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A New Era of Managing and Finding Experience in Large Law Firms

Experience management – the ability to find relevant matters and lawyers with specific experience – has emerged as core in large law firms for both knowledge management and marketing. I explain here its importance and examine the evolution in technology and processes supporting it.

Knowledge Management Evolves from Documents to Experience

Lawyers have long tried to find and re-use work product. They started in the paper days with file folders and indexes. With the rise of PCs and networks in the early 1990s, forward thinking firms deployed full-text search tools to find work product. Variations on search continued for over a dozen years.

Search started with promise but ended with disappointment. It was not smart enough, often failing to find relevant documents. Even when lawyers found good documents, without context from the matter or author, the document had limited re-use value.

Around 2005, technology emerged that dramatically changed KM. New software tapped matter types and billing data (number of hours and narratives) to infer lawyer experience and a matter’s area of law. With the new capability, KM professionals learned that finding relevant lawyers and matters was at least as valuable as finding documents, if not more so. A quick conversation with an experienced lawyer supplied context and identified the most relevant documents. The software also significantly improved relevance ranking of document searches.

The Need for Experience Data Expands

The 2008 economic crisis spawned many changes in large law firms. Marketing and business development grew in importance. Firms hired pricing professionals to set budgets and alternative fees. Management started analyzing profitability by matter, client, partner, and type of matter. These new initiatives require accurate information about both lawyers’ experience and the matter’s area of law:

  • Winning Pitches Require Presenting the Most Relevant Experience. Companies want lawyers with proven expertise to solve their problems. Proving expertise – whether in formal, written proposals or informally in discussions – requires assembling a dossier showing the firm’s relevant experience and best fitting lawyers.
  • Establishing Expertise Publicly. To win the opportunity to pitch, firms must establish their expertise publicly. This requires presenting specific matter experience by practice, earning league table top rankings, and winning awards. All three require locating relevant experience.
  • Pricing Requires Accurate Historical Experience. Pricing professionals need to find similar matters to estimate costs and set prices. To do so, they need an accurate record of matter type and experience.
  • Integrating Laterals and Cross-Selling. With lawyers regularly moving laterally to new firms, the complexion of cross selling has changed. Personal connections and memory of prior matters no longer suffices. To cross-sell effectively, partners need a constantly refreshed source of information on matters and lawyers.  

 

Approaches to Managing Experience Evolve

Law firms have tried many ways to capture and manage experience. Most have seen limited success. Today, however, new and much better options exist.

Email was the earliest approach: pardon the interruption (PTI) messages. Lawyers send inquiries to mailing lists. In some firms, this yields answers but they come at a cost. PTI interrupts many lawyers. Several may answer, duplicating effort. Firms rarely capture results so lawyers ask the same questions again. In other firms, the culture does not tolerate this practice.

Early in the century, many firms created area-of-law taxonomies to catalog expertise. Firms asked lawyers to self-rate themselves. That generally failed. Many lawyers never rated themselves. Those who did often under- or over-rated their experience. Self-rating has a place, but not as the primary way to capture experience.

The inference approach described above was a big breakthrough. It served firms well for about a decade. Then, changing requirements made its limitations apparent. Inference captures only area of law. For pitches, pricing, and profitability, more detail is required. Many firms created custom databases to capture deal attributes or litigation metadata such as opposing party, judge, and jurisdiction. Firms also licensed specialized RFP generation software. These approaches require much care and feeding and turn out to have significant limitations in technology or process.

The Rise of Modern Tools and Processes to Manage Experience

Recently, a new class of software has come to market designed to manage experience. These tools allow collecting important details about lawyers and matters, offer flexible reporting, integrate with other law firm systems, and have simple-to-use interfaces. Furthermore, they offer a single, enterprise system that can power marketing, KM, finance, and other functions.

Software alone, however, is not enough. Someone must populate the data. Reluctance to hire staff to do this has fallen as firms respond to the need to pitch, price, and analyze profitability. Many Marketing Departments already invest heavily to capture this type of data. Finance and new business intakes often contribute. Likewise, KM departments happily contribute because they can ride on the experience system coattails.

These systems rest on more accurate matter typing. Depending on the nature of legal work, accurately characterizing matters may only occur well into the life of the matter. Marketing or KM staff typically chase down the information at suitable points in the matter, which can be days, weeks, or months after inception. Some leading firms, however, are building tools based on role and time entry with phase and task codes as triggers that add a controlled workflow component to capturing information over the lifecycle of a matter. That lifecycle integration holds real promise.)

As a Fireman & Company partner, I have worked with several leading providers of experience management systems, including Prosperoware, Neudesic Firm Directory, and Foundation Software Group. Each offer its own spin on experience management. Regular readers know I don’t review products or even compare and contrast them. I mention  brands to illustrate the general point – and to disclose business relationships. Fireman & Company’s partnership with Foundation Software Group, announced on May 31 (here), is the most recent partnership with a leading legal tech provider. As as with all of Fireman & Company partnerships, we gained experience with the platform through our clients.

Through Foundation (and we can extend this thinking to experience management information in general), we began to see the exponential value of experience data when run through machine learning and AI tools, and combined with document management, time narratives and entries, and other content. Auto-classification, analytics and entity (including clause) extraction are more dependable and effective when trustworthy experience data is available. As we move forward in an integrated information environment, experience management has become a core component of a firm’s service delivery infrastructure.

[Originally published under the same title by the ILTA KM blog on 9 June 2017]