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Features - Roads Diverge in Knowledge Management: A Tale of Two Law Firms

By Wendy R. Leibowitz, Published on April 1, 2001

Wendy R. Leibowitz is an attorney and technology writer in Washington, D.C.  Her Web site is http://www.wendytech.com.

Like dysfunctional families, all unhappy law firms are unhappy in their own way. But happy law firms all share the same attribute: they are able to share information easily. Sharing information and knowledge in law firms takes many forms, from tapping into an intranet and easily searching--and locating!--a relevant and up-to-date document, to asking a colleague down the hall for his wisdom.

There are many roads, and roadblocks, on the way to happy knowledge management. Here is the story of two Washington, D.C. law firms and their ongoing, very different, paths to knowledge management. One, Shaw Pittman, is an advanced user of Lotus Notes. The second, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, is focusing on Internet technologies as its main tool. Lean back and hear their stories.

A Notes Firm

Shaw Pittman first piloted Lotus Notes software in 1993. In those early days, the system was so complex that one California-based technology consultant compared installing Notes to putting a jet plane on everyone's desktop. Shaw Pittman rolled out Notes on all attorney desktops in 1996.

The key to Notes is its combination of databases, e-mail and workflow. Databases may contain easily searchable repositories of client information, firm documents, e-mail discussions, cases and forms. A unique "replication" feature enables someone to edit a copy of a document and the change is replicated on all copies of the document, wherever they are on the system. (Try e-mailing a 250-page document to 40 people. Not an elegant operation. Plus, if each person edits the document, even slightly, formulating a final version can be a nightmare. Replicating all modifications across the system eliminates that problem.)

Cindy Thurston, the firm's application development manager, is eager to exploit Lotus Notes still further. "We are an advanced user of Lotus Notes, with over 600 databases in use," she says. Some are shared among practice groups; many are shared with clients, over extranets that have been heavily used for about three years, she says.

E-mail is one application that needs no encouragement, so Shaw Pittman is extending its value through all Notes databases, says Ms. Thurston. "We're finding there is a lot of client participation and communication that comes in via e-mail. We've created some links that will allow you to transfer all e-mail correspondence to a client file in Lotus Notes, the way you'd keep documents. It keeps the discussion accessible, and full-text searchable--just as you'd do with documents," she explains. New lawyers on a matter can review e-mail correspondence to help bring themselves up-to-date on a matter's development.

The support of pioneering partners at the top is key to the success of any technology, of course, notes Ms. Thurston. Paul Mickey, Shaw's managing partner, sets the tone. Another group of partners in the firm's corporate technology group have been trail-blazers "in terms of knowing what they want," says Ms. Thurston. She said she works closely with them, making technical solutions easier for them. When the technology does what lawyers and staff need it to do, "it sells itself," believes Ms. Thurston.

Nonetheless, training and education are key. Customized training is available. A strong help desk is a backbone of the system. "At Shaw Pittman our help desk numbers are probably higher than at other firms," says Ms. Thurston. "People can call at any time, saying, 'I need to know how to do something, like create a Table of Authorities in Word, and I don't do it often enough to remember how.'" They receive step-by-step help. "Many time there's no problem; they just need to know how to do something," Thurston said. "We have a very advanced staff of technical trainers. Each new user is extensively trained, and there is ongoing training, through online PowerPoint demonstrations, and presentations."

Ms. Thurston markets every successful project within the firm. She makes presentations to practice groups so they can see successful implementations, she said. "People need to have a visual. It gives them ideas about how they can use our technology." She usually addresses lawyers at practice group lunches. "A free lunch never hurts," she notes.

Too Much of A Good Thing

However, the popularity of the system has encouraged an information sprawl that must be addressed in the next stage. "We've created a knowledge management portal, and we have added a full-time graphic designer to the development staff," said Ms. Thurston. The graphic designer, she explains, will organize the information to make it readily accessible. "Microsoft calls it a 'Digital Dashboard'," she said. "In Lotus Notes there are customizable welcome pages. Our Knowledge Management portal has a home page, and a page for each practice area and administrative division. All the key knowledge management databases are integrated into the portal."

This will allow people to easily locate, for example, which attorneys are in each practice area, along with selected representative matters, and talking points for each practice area. This facilitates cross-selling. "If I'm an environmental lawyer, and someone calls me and asks about our litigation practice, I can click over to it," she said. Far more important than databases of documents, she explained, is to know who the people are, and what their talents are, especially as the firm grows far beyond its large office in Washington, D.C.

In the future, Ms. Thurston envisions a personalized portal as well, which, like My Excite or My AOL, or Octopus.com, "knows" which windows you use most often. "It would know that you're a partner in the corporate technology group in our Tyson's Corner office, and would show appropriate information based on your preferences," she said. "That's where we're going with our second version of our knowledge portal."

The firm is just beginning to beta-test some newer technologies: code-named Raven from Lotus Development Corp., which includes Discovery Server and K-Station. K- Station enables people to create individualized customized portals. Raven and Discovery Server is a "spidering" technology that can go through document repositories, lump them into categories, and find that information that you continually use. It would create folders for you, and create categories of information that are particular for each person. "It's like an expertise locator," she explains.

Cindy Thurston's Ten Tips for Knowledge Management

After years of rolling out complex technologies onto lawyers' desktops, Ms. Thurston is ready for retirement. I mean, she has a few pointers for those contemplating or struggling with knowledge management.

1. Knowledge Management is Cultural, Not Technical

"It's important to recognize that you can have great technology, but if no one is rewarded for sharing information or using the technology, it does little good," she said. Partners at Shaw Pittman set expectations from the beginning that the technology would be used to disseminate information. Partners' financial information was not printed out on paper, but stored in a database accessible only to the partnership. This got everyone online.

2. Top Management Support Is Critical

The involvement of key partners will ensure success. "Partners have great ideas about what technology should do for the firm," says Ms. Thurston. What if there's no technology buy-in? "Then you haven't worked hard enough," she says. "Have you publicized the successes of that extranet? Have you shown them how it works, what it can do? You're bound to find somebody who's interested and who can help support your efforts."

3. Know Where the Firm Is Going, and Get in Step

Last year, the firm merged with a firm of 70 people, 35 attorneys and 35 staffers. They needed basic information about Shaw, Pittman. "We needed to integrate the firm," says Ms. Thurston. "We aligned our knowledge portal with those needs." If partners want to develop a particular expertise or practice area, the technology should serve their goals.

4. Dedicate the Resources

No lawyer is going to sit and enter a document or code it for different databases. But it must be easy for the lawyer to give it to a person who's in charge of database maintenance. For example, the corporate group has a full-time business analyst to perform this role. There must be well-oiled links between people who understand the technology and the people who do the work. If the firm balks, says Ms. Thurston, reframe the question: "How can you afford not to do this? How valuable will this be, if we get a new client as a result? If litigation partners can cross sell health law because they understand health law better, how valuable is that?" Six full-time people at Shaw do nothing but develop Notes applications.

To the extent that technology successes are quantifiable, try to measure them. Some practice groups at Shaw Pittman generate reports on who contributes what to the databases, and what information is most heavily used.

5. Do What You Can, with What You Have, Where You Are

This quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt is a favorite of Ms. Thurston's. "Basically, we have tried to stretch the limits of Notes, because that's the technology that we have. Some firms would rather work with Web technologies. That makes sense for them; we're seeing what they're going to do. Think about the tools that you do have and how you can use them more creatively." Ms. Thurston says she also tries to do low-cost things with technology. (See Number 6 below).

6. Start Small, Specific, Doable

One of the first projects Shaw Pittman tried was called "What's up?" It's now the most widely-used database on the system. It's a database where people can query; who knows about...intellectual property in Taiwan? condominium law in DC? There are substantive information and contacts, but it's not the referral database. It's designed to handle queries such as "Have we ever done a project involving the vice-president for product development at such and such a company?"

7. Market It

Once you have a small project, and it's successful, you need to promote it. "Don't be afraid to make a presentation," says Ms. Thurston, including about failures. "How can we avoid doing this in the future?" The most important thing about failure is to learn from it. What did the user expect? Analyze what went wrong, and people will forget and forgive over time, she says. If necessary, point out that since then, there have been five other things that worked well. There have been starts and stops integrating imaging technology in Lotus Notes, for example. "There hasn't been a whole lot of demand for it, frankly. But I haven't found the right product yet," says Ms. Thurston.

8. Know What Your Attorneys Need

This point is perhaps the most important. "A needs analysis is critical, but rarely done," says Ms. Thurston. "Someone might come up with great idea, and we run with it, and no one asks, 'Do we need this?'" Observation is important. The tech staff should be well-integrated into a practice group to see what a typical day is like. Asking a well-pointed question can unlock a door. Not "what information resources do you need every day?" The answer to that may be, "I read the Wall Street Journal." But if you observe, you'll see that they ask Joe a lot of questions every day, or they rely on their secretaries to present information in a certain way. Technology should enhance and strengthen those existing resources.

9. Create Some Incentive for Using the Technology

Whether it's just the fact that people are recognized for their contributions, or whether financial bonuses are awarded for gathering information that is valuable and heavily-used, there should be some rewards for using the technology. Staff performance reviews include a question about the extent to which the person "utilizes and supports the firm's knowledge management efforts." Technology use is also integrated into Practice Group Business plans. Financial rewards have also been discussed, says Ms. Thurston.

10. Create Billing Numbers for Technology

Whether or not you grant billable credit for contributing to databases, one thing that was critical, says Ms. Thurston, was that the firm created billing numbers for knowledge management activities. "Attorneys can record their time to those numbers. They're not penalized. It's non-billable, but they're given some credit for it. There are special numbers created so that people can feel that they have some place to record their time and be recognized for it."

Wilmernet

Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering is an Internet-focused firm. This is odd, since relative to other firms its size, Wilmer, with other four hundred lawyers in the United States and approximately a thousand lawyers worldwide, was late in putting up an external Web site. But the firm has had an intranet, called a Wilmernet, for over five years, and many of its efforts are currently dedicated to deepening its offerings and making them readily available to clients.

Jean O'Grady has served as Wilmer's director of information services for eight years. "Last year, we had a big initiative to develop practice group pages on the intranet," she said. Wilmer has four large practice groups--Business Transactions, Regulatory Work, Litigation, and Securities--each with its own very different needs and methods of operation. The advantage of Internet technologies are their flexibility. "Each practice group can tailor their pages to their own needs," explains Ms. O'Grady. "That's very much a Wilmer thing."

Among the most popular applications on the Wilmernet are The Virtual Work Rooms--a repository of documents, model documents, and useful documents. The practice group leaders took the initiative, last summer, in asking attorneys to put their work product together in the Virtual Work Rooms, especially for newer attorneys. The leaders of the groups validated the reviewed the work and approved its quality for publication. "Different practice groups do this in different ways," explains Ed McNamara, Wilmer's chief technology officer. "Some have Microsoft Access Front Ends for posting documents, others are done by a combination of Active Server Pages and HTML. We are investigating other products that will make [publishing work product] much simpler for our users."

The software tools used are "run of the mill Web utilities," says Ms. O'Grady. This facilitates training--the Web has a standard interface, so the same commands are used to access all documents. It makes it easier for clients, as well. "We are really focused on the client. We're not going to use a technology that doesn't help the client," or is not easily available to the client, says Ms. O'Grady.

The firm's emphasis on general Microsoft and Internet-based applications keeps it simple. At one point, the firm contemplated moving to iManage, a popular document management tool. But "we did not want to be tied to the software upgrade schedule of a third party product that would control our desktop," says Mr. McNamara. "We are about to revisit our document management strategy since the general document management tools available in the marketplace are getting much more powerful."

Attorneys and legal assistants are working now to make it easier to publish directly to the virtual work rooms and to coordinate the practice groups' documents. The ideal is a single interface with a standard search protocol that can be applied to a vast array of materials. "That's very useful in a large environment when you're working with complex matters," says Ms. O'Grady.

One of the biggest challenges is the proliferation of small products. "We are very happy with many of the court monitoring products," says Ms. O'Grady, who also tests and trains users on software. "Some of the software can be used for client development." Attorneys can tap CourtExpress, for example, to monitor any new litigation being filed against clients, or any new filings on existing cases." The library and tech staff can get the lawyers very current information. "This used to be done with news clippings," Ms. O'Grady recalls. But there were occasional long delays between the filing of a case and its appearance in the news, which CourtExpress eliminates.

Despite the firm's ability to put its work product online, its biggest challenge is low-tech. "We're completely out of space," says Ms. O'Grady. "We've done well in developing a virtual library, putting full-text resources on attorneys' desktops, or developing Web catalogues of sites and databases, saying 'here's the link to these resources.' But I think it would be nice to have more space dedicated for training." She says the research staff still feels that lawyers graduate from law school having a poor grasp of legal research." If it's not on Lexis, Westlaw, or the Internet, the young lawyers don't know it exists. "We feel more important than ever," she says. "We really do see ourselves in a continual consultive role."

As the technology improves, demands on it increase. Business research is particularly important as familiarity with clients' businesses is paramount. "Because the research environment is so complex today, the demands on us keep going up," notes Ms. O'Grady. "We drive tools to the desktop, and try to make people self-sufficient by making it easy for everyone to find what they need." But the complexity of questions being asked is staggering. "The library handles really high-level questions that until recently no one would have dreamed of asking," she says. "Lawyers need data that compares companies and markets and market share. And everything has to be done quickly."

Expectations have risen. A long list of people might be presented, with the library staff expected to do complete background checks on short timelines. In a merger or litigation, information about experts, clients, and opposing forces is needed. "We've always done this, of course, but a lot of people think that librarians are experts in everything." she says. "You have to have specialized research tools." And you have to know the tools.

Now, lawyers are taking it on the road. "There are a lot of Palm Pilots and Blackberries around," said Ms. O'Grady. Using Internet technologies, it's easier for lawyers to get access to the documents the need when traveling or working from home. "We're trying to support lawyer mobility," she says. And the tech staff keeps moving, too. "We get no complaints about what we're doing," she says.