Interview: The State of KM in 2006

The National, a publication of the Canadian Bar Association, published Knowledge Uprising (PDF) in Jan-Feb 2006, a nice article on the current state of knowledge management. Journalist-author Patti Ryan interviewed several KM practitioners, including me.

Portions of the interview appear in the published article; I thought some readers might be interested in the entire transcript. Questions she asks include the history of KM, why lawyers are reluctant to participate in KM efforts, what motivates law firms to do KM, the benefits of doing KM, whether law firm size matters for doing KM.


1.) When did law firms generally first begin to think about the need for KM? (How many years ago?)

Many firms started collecting precedents decades ago, saving them in big filing cabinets, and typing indexes. I started in the legal market in 1989, still early in the PC age. One of my first projects was computerized “work product retrieval.” Back then, I never heard the term knowledge management, but we were doing it.

2.) What are some of the reasons why lawyers have been reluctant to participate in KM, or have been skeptical about its value?

Many KM efforts don’t address the “what’s in it for me” question. Lawyers must do extra work — contribute documents or describe matters — that takes time but the effort does not directly benefit the lawyer. With the pressure to bill hours, motivating lawyers to do anything extra is very hard.Beyond time pressure, some lawyers are just reluctant to share. Some fear that sharing documents will diminish their ability to bill hours. Others fear colleagues will use documents inappropriately.As for why lawyers are skeptical, many have seen KM efforts that have failed. And lawyers remember, so even long-ago failures loom large in their minds.

3.) Is the trend towards KM driven by firms, or by clients?

Many clients demand that their outside counsel “do KM.” Yet I don’t think that is the primary motivator. Firms doing KM have a range of motivations, from believing it’s the right thing to do, to managing risk (e.g., avoiding inconsistent advice), to improving the realization rate, to meeting client demands. I don’t think it’s possible to separate out the influencers.

4.) What are the key benefits of KM to law firms? To clients?

For clients, the benefits are lower cost, more consistent advice, faster turnaround, and better answers. For law firms, the benefits are better client service, which helps maintain or gain clients, and improved quality of life (by avoiding wasted effort). Analyzing the economics is tricky.

KM professionals frequently discuss the return on investment (ROI) on KM, but I think the topic is misplaced. If a firm consistently measures ROI on all investments, for example, new offices, marketing initiatives, and hiring laterals, great. Then apply those metrics to KM. But few firms are serious about metrics. So why should KM be subject to unique standards?

I do think there are economic benefits, but they’re hard to measure. Anecdotally, I know that lawyers don’t always write down hours if they believe the time was inefficient and will be written off. I call this the “self-imposed write-off.” But there is no way to track that loss. And it’s an economic loss only if the lawyer could have billed that time to another client. But it’s certainly a personal cost to the individual in terms of working harder than necessary.

5.) How many law firms are using KM today? (in Canada, in the U.S.)

A recent AmLaw Tech survey suggests that the bulk of large US firms are doing at least some KM. I know from professional activities that most of the large Canadian firms have active KM initiatives.

I find that even firms that say that they don’t do KM are, in fact, doing at least some. They may not have a firm-wide system, but individual practices have their own efforts, from collecting precedents to building deal databases.

6.) Is there a typical size of firm that is more likely to use KM? (i.e., would a very small firm not need a KM system as much, or at all?)

I don’t think size matters all that much. In small firms, it’s somewhat easier than in large ones to know who does what and which colleague to consult. That said, it’s pretty hard just to manage your own information. The fact that desktop search tools such as Google, X1, and Copernic are popular shows the need even for personal KM. So ultimately, I think the size of firm is not all that important. Yet I’m not sure that smaller firms are doing much formal KM.

7.) How much can it cost a firm to set up a KM system? (what price range?)

This all depends on the approach and how much you do. If all the lawyers in a firm used existing document management systems to provide proper titles, document types, and other meta data, KM would not cost that much. That’s a HUGE if. In fact, we have to compensate for the fact that lawyers won’t do this. So most firms end up spending for automation and/or staff to help.

8.) What kinds of knowledge do law firms want to capture in a KM system?

For a long time, firms focused on precedents and forms, that is, vetted and clearly re-usable documents. That is quite expensive because it requires lawyer review. Many firms are now evaluating automated work product retrieval systems, that is, using software that finds useful work product without lawyers doing anything extra.

Beyond the recent move to evaluate automated work product retrieval systems, I’ve also seen a shift in emphasis from documents to experience location. Finding a lawyer who has done something before is often more valuable than finding a document. The lawyer can explain the context, which is critical.

9.) Among law firms, is KM a flash in the pan, or is it here to stay?

Though some firms have started and the stopped formal KM programs, my sense is that KM is here to stay, whether it’s called that or something else. In the US at least, the active interest in products such as RealPractice, West km, or Recommind demonstrate continued interest in KM. I recently led a panel discussion at a KM conference in which we discussed whether KM “will morph into practice support consulting.” Future efforts may be both more and less than current KM work.


1.) How do you “incentivize” KM for lawyers?

  • treat it as billable-equivalent time, like pro bono?
  • frame it as a training and skills development exercise?
  • pay them extra for doing it?
  • make it a requirement for partnership?
  • rely on a cultural shift that would produce “peer pressure” to contribute to KM?
  • etc., other ideas…

Changing culture and behaviour is usually a losing battle. It’s better to automate where possible or have staff do manual work. Many UK and Canadian firms have Practice Support Lawyers who focus on KM and do not have the same billable requirements as practicing lawyers.

If a firm is going to create incentives for lawyers, it should probably be around supplying more information about a matter. Better information on matters supports not just KM, but also marketing and finance. More generally, framing added effort in terms of marketing benefits may be more effective than KM benefits. For example, lawyers may be willing to invest time to draft multiple versions of their bio if they know this helps sell their services. KM professionals can tap this information even though marketing may be the mover behind it..

2) Can KM successfully reduce lawyers’ non-billable time?

  • i.e. RFPs, proposals, publications, presentations (where KM could reduce the time spent identifying tasks, developing standardized support materials & collections, etc…..Could be another way to get lawyers interested)Yes. As I mentioned, reducing the hidden “self-imposed write-off” could be a big deal. Also, marketing takes an increasing amount of time and good KM can save both lawyer and staff time. Quantifying these benefits is, however, difficult.

As important, good KM, especially experience location, can help in cross-selling, which increases the top line. So if a firm has spare capacity, good KM can help soak some of it up.

3) What is the best technology to use?

  • Hummingbird (and others) vs. Lotus Notes
  • OpenSource software, or content management systems like Mambo, Drupal, blogs, RSS, wikis?

For automated solutions, I am working with Practice Technologies on their RealPractice work product retrieval product, which competes with West km, LexisNexis Total Search, and, at least in some peoples’ view (though not mine), with enterprise search systems such as Recommind or Autonomy.

The technical challenge of content management is not that hard; what’s hard is collecting content and describing context. I think that enterprise document management systems such as Hummingbird or Interwoven are necessary, but not sufficient.

4) What are some common problems with the technology?

In the past, technology was too hard to use and too hard to manage on the back end. Today, the barriers are cultural and behavioural, not technological. Even with interfaces approaching Google-like simplicity, firms need to train lawyers and create awareness. So lawyers need to examine how they practice and make conscious decisions to be more effective. And that’s about the people, not the machines.

5) How do you make the economic case for knowledge management to the skeptical managing partner?

It depends on how that managing partner would view the case for other investments such as marketing, a new office, or hiring a lateral partner. Many firms simply believe in KM and treat is like investments in computer infrastructure or marketing — a cost of doing business. Then the discussion is about how much, not whether it’s necessary. If you have to work too hard to convince firm management, then the firm is probably not ready for KM.

6) How do you measure ROI?

I think what I’ve already said covers this — skip the ROI analysis. If you don’t believe KM is worth doing, then just don’t do it. Why bother trying to roll rocks uphill?

7) Are law firms hiring full-time knowledge managers? Adding KM initiatives to their list of priorities or strategic plans?

Quite a few firms have hired full-time KM professionals and make KM a priority. I think that large Canadian firms are, on balance, investing more in KM than large US law firms. Some firms are focusing more on an evolving role of practice support consulting, that is more broadly focused on enhancing law practice. This includes KM but is not limited to it..

8) How might KM affect the way law firms operate, culturally, as more firms get onboard (since KM really comes down to collaboration and sharing, which up until now has been anathema to lawyers)? Could it change the way lawyers offer their services? Could it change the way they bill?

KM is more likely to follow from cultural changes rather than lead to them. For example, firms that face cost pressure, especially fixed fee billing, have an incentive be more efficient and therefore to invest in KM (for example, document assembly). So changes in billing can drive KM; I’ve seen little evidence that investing in KM drives changes in billing.

9) Thanks to KM, will we be seeing a real change, a fundamental shift, in the way lawyers provide services to clients?

Clients will always want “hand holding” and customized advice. But cost pressure may drive more clients toward self-service models.

The problem is that focusing on documents is not enough. Business people want answers, not just information. Don’t make them read a memo and have to figure out if it applies. Give them answers. Doing so requires “crystallizing” knowledge into interactive systems. Technologies such as document assembly or expert systems actually make this possible. But it’s not easy to create these systems and the economics have been tricky to date.

Progress in auotmated systems been quite slow though Cisco recently sought to develop an automated system for HR advice. It’s possible that with corporate cost pressures, the market will reach a tipping point where law firms or new entrants will create systems with embedded know-how. This could fundamentally change service delivery, at least for commoditized aspects of law.