Last week Joshua Fireman and I co-chaired the Ark Group conference, Knowledge Management for the Modern Law Firm (PDF of program). The theme we set for 70+ participants over two days was “what is KM, what is not, and where are its boundaries?” 

The session KM Beyond Document Management covered many themes: financial reporting systems for partners; analyzing process flows to enhance the value of interactions between lawyers and clients; associate care and feeding; tracking external developments; automatic classification and entity extraction; the pressure on PSLs to work on professional development and marketing; portals versus Outlook as the primary interface; and the problem that marketing, finance, and KM are silos. What I found interesting is that much of what we discussed is not traditionally in the realm of KM.

The session Is KM Morphing into Practice Support Consulting, which I moderated (my outline of questions), was a lively discussion about KM boundaries. Some argued KM is just one of many aspects of practice support (the majority it seemed to me), others that it must remain a separate discipline. There was more consensus that, either way, a critical success factor is developing a close working relationship with lawyers.

Some other interesting points from this session:

  • The tensions and trade-off between a functional focus on a KM or Practice Support department versus a practice focus. I likened this to an issue many companies struggle with – product versus market or customer focus.
  • The group spent a bit of time discussing the relatively simple challenge of helping lawyers with basic firm operations such as scheduling conference rooms or knowing whom in HR to contact. The point is that if lawyers struggle with such basics, it may be hard to move up the chain to KM or other practice enhancements.
  • A panelist suggested a concierge, someone who could answer any question. A participant suggested that lawyers want psychic computers, ones that anticipate needs. This humorous comment illustrates the tough question of how easy is easy enough?
  • The need for KM and practice support professionals to initiate project and improvements but the frequent and often inevitable slide to reactive mode.

All in all, I conclude that KM is indeed morphing, at least among US firms. Whether it subsumes practice support or is absorbed by other departments remains to be seen.