Law is a knowledge-driven business. Clients pay for advice borne out of the firm’s expertise. The firm’s ability to manage knowledge affects not just brand perception but the bottom line. Knowledge needs far more management in the field of law than in other professions because it’s constantly changing and comes not just from within the business but also from courts, regulators and legislators. Staying on top of it and being able to find relevant information, fast, is a huge task.

Knowledge in law firms can be in all kinds of forms and from all kinds of sources. Reports, research notes, financial records, emails, business information from clients, past legal matters, patents and trademarks, social media, contracts, billing records and of course ‘tacit knowledge’ that only exists in someone’s head are just some of them. It’s an enormous undertaking for all this information to be well-managed but the benefits to the company in doing so are equally huge.

What good knowledge management can bring

High-quality knowledge management improves efficiency, productivity, and ultimately, revenue and profitability. Many cases in law have broad similarities with cases that have gone before, so previous, relevant work can be re-used and issues solved more quickly and more consistently. This in turn frees up time that can be spent on additional billable work or staying up-to-date with the latest information. It also creates value for the client in what is a highly competitive field.

Cutting-edge knowledge management can also have a positive impact on marketing. It’s comforting for clients and potential clients to know that the law firm they employ is using the latest technology and methods to get them results, and that with less time taken up with the basics, they have more time to concentrate on what’s important.

Legal knowledge management challenges

However in many law firms knowledge is not treated as the extremely valuable resource it is, ‘modern day gold’ according to some. So what are the challenges? The broad issues are around collecting knowledge efficiently, then connecting it meaningfully and getting it to the people who need it.

In terms of collecting knowledge, even with a policy about sharing information in place, if it’s not clearly linked to performance there’s little incentive for employees to do so, especially when under pressure with client work. And if it’s a slow and painful task to upload and file information, busy employees just won’t get round to it, especially if they believe it’ll end up buried amongst many other irrelevant documents, never to be found by those who need it.

Information kept on local drives rather than in a document management system is extremely vulnerable to loss due to a technical failure. It’s also not discoverable. And if client files aren’t complete, there may be repercussions later on. A client might request access to the file and find it incomplete. And if the legal firm ever came to be sued and the file showed a lack of due diligence it might prove an even worse problem. Email is a particular issue. It seems ephemeral but needs to be captured – many law professionals give advice over email. Tacit knowledge – the knowledge that is only in a colleague’s head – presents its own challenges. It’s one thing sending round an all-users email saying ‘Does anyone have any experience in x’ when you’re in small office, but this will a) get lost and b) be annoying in a company with hundreds or thousands of people.

Another issue is that those with the most knowledge – partners – may also be the least likely to share it, perhaps because they’re older and less comfortable with technology, or because they have seemingly more important things on their minds. When they retire, all that knowledge gained over decades may be lost to the firm and to their clients.

How to transform legal knowledge management successfully

So what do law firms need to do to deal with the problem?

Firstly they need to remember that having the right technology solutions will only be effective if there is also cultural and behavioural change. Employees need to actively want to share information and use the systems in place. That means knowledge management needs to be strongly linked to performance, and employees must understand why it’s beneficial for them as individuals as well as the company as a whole. It’s crucial that senior management should lead by example: be fully onboard and seen to place value on knowledge management. In tandem with developing a governance framework, a robust change plan needs to be put in place, including education, incentives and training.

New technological solutions need to be quick and easy to use and accessible remotely and via mobile. They also need to be right for the business, with powerful search functions and efficient filters. Tacit knowledge can be managed by having a precise tool that can surface individuals and their specialised areas of knowledge, based on high-quality biographical and case information. Emails can be linked to file management systems. Information can now be stored in the cloud and accessed from anywhere.

The future of legal knowledge management

In a perfect future state, knowledge management will be entirely baked into the business, with knowledge-sharing and collaboration automatic, natural and intuitive, and all information easily at hand. Could this really happen?

Perhaps. It’s often the most experienced, and therefore older generation of, law professionals who have the biggest barriers to using technology, are the most worried about issues of privacy and are the least willing to change. The younger generation – digital natives, completely comfortable with using technology and happy to collaborate and share information at work just like they do on social media are far more likely to see the benefits of knowledge management.

In terms of technology it's clear that artificial intelligence will have a huge part to play in the future of knowledge management in the legal profession. In 2018, US legal tech company, Casetext commissioned ‘The $10m Question’. Knowledge management leaders at selected law firms were asked what they would build if they had $10m. The answers coalesced around three themes: automated data collection systems, a way of structuring, tagging and organising the data, and the use of artificial intelligence to power knowledge management and surface relevant information at the right time.

Rich McClain, Chief Information Officer of Hunton & Williams believes there are three stages of technology for knowledge management in law firms: ‘Legal Tech 1 is the current ‘technology as a tool’ era: it’s like an assistant and always available; Legal Tech 2 is well underway and is the ‘technology as an associate’ era, not just available, but always on, listening and learning; Legal Tech 3 is nascent but real, it’s the ‘technology as a partner’ era, always engaged, helping to make decisions and, in some cases, taking action‘.

But if all law businesses can get to a point where knowledge management is not only everyday but also substantially automated, where’s the point of difference between them? Will knowledge management, in fact, be carried out so well across the board that it ceases to be a competitive advantage?

The key for it continuing to be so might be in allowing for creativity, even in a field so strictly bound with rules and regulations. Knowledge management expert Yogesh Malhotra said, in a Keynote presentation for the Knowledge Ecology Fair, more than 20 years ago, that ‘the most creative and innovative employees may amount to negligible knowledge creation if the overarching organizational controls emphasise compliance with the 'given' procedures, rules, 'best practices', 'expert systems' and so on”. Those outside the industry may not think of law as being full of creative thinkers, but in fact the most successful lawyers are those who can think differently and make connections that no-one else does. Perhaps they will be also be the driving force in the future of legal knowledge management.

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