Helene Russell continues her series on knowledge management strategies for Law Firms.
The first article in this series discussed what “knowledge” and “knowledge management” is. The rest of the series looks at common problems in knowledge management in medium-sized and smaller law firms. Last month’s article looked at how databases and precedents fit into a firm’s knowledge strategy. This article looks at how you can improve the quality and quantity of contributions to your firm’s knowledge base. This might be contributing existing documents/advices to a database, sharing intelligence about key clients, finding the time to review proprietary precedents or develop workflows, writing articles for newsletters or preparing client seminars, or supervising, mentoring or training junior lawyers.
Creating a culture where collaboration and knowledge-sharing is simply “how things are done around here” is a difficult task and one which the majority of law firms struggle with. When I set up Knowledge Network West (a networking and knowledge-sharing group for those in the knowledge business in the legal sector) in 2008, I asked members what they would like to discuss in the sessions. “Improving knowledge-sharing culture” was high on their list, and it continues to crop up in various guises whenever we meet.
I don’t pretend to have a magic answer to this problem, but these are ten suggestions crowd-sourced from everyone at KNW.
1. Focus on the user
Help people to discover the benefits of what you are asking them to do. This may be a well-stocked, well-run knowledge management system, the ability to find documents and information easily at a later date, the ability to reduce their written-off or non-chargeable time, the ability to find a suitable expert effortlessly. Once they understand why they are being asked to contribute and what benefits will accrue to them, they will be happier to make an effort. This may mean running training sessions to ensure people are using the systems to their full capabilities, but it may also mean spending more time in understanding how people work and adapting your systems so that they are more intuitive for fee earners to use. It also means having a clear knowledge strategy aligned to the firm’s business strategy, to avoid any waste of time, effort or money.
2. Catch them young
Another way to improve contributions over the long term is to focus on training your new starters. Include within the training of all new starters, not just the trainees or fee earners, something about knowledge management: what it is, why it is important and emphasise right from the start that “this is simply how we do things” (even if it isn’t yet). With luck, they’ll become KM champions and spread the word as they rise through the firm. And support staff are just as important as fee earning staff in spreading the right culture.
3. Look beyond the fee earners
Can the support staff help? Can work systems be altered to include steps relating to knowledge systems? Can the secretaries lodge certain categories of key documents automatically once the fee earner has signed them for posting? After all, if a document is adequate for a client, isn’t it adequate for your knowledge system? When looking at after action learning or post transaction reviews, can it be part of the file closure system, such that a file cannot be billed or archived until a review is complete or client information is input? Can client information for your CRM system be gathered by business development staff walking the floor regularly and discussing clients with fee earners, rather than expecting fee earners to find the time for data input?
4. Make it compulsory
Younger fee earners in particular can be wary of contributing their knowledge, worrying that their work will be criticised by more experienced fee earners or their colleagues/competition. Making contributions compulsory can sometimes help, although you may experience problems with quantity and quality. With this strategy, you will need to invest fee earner time (perhaps a PSL) in reviewing contributions or trust to the judgement of the fee earners accessing the information at a later stage.
5. Or … don’t make it compulsory, make it a great honour
Fee earners are often motivated by status, so you may get more contributions by making an invitation to contribute a status symbol, or by offering “subject matter expert” status to those who make the most high quality contributions.
6. Appreciation and rewards
Whilst it is important to have top-down support and recognition of contributions within annual appraisals and within promotion criteria, even the simplest tokens of appreciation make a difference. Some firms offer a bottle of wine for the best contribution per month or chocolate coins for each contribution, but a simple thank you note will make a difference. If you can, try to understand a bit about the motivators of different members of the team, so that you can thank people in a way that is meaningful to them, and be specific about what was helpful about their contribution.
Ensure people’s work is credited to them. Lawyers need to see that their efforts will be recognised within the wider firm and that they can enhance their reputation as an expert by contributing. This also has the added benefit that those reading the document later will know who to contact with questions and will trust the contents of your systems more.
8. Have a non-chargeable code for KM work
Even though it is unlikely to have the same value to the partnership when it comes to promotions and remuneration as chargeable time, a chargeable code for knowledge work will enable fee earners to explain how they’ve spent their time to their supervisors and you can use that information to identify those who spend the most and least time on KM and respond accordingly.
9. Focus on the snipers
Spend time with those who snipe at your knowledge systems. Find out more about their particular work passion and spend time showing them how your systems (“systems” in the broad sense) help them with that particular passion or make their life easier. With hard work and luck, you may turn them into a knowledge champion.
10. Walk the floor
Once a month walk the floor, speaking to a range of different fee earners. Many lawyers are passionate about their work and love to talk about it. If you spend a little time chatting to them, you can often find out useful information about what they are doing, where you can help them or how your knowledge systems can make their lives easier. And if you need help from them, it is always harder to refuse to help someone who asks face-to-face than it is to fail to respond to an e-mailed general request.
Every firm is different and not every strategy will work in every firm, but hopefully these ten ideas will help you to make your fee earners passionate about contributing again.
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 of The Knowledge Business is passionate about improving the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of all law firms, large and small, through knowledge management strategies.
Get in touch – 07548 912 779
Read more – “Knowledge Management Handbook”