The Tao of Law Librarianship: Librarian on the Verge of KM

I don’t do knowledge management. Well, I SAY that, but the truth is I’ve recently been forced to recognize my inner knowledge manager.

It used to be that our office was small enough that all the practitioners shared very well amongst themselves, helping each other out and working spontaneously in teams as needed. They had worked together from student days up into senior partnership, so knew the complexion of each others’ practices and specialties. When I arrived on the scene a number of years ago, I was impressed by the way they assisted each other and how the IT department had organized their document management system to facilitate sharing.

Meanwhile, I went to the seminars, attended vendor demos, and read the articles. I learned all about KM, and closely watched as larger firms implemented it and subsequently went through the related growing pains. Periodically I would get asked by one of the lawyers about “this knowledge thing”. I would do my best to explain what it was, suggesting that there was an element of management buzzword about knowledge management, and reassure him or her that we were already doing the essential aspects of KM by being so good at cooperating one with another. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Modern law firm challenges

The truth is, as firms grow to a certain point, this spontaneous sharing becomes increasingly difficult. And it’s no secret that the trend in firms today makes it less likely for associates to stay on to become partners in the firms they start with. Not to mention older partners moving to less demanding commitments in other organizations or retiring outright. Last year our library summer student Ying highlighted the dilemma we now face by pointing out to me she had ridden the elevator with two of our lawyers, and neither seemed to recognize the other. I was shocked when she told me this. “We’re not THAT big, are we?” I thought to myself.

The nature of firms, though, has also changed in other ways. Firms are becoming less like gentlemanly “old boys” clubs, and more like high-pressure corporations where the work is very focused and demanding. Everyone is far too busy. Throw in the increasing need for confidentiality precautions between client matters and stricter regulatory requirements in several sectors, and you’ve got a formula for driving lawyers out of the hallways for chit chat and into their offices to hold off the deluge. Opportunities for sharing have fallen by the wayside, unless you are in a forward-thinking organization that values sharing opportunities and makes a point of creating them.

We are also seeing a “great divide” open up between firms that can afford big technology such as document management systems and content management systems, and are using these as formalized KM tools, and those who cannot afford these systems. KM, however, is not just about technology.

Librarians filling the KM gap

Enter the savvy librarian. We have the skills to open up others KM possibilities: librarians in smaller organizations can fill the technology gap, finding other ways to accomplish the goals. Librarians in larger organizations can help put the “soul” into the technology, building bridges between people.

Colleagues who have recently moved their libraries into smaller spaces report the need to create space for human interaction, “public” space in which people can work together. Those who have not been able to retain such a space tell us this was an oversight in retrospect, that room to work and meet is key to the heart of the physical library. Let the rest of us learn from our peers and purposely create physical space for sharing. Is personal sharing of expertise and knowledge not at the core of KM?

I have to admit to doing some informal technology-based knowledge management below the radar. Recently we’ve had a closer look at the research memoranda database that we’ve “always” maintained in our library’s InMagic DBTextworks and WebPublisher PRO system. Like plenty of other firm libraries before us, we are looking to add other types of research documents such as factums, opinion letters and seminar presentations. What with all the KM emphasis on taxonomies, we’ve also re-evaluated the subject terms we have been using all along for indexing, looking to see where they might be improved and where else they might be used to leverage information from other databases. I can imagine all sorts of ways we might also pull information together from each of the databases on the lawyers themselves to compile expertise profiles of use to various people.

Consider new technologies

Another way to bridge the gap, especially without established technology, is to guide people in creatively using so-called Web 2.0 collaborative applications such as blogs, wikis, and RSS to help in teamwork and sharing. Microsoft SharePoint Services, a basic content management system included with some Windows Server 2003 software, can be used by ad hoc committees and teams as a lower-cost solution for collaborating on short-term or on-the-fly projects. Librarians can pull their knowledge of technology together with their knowledge of what makes a good interface to facilitate group work with such applications. This area is developing very quickly, so the trick is informing ourselves about these applications and staying a step ahead of the rest inside our organizations.

This raises the question of whether it is necessary to initiate a full-blown, formal knowledge management project. Unless this initiative comes from the lawyers themselves, my feeling is it would be best to employ KM principles and get people involved without actually calling it KM. Steven Matthews, Knowledge Services Director at Clark Wilson LLP backs this idea up in his Vancouver Law Librarian Blog post from April 20, 2005: “One of the big challenges, in my mind, is to break down the sharing process so it means something for the Lawyers involved. One of the reasons it’s difficult to get contribution to a firm wide ‘black hole’ KM collection is that Lawyers have no connection to it.” He maintains that “creating this connection can be as easy as letting Lawyers keep track of the content they find valuable or useful.” This is really what fun Web 2.0 applications such as Flickr and LibraryThing are doing: allowing people to tag and track their own contributions to the greater whole.

KM itself is such a difficult thing to define, why confuse everyone with half-descriptions and long explanations? Instead, it is better to engage lawyers and staff with their corner of the information universe, whatever form it takes. Perhaps create a blog or intranet page for each practice group, having lawyers contribute just to that specific space, connect and contribute precedents, website links, and meeting minutes which you then arrange in a way that is useful for them in the future. And don’t forget to solicit help in each practice area. Matthews says: “encourage your lawyers to partner with you on the content collection – to help seed it, and to help encourage others to contribute – Every content collection needs a champion!

And just as you don’t have to call the project “knowledge management”, you don’t necessarily have to use lingo such as “blog” or “intranet”. Just call it something they can relate to, such as a “web page” or “electronic white board.” The important thing is what it does, not using the exact technical term. It will take some work, but you need to figure out what will really draw people to those spaces, regardless of the name. Just as libraries have recently looked to big box bookstores for ideas on promoting our physical space, we could well take a page from popular web social applications to find what “sticky” features are drawing people in. Perhaps it is the folksonomies or tagging. Perhaps it is the ability to organize ones own items but also show off that brilliant organization with others.

Where do I go from here?

So there you have it: lots of ideas, and now I just need a plan for implementation. We are at the stage where we are doing lots of reading, discussing, and thinking. For now I am playing it by ear to see how I can build on existing projects, where they will lead us. I am also ensuring others are “finding” articles and blog posts leading to some of the conclusions about KM I have come to.

Less than a week ago I already had a small breakthrough in gaining buy-in for KM. One of the managing partners called me for a discussion. He had been talking to a KM director at another firm, and had done a terrific job representing what we are doing in this area, that the library has thus far been the focus of our informal KM efforts. He, like me, was thinking it is time we start facilitating sharing of expertise to a greater degree. Coming away from our discussion, I really felt like we were on the same page. And although I haven’t pushed anyone into it, I feel the demand is starting to build for a larger KM initiative. Just give me several more months of “priming the pump”, and they could very well be beating down my door, ready to push me over into a real, formal KM initiative. And wouldn’t that be swell?

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.

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