Last week in KM is Dead – Long Live KM, I suggested that large law firms have moved beyond traditional knowledge management to legal project management (LPM), alternative fee arrangements (AFA), and other endeavors. I also said I would offer a theory for the shift in focus. 

Even before the economic re-set, large law firms tapped KM professionals for more than just KM. Examples include deciding on or planning IT infrastructure; solving tough marketing problems such as CRM; and managing e-discovery.

So why does KM continue to expand beyond its core remit today? My theory is that KM professionals span multiple disciplines and think laterally. They can handle complex problems that fall outside the boundaries of other support functions. Moreover, successful KM professionals have gained the confidence of lawyers; many come from the practice; others have worked closely with lawyers for a long time. Whatever their background, they develop excellent rapport with partners and practice groups. Of course, many are lawyers and in the caste system that defines BigLaw, that is a big plus.

My KM friends argue that they now work on LPM and AFA because KM supports both. True enough but I ask, when firms confront new problems like LPM and AFA, where else should firm management turn? Finance can run the numbers but is usually not so close to the practice side. Legal assistants may make fine project managers but often lack the status of senior KM staff (this is an observation, not judgment). Marketing may not be close enough to the practice and the tech elements of LPM and AFA is not its strong suit.

When partners face tough new problems that lawyers cannot solve by billing time, turning to KM folk seems natural. Partners have seen KM professionals in action so trust their understanding of law practice, business, and the technology. The cross-disciplinary views of KM is in otherwise short supply in BigLaw. KM professionals have, in my view, been morphing for a long time into practice support professionals. New market pressures merely accelerate and make even more visible this trend.

Do I overstate the case? I welcome comments, as always.