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 with the second part of her article on Knowledge Management strategies.
In the previous article I looked at the meaning of “knowledge”, “knowledge management” (KM) and at some of the generic benefits that KM can bring to law firms. The next few articles in this series look at some of the common questions that medium sized and small law firms ask and show in practical terms how KM strategies can help.
There is no doubt that lawyers need precedents.
Precedents reduce the amount of time fee earners spend reinventing the wheel; they speed up the time it takes them to produce documents, improving productivity; they take care of the repetitive work, which helps with leverage and commoditisation and frees senior fee earners to concentrate their efforts on complex value-add work.
Working from a central collection of precedents, rather than individual collections (paper or online) can, when carefully drafted, help a firm speak in a single house-style, avoid unnecessary jargon and promote a single branding message, and improve quality assurance.
Databases are useful for law firms for precedents, forms, practice notes, contact information, checklists, processes and workflows, CVs and profiles, and common clauses and information for tenders.
Return on Investment
Precedent databases are useful for law firms, but they are not the only way that law firms can improve the creation, capture, management, utilisation and flow of knowledge between fee earners.
Too many lawyers assume that the best thing that they can do to improve the way knowledge is managed within their firm is to buy an expensive IT database or upgrade their existing system. This is a misconception. IT is only part of the solution. Once basic document and information retrieval needs are met, some law firms can get a greater return on investment by using other KM strategies, rather than investing more in IT.
David Snowdon, Cognitive Edge, often emphasises that “We know more than we can say and we can say more than we can write down” i.e. when a firm tries to specifically codify its “knowledge” beyond basic precedents, standard letters and workflows etc, it often finds that much of the value is lost. This is not always because people resist codifying what they know for the business because they fear losing the power that knowledge brings, although that can be a motivation in some cases. It is because much of what triggers recall in the knowledge-giver is context-based and much of what is understood by the knowledge-receiver is based on non-verbal cues, questioning and interaction. What triggers a later recall by the receiver also often depends on stories and context.
You will have experienced this yourself. If you ask a fee earner “What did you do about causation in that case concerning the woman with the limp in Nottingham” he/she is far more likely to recall a point of law or successful tactic, than if you ask them to write down all their thoughts on the topic of causation for your database. Similarly, the fee earner listening to the story about the case of “the limping woman in Nottingham” is far more likely to understand the issue quickly, make a judgment about whether they trust the “knowledge” provided and is far more likely to recall the legal point at a later date within the context of the story that they have been told. Where the information that they are given doesn’t fit squarely with their issue, two experienced fee earners will usually understand this and together come to a relevant story about the issue, or reach a suitable starting point for further traditional research, quickly and efficiently.
Once law firms understand this, they can see how connecting their staff to discuss their past and current matters can be a powerful tool, worthy of investment, rather than trying to go beyond their fee earners’ basic needs for precedents and codify everything that their lawyers know and contain it within a written database.
There are many ways of connecting staff within law firms: creating knowledge maps and directories so they can easily find the right person, improving opportunities for networking and collaboration, mixing teams up for training sessions, improving social opportunities, “ask an expert” coffee mornings, knowledge fairs, even Japanese-style “talk rooms”. The important thing is that law firms should understand the value of connecting people and the return on investment achieved by it and to take this into account when devising all kinds of non-chargeable activities: training, networking, business development meetings, socials.
This article has considered when a knowledge database is useful and when other knowledge strategies and techniques can give a better return on investment. The next article in this series will look at the specific issue of training and how you can improve your firm’s technical training.
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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