Baking KM into the System

Getting the Most “K” for the Least “M”: Baking KM into the System

This article, co-authored with Chris Boyd, Director of Professional Development & KM at Wilson Sonsini, was published in the Knowledge Management white paper published by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) in June 2006.

ABSTRACT: Knowledge management (KM) resources provide significant value for attorneys, firms and clients. But KM tools do not create themselves; someone must build and maintain them through manual or automated effort. A practical and achievable way to maximize KM results is to capitalize on existing law firm information flows and business processes. By doing so, a firm can get the greatest possible “K” returns for a reasonable “M” effort.

Getting the Most “K” for the Least “M”: Baking KM into the System

By Chris Boyd and Ron Friedmann*

The promise of, and central problem with, KM

Knowledge management (KM) resources provide significant value for attorneys, firms and clients. For example, model and sample forms provide efficient starting points for drafting contracts and briefs. Profiles of past deals or cases provide comparable matters for new client pitches and ways to find attorneys who may have faced similar knotty issues. Expertise locators identify attorneys with the know-how required for solving client problems.

These KM tools do not, unfortunately, create themselves, but rather must be built and maintained through manual or automated effort. Some large firms, primarily in the U.K. and Australia, hire many experienced lawyers (professional / practice support lawyers, or PSLs) to serve as the primary collectors and creators of KM resources. PSLs are well-respected attorneys, usually with several years of practice experience, who draft or gather high-quality precedent documents, research and summarize legal developments for internal and client use, help billable attorneys find expert colleagues, and train junior lawyers. The PSL model offers many benefits but is costly: PSLs bill little time but are paid roughly three-quarters of the compensation of comparably tenured billable attorneys, and the largest firms typically hire dozens.

U.S. and Canadian firms, in contrast, generally hire few if any non-billable attorneys. Instead, they have tried motivating billable attorneys to draft form documents and otherwise lead the development of KM resources — an effort that has generally failed, although billable attorneys can and should provide input on attorney-facing KM resources. Recognizing this failure, North American firms have increasingly focused on automating KM, and have had some success: the best software can provide rapid and accurate responses to requests for sample work product, internal experts, and similar matters. But license fees and annual maintenance for this software can be expensive. Moreover, automating KM does not address all KM needs. For example, a document management system cannot draft a model annotated form, nor can an enterprise search engine produce a state-of-the-market report on trends in venture capital financing terms.

Many large law firms now combine manual and automated KM approaches, seeking to harness the strengths of each at reasonable cost. Whatever the approach, though, all firms face cost constraints on their KM programs. Law firm KM and business leaders must therefore determine how to deliver the highest returns from a given level of investment.

A solution: bake KM into existing roles, tools and processes

A practical and achievable way to maximize KM results is to capitalize on existing law firm information flows and business processes. By doing so, a firm can get the greatest possible “K” returns for a reasonable “M” effort. Think of a windmill rather than a treadmill: whereas a treadmill keeps turning only via human effort (analogous to PSLs) or dedicated power from a generator (analogous to KM-specific software), a windmill relies on dependable winds (analogous to work flows and processes that exist independent of KM requirements).[1]

Some real-world examples of such existing non-KM business processes are:

The matter intake process. Law firms collect information about each new matter and report it to accounting, conflict checking, and records management. Matter-specific data (“metadata”) includes the client name and location, industry and segment, responsible and billing attorney, matter type and subtype, and matter description. KM leaders can tap this data flow and direct it to (a) matter databases, to serve as the foundation for deal and case profiles, (b) document profiles, to make it easier for search engines and other retrieval tools to find relevant past work product, and (c) attorney profiles, to make it easier to find internal experts. But capturing matter metadata is hard and firms must overcome several challenges:

  1. First, firms should standardize metadata. For example, how many industries or legal topics, and at what level of detail? Many firms have developed formal classification schemes called taxonomies to address these needs. Devising and maintaining taxonomies that work across practice groups and departments such as marketing and finance, while also minimizing the work required to tag each new matter, is surprisingly difficult.
  2. Second, tapping metadata takes significant behind-the-scenes process analysis and technology planning. Some firms use work-flow engines, some use advanced semantic search tools with inference engines, and some create customized tools that pull information from one source to use elsewhere.
  3. Third, beyond technical challenges, capturing accurate metadata is hard: partners frequently do not give secretaries, who typically open new matters, accurate or complete information. The urgency to open the file and start billing time frequently overwhelms the need to capture accurate matter metadata.
  4. And fourth, even when initial metadata is accurate, after a few weeks of work, the metadata often needs significant revising. Tapping metadata for KM — indeed for any purpose — should have a mechanism to re-visit metadata after a period of time.

To continue the analogy, while the wind from new matter intake may blow steadily, building a windmill to tap it requires careful planning and execution.

Marketing activities. The saying “consumers don’t buy drills, they buy holes” applies to law firms as well: clients don’t buy lawyers, they buy solutions. Law firms solve problems by applying substantive know-how and deep expertise. To convert prospects to clients, firms must prove they are experts. Marketers, who help lawyers sell solutions, must therefore quickly “slice and dice” matters by industry, type of problem, and area of law, to present prospects with relevant and compelling experience. In firms where marketers have not already caused the intake system to capture metadata, they may invest significant resources to record metadata in their own systems. If so, then KM professionals can, as described above, use this metadata (with all the same challenges).
Prospects also want to meet the lawyers who will serve them. To identify the best fit, marketers often maintain lawyer biographies, which can be quite detailed and exist in multiple versions that emphasize different experiences. Some KM systems, off-the-shelf or customized, can tap these biographies, to, for example, personalize and rank document search results for that lawyer. Firms also give free “samples” that showcase expertise. If marketers categorize client updates/alerts by industry, legal topic, or area of law, knowledge managers can more easily re-use them and distribute them internally.

The secretarial role. Secretaries, who play critical roles in practice management, can be valuable KM allies. For example, litigation secretaries typically track and distribute pleadings and other court filings and maintain case files; with a little extra work, they can (a) tag and submit pleadings to brief banks, (b) categorize cases and link to pleadings in online databases, and (c) record other information that makes it easier to find work product, similar matters, and internal experts. Similarly, transactional secretaries can track data about deals along with important documents and either (a) enter them directly into dealrooms or other types of deal databases or (b) send them to a central KM team. Secretaries typically have attributes that make them ideal KM players: excellent attention to detail, compliance with defined business processes, and the absence of pressure to bill hours.

Practice group databases and meetings. Some practice groups maintain lists or databases of their clients, deals, or cases and have processes to keep them up-to-date and useful. At minimum, these activities suggest that the group values knowledge collection and re-use and is likely a good place to invest KM time. More immediately, these resources can provide steady feeds of new content for matter metadata, wherever it may be stored. Some practice areas also meet periodically to discuss new matters and legal developments. Beyond being valuable knowledge exchange forums, these meetings can provide valuable leads for new model or sample content and updates to profiles of matters or attorney expertise. Including secretaries, which is rare, can help them become more valuable contributors to the KM process.

Deciding where to start

As the above examples show, existing law firm processes offer ample opportunity to enhance knowledge collection and provision without investing substantial additional money. How, then, should a savvy law firm KM leader choose the first area to target?

It’s always a good idea to start with the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” or “quick win.” The KM leader must assess what department or which existing process is most likely to provide a steady wind. If marketing is itching to classify matters, help them. If a practice group has a detailed deal database that just a needs a few links added to make it a KM system, start there. The key is finding allies who, for reasons unrelated to KM, are already motivated to collect and re-use more information.

Manual, stand-alone KM efforts have limited traction in North America. Lawyers rarely explicitly contribute to KM systems. Firms compensate with automated solutions or with specialized and expensive staff. The “pure automation” versus “big staff effort,” however, is a false dichotomy. Firms have a middle path — hiding in plain view — to create important KM assets with limited extra effort. Though not designed for KM, a range of practice or administrative processes can, with some tweaking, become the wind that powers successful KM windmills.

*Chris Boyd is the Director of Professional Development & Knowledge Management at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a 600-attorney law firm headquartered in Palo Alto, CA and the premier legal advisor to technology and growth enterprises worldwide, as well as the investment banks and venture capital firms that finance them. Ron Friedmann is the founder and president of Prism Legal Consulting, Inc., which advises law firms and departments on strategic technology planning, knowledge management, litigation and practice support, and serving clients more effectively with technology. Prism also advises legal software companies on product development and positioning and with marketing strategies.

[1]To the authors’ knowledge, this “treadmill vs. windmill” concept was first set forth in an article by Dan Felean of PensEra Knowledge Technologies, which appeared in the November 2002 LawNet, Inc. white paper on KM. The full article can be found at