and trying to impose it on them," Cipparone says. "I'd rather find out what they're doing and then try to enhance that. It's just part of the culture at Goodmans. Other firms might appoint a committee, make a decision, and impose it. Our firm's not like that."
It's also crucial to include clerks and administrative assistants in the consultation process, Cipparone says. As Fireman points out, "There is no such thing as just a lawyer's workflow — it's always to some extent the lawyer's and the secretary's workflow." Both say that where firms do start with broad-based, in-depth consultation, lawyers typically buy-in when they see the logic behind KM.
Overcoming overt resistance, whatever its source, is just the first step in managing change around KM, though.
Lawyers may agree that changes are beneficial, but then, "in the heat of [working on] a file," not follow through and actually comply with new work processes, Fireman says.
The second challenge then is to supplant ingrained work processes and successfully replace them with new processes.
It's not enough just to provide the technology to do this — a computer-based process for opening a new matter, for example. The technology itself may appear to force compliance: lawyers or their assistants now have to input information in an online form. But if they rush through this process to get to the point where they can start billing and don't think carefully about the information they're keying in — getting the industry or other details wrong — little is gained, Fireman says.
"The file-opening process should yield a treasure trove of information that can be leveraged for KM purposes," he says. "If it's a deal, for example, you now know whether the firm is acting for the vendor or the purchaser, you know the industry, you know if it's a private placement or an IPO or a secondary prospectus. Knowing all that, when you search for documents, you can filter by IPO or by industry or the vendor or purchaser side — or whatever you need."
But if the fields are filled out inconsistently or incorrectly, those searches will miss relevant documents and clutter search lists with irrelevant documents.
"Traditionally, this is where law firms tend to fall down," Fireman says. "They may go through the planning process OK, they may do the initial roll-out properly, but then they just leave it."
The fact that lawyers are inputting something in the fields in an online form can give a false impression of high compliance, he warns. KM project teams need to spot-check to ensure fields are consistently being filled in the same way and with correct information.
Goodmans is currently refining its KM infrastructure in part to eliminate exactly this kind of problem. The firm has had a document management system in place for years, but lawyers, clerks, and assistants have not always filled in profile information about documents in the same way.
"They've used idiosyncratic abbreviations and extraneous punctuation and the like. The result is that the ability to search electronically is compromised," Cipparone says.
Another common mistake firms make when implementing KM systems is asking lawyers to do too much too quickly — to fill out 10 or 15 different fields in a file-opening procedure, for example. "You're only going to get two to three minutes of their attention," Fireman says. "I'd rather get three pieces of information from them that are consistently correct rather than 10 that are full of inconsistencies and errors."
Planning and communications
How ultimately can firms ensure that KM projects do pay dividends? The key elements, Fireman says, are planning and communications. You need to decide what you expect to achieve, and how to measure whether you're achieving it. You have to anticipate the problems and have procedures in place to deal with them. ii3 recommends firms divide members into three groups according to compliance level, for example, and have different programs set up to address each group.
"What this requires is very disciplined planning that has to be completed well in advance of the roll-out of change," Fireman says.
Meanwhile, a key condition for success is firm and practice leaders — and unofficial opinion leaders — not just "buying in," but also being seen to be complying with new work processes, he says. "I've seen firms where one practice group was tremendously successful because its manager ranked KM very high on the priority list and complied with the new work processes himself, while in a similar-sized practice group, the leader said he bought in but didn't and results were nowhere near as good."
Finally, Fireman stresses the importance of "doing the first thing right." Don't be too ambitious, don't try to do everything at once. Pick one or two simple KM initiatives that don't require radical change but do show some discernible benefit — implementing a system that will help lawyers find their own documents or manage their own research more easily, for example. Ensure it's working properly and that lawyers "get" the benefit. Then build on that.
"That may be the single most important determinant of ongoing success," Fireman says. "Doing the first thing right."