Features - Pragmatic Approaches to Knowledge Management

By Ron Friedmann, Published on November 3, 2006

An Article Based on a Presentation at the Interwoven Legal IT Leadership Summit [1]


Knowledge Management ("KM") may be one of the bigger frustrations law firm CIOs face. This is not to minimize other challenges. Dealing with infrastructure and application problems is hard, but solutions exist; solve a problem and move on. KM, in contrast, is like a mirage: no matter the distance traveled, the "real" KM answer always hovers over the horizon. Of course, law firms have made much KM progress. But as goals, processes, and definitions change, the "ultimate" answer always seems far off.

So it's time to step back and ask where we are today with KM. What's working and what's not? More importantly, are we even asking the right question? KM is important, but should CIOs focus on it? Instead of asking "who should do KM" or "is KM a process or technology," CIOs should ask a more general question - what's best for the firm?

KM Overview

KM Defined

KM has many definitions but a short one will do: capture, create, and re-use know-how. The figure below graphically summarizes the types of legal KM. Explicit know-how refers to knowledge reduced to writing: (A) forms, precedents, and model documents, which are vetted documents that lawyers or other professionals designate as valuable for re-use and often annotate; and (B) work product, which is substantive matter documents with re-use value. In contrast, tacit know-how has not been reduced to writing - it's in peoples' heads. This ranges from understanding how to run a big matter to bringing in a new client to knowing how to address a legal problem. Some firms tap tacit know-how with expertise location systems; the goal is to connect people to people rather than people to documents.

A range of tools and processes support each type of KM, from off-the-shelf software, to highly customized systems, to the near ubiquitous use of broadcast e-mail messages. And some might add collaboration and specific tools such as document assembly into the mix.

Why Do KM?

Why should a law firm invest in KM? Some say it's about professionalism, but in the age of Big Law, idealism will not do. The real answer is profits. Some say KM is a competitive necessity to protect profits. That's probably truer in the UK, Australia, and Canada than the US. Others say KM increases profits by improving realization, utilization, and client retention. And KM can help avoid some malpractice risks (malpractice judgments being bad for profits!).

KM Challenges and the Move to Automated Approaches

Because KM is inherently hard and doubts linger about its value, KM faces many challenges. Perhaps the biggest is capturing context. Documents without context - information about the case or the deal - may not be that useful. Outside of the US, manual efforts by Practice Support Lawyers ("PSLs") not only identify "good" documents, they also provide context (e.g., matter information and taxonomical categorization). In the US, few large firms have the appetite to employ many PSLs; instead, they focus on automating KM. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large UK law firms may be cutting back on their manual efforts.

Examples of Automated KM Approaches

Off-the-Shelf Approaches

Several off-the-shelf automated approaches are available. One is enterprise or federated search, systems that retrieve information from multiple repositories and present relevance-ranked results; product examples include Recommind, Autonomy, or X1. A second is work product retrieval, which automatically finds useful documents from within the document management system and automatically profiles them with accurate meta-data; product examples include Practice Technologies' RealPractice, West km, and LexisNexis Total Search. And a third approach is to use matter-centric features within document management software. Firms can set up client and matter folders that reference contextual information captured during the intake process and also create a default set of sub-folders that reflect the document types usually associated with that kind of matter. When properly executed, the matter-centric approach improves capturing documents in the appropriate context, enables discovery of matters instead of just documents, and makes searching far more reliable because of the the improved metadata accuracy.

Enhanced Automated Approaches

Some firms have created customized automated solutions: