After more than a decade as a solicitor specialising in dispute resolution litigation at Beachcroft LLP and Bevan Brittan LLP and six years in know-how, both in-house and as a consultant, Hélène Russell is passionate about improving the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of all law firms, large and small, through knowledge management strategies. Here she writes exclusively for Legal Life
Do you spend time thinking about the following?
· Your clients are becoming more demanding. They are increasingly price sensitive, demanding certainty on fees and services beyond conventional fee earning. You want to offer fixed fees, but you struggle to see how you can compete and still make a profit.
· You are unhappy with your firm’s leverage. Your senior fee earners seem to be unable to delegate work to the juniors. They say that they just aren’t confident that the juniors are up to date. You can’t think about commoditisation or employing paralegals because your precedents and knowledge systems are not up to scratch.
· Your levels of waste (write-offs, realisation rates and/or deductions to bills) are unsatisfactory.
· Your senior lawyers duplicate time visiting clients and potential clients, when other lawyers have already seen them recently, because no one knew.
· Your fee earners are spending a disproportionate amount of non-chargeable time on newsletters and seminars, or not keeping up with their marketing obligations, and they spend too little time cross-selling and sharing contacts.
· You have read that many conveyancing firms are considering alternative business structures and you worry how you are going to differentiate your firm and justify your fees to make a profit.
Knowledge Management (KM) isn’t only suitable for the Magic and Silver Circles. All Law firms are knowledge businesses and most have been naturally applying some KM techniques to improve their businesses. By taking a more strategic approach to KM within your firm, you may find solutions to some of these problems and help to make your firm more efficient, effective and therefore more profitable.
This article is the first of a series which aims to explain in a practical way what KM is and how some of its central tenets can benefit small and medium-sized firms, as well as “the Circles”.
What is Knowledge?
Most lawyers instinctively understand what is meant by knowledge, although it has been defined as “a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers.”1
In simple terms, “knowledge” is what clients buy from lawyers: the knowledge that creates solutions for their business or personal problems. In today’s Information Age, much of the information lawyers base their advice on (legislation, regulations, case law) is available to everyone. Clients instruct law firms not because they have exclusive access to this information, but because they have the knowledge and experience to filter it, understand it, analyse it against a particular set of facts, and know the best strategies to act upon it. Clients buy the value that lawyers add to the available information and the reassurance and risk management of using an experienced professional.
What is Knowledge Management?
Magic Circle firms may not have begun formally developing KM systems until 1980s, but lawyers have been “doing” KM in practical terms, without labelling it as such, since lawyering began. KM definitely isn’t just about IT systems. It isn’t having Professional Support Lawyers. It isn’t understanding web 2.0 or having collaborative worksites. KM is at the very heart of law firms and needs to be recognised as such. It is how firms create, capture, access, apply, interpret and utilize the combined knowledge of their employees to improve their businesses.
KM in law firms is about:
· managing the development, control and effective flow of knowledge around the organisation
· designing efficient workflows and file management systems
· appropriate use of precedents, practice notes and knowledge packs, so no one has to reinvent the wheel and then write off time
· workable, effective training programmes and opportunities for mentoring, supervision and learning
· time-efficient knowledge-based marketing (newsletters, seminars, social media), so that the minimum amount of non-chargeable time is spent for the maximum return
· facilitating collaboration and networking throughout the firm to improve the flow of knowledge, whether that is technical legal information about cases, legislation and regulation, or client information (for cross-selling, about their needs and wants) or experiences and top tips for more successful lawyering.
What benefits can KM offer?
KM systems can:
· capture and document valuable existing knowledge for use by all fee earners
· avoid knowledge leakage when individuals leave a firm
· succession planning
· enable a firm to produce documents more efficiently
· aid transfer of knowledge between lawyers to ensure knowledge is available for re-sale by others
· improve communication and collaboration
· improve quality, consistency and enable a firm to speak with a “house-style”
· improve risk management and reduce the cost of professional negligence suits
· improve employee satisfaction, attract talent and reduce employee turnover
· help to integrate new starters and reduce lead-in time
· improve customer satisfaction and build client relationships
· improve knowledge-based marketing
KM can improve efficiency, effectiveness and profitability in law firms. It offers a source of competitive advantage into the future and ensures growth and sustainability.
This article has considered what “knowledge” and “knowledge management” are and what benefits knowledge management systems can offer law firms when implemented correctly and embedded. The next articles in this series will look at some of the specific issues in law firms and explain in a practical way how some problems can be overcome using KM strategies and techniques.
Find out more
If you are interested in finding out more about how to use KM strategies and techniques in your business or have an idea for a new knowledge system and need help to make it a reality, give me a ring for a chat (07548 912 779) or drop me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Hélène is the author of The KM Handbook, due to be published in July 2012 by The Law Society and founder of Knowledge Network West, the knowledge-sharing and networking group for information specialists in law firms in the West. She is published in KIM Legal and Solicitors Journal and has been a speaker for Ark and UWE. Hélène has an approachable, practical and engaging style, with a no-nonsense, no-jargon philosophy.
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1 Davenport, T. and Prusak, L. (2000) Working Knowledge Harvard Business School Press: Boston p5