Ahead of the Curve: In 2009, Your Lawyers Are Your Best Knowledge Management Resource

In 2009, when knowledge management technology projects are likely to be placed on hold, and lawyers have time available, law firms should turn their attention to those projects requiring little hard dollar investment and look for ways to involve their lawyers. Use the opportunity this downturn presents to have your lawyers develop content for your know how collection. This is the time to work on those long-desired collections of models, best practice documents, sample clauses and know how files.

Here are a few points to bear in mind to make the most of this opportunity:

1. Ask your lawyers to define what they need

Start by defining what content would really enable your lawyers to work more efficiently. Best practice law firms do this by asking their lawyers to define what they need, since they are the ones who will develop the content – and use the content.

Ask your lawyers, “what knowledge do you need to do what you do? What knowledge gives us our competitive edge?”

The answers will differ across practice areas and possibly offices – and will determine the decisions you make about your firm’s content development efforts.

2. Keep the project simple

Think hard about how much lawyer time will be required to develop content. Also, how much lawyer time will be needed in the future to maintain the currency and relevance of that content? Consider the amount of lawyer time required against the value a great know how collection will bring to your firm. Is it worth it? Or should we scale back our initial plans?

The following examples illustrate this point:

Model documents or a library of best practice examples? A practice group decides it wants to develop a collection of model documents. Past efforts to draft model documents that are acceptable to all members of the practice group have failed. Partners have found it difficult to reach agreement about the perfect language for a model document, and this has stifled development of the collection. By the time the partners have reached agreement, the model is out of date.

Does the group even need a perfect model, or would a set of best practice examples be as valuable, if not more so? It would certainly be easier to identify a set of best practice documents than to develop the perfect model.

In some instances, a model may be worthwhile – but it’s always worth testing this out with practice groups.

A complete know how file or a wiki? A practice group decides that developing know how files, based on steps of a common process, is a high value project. The partners meet several times to reach agreement on the steps of a process, waiting to agree on the process steps and underlying content for each step before publishing the know how file.

Will the group ever publish the know how file, or should it examine low cost social networking tools, such as wikis? The group considers setting up a wiki for each process, publishing a first draft of the process steps and asking lawyers to contribute content iteratively.

The key question here is – what’s the minimal effort and investment required to gain the maximum value?

3. Keep it really, really simple

Your firm may identify the need for 50 model documents, but wouldn’t you rather have five really good ones than 50 unfinished ones? Start off small. Prove that it is possible to draft five model documents in your firm and then apply the lessons learned from that experience to a more ambitious program. This thinking can apply to any know how initiative.

4. Have a project plan and stick to it

This is a project, like any other, requiring clarity around the project steps, dependencies, timeline, resources, costs and outcomes. Ensure there’s a project manager on every initiative. Have a partner be the project sponsor for a practice group’s efforts.

5. Acknowledge what your lawyers have done for the long term growth of the firm

Lawyers who work on know how initiatives that enable the firm to work more efficiently, make as much of a contribution to the firm as lawyers who do client work. In reality, since billable work is the priority, your lawyers are your most unreliable resource as soon as client work comes in. Consider ways to ensure lawyers contribute to developing content. That may mean setting up billing codes for know how content development, so that lawyers understand how valuable their contribution is to the firm.

No matter how modest the initiative, acknowledge a lawyer’s contribution publicly. Ideally, have your managing partner make this acknowledgement. In this economy, it is critical that firms keep their lawyers productive and motivated.

6. Involve all resources, not just lawyers

Lawyers are the ones developing content, and, if you have one, your Knowledge Management organization will be responsible for directing lawyers’ efforts. To really make this a success, make sure you call on other resources. Important partners in this effort include librarians and information professionals within your organization.

Engage your IT team to understand what can be done at minimal cost, with the technology you have already bought. Consider also which departments should be involved in communications and training related to these efforts.

Soon, your lawyers will be flat out again with client work. As much as they need to remain involved in ensuring that content is current and useful, you should try to minimize the time they need to spend in the longer term on your know how collection.

Law firms outside of the U.S. have expected their lawyers to actively contribute to their know how collections for decades. Those firms understand that having lawyers develop and capture their know how is critical to the long term success of their businesses. This downturn has presented U.S. law firms with a great opportunity to catch up to their overseas competitors. In a global industry, isn’t that now essential to your firm’s long term success?

Posted in: Ahead of the Curve, Case Management, Information Architecture, KM, Wiki