Guest post: What’s hot in KM? A report on SKILLS 2023

By Lucy Dillon

In March 2023, SKILLS (Strategic Knowledge and Innovation Legal Leaders’ Summit) celebrated over 20 years of annual peer-to-peer meetings. Here are some of the key findings of this year’s online and in-person discussion forums, which are a litmus test of the top priorities of the knowledge management (KM) community.

The SKILLS KM Summit is an in-person gathering held in New York in March, hosted by Oz Benamram at Simpson Thacher and attended by 60 of the most senior leaders in knowledge and innovation from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. Here are some of my takeaways from the day’s five sessions:

Is winter coming? Preparing for a down market: Casey Flaherty (co-founder & chief strategy officer at LexFusion) gave a fast-paced presentation on aspects of the strategic position of large law firms and how they have changed over time. In-house teams are being required to reduce spend on outside counsel. They have, however, bigger savings potential elsewhere, with corporations losing 9% of their revenue through “poor contracting practices”. Improving these contracting processes will save them far more than focusing on reducing outside counsel fees. Law firms should be looking to offer solutions to address this challenge. In addition, in house counsel are constantly bombarded by new laws and regulations (data protection, ESG…). The only way they can win this battle is to change the dynamic by implementing innovative solutions. The most successful firms will be those who can open up horizon scanning conversations and deliver practical solutions.

ChatGPT via a surprise guest in-house speaker: Casey arranged for an unannounced in-house guest to discuss ChatGPT generally, and particularly their work with Casetext CoCounsel. Darth Vaughn (litigation counsel and legal innovation & technology operations manager at Ford Motor Company) offered a great analogy for the advent of Chat GPT for legal. He compared it to the ride-share industry – Uber/Lyft didn’t lead to the demise of taxis, the taxi industry adapted. Ford has been working with this technology for a while and his assessment is that it will help with low end work, providing a benchmark of how long something should take. It will replace tasks, not people. It will enhance what lawyers do as experts who provide the necessary guardrails. He advocated getting involved early as it is moving so fast and laggards will get left behind.

What’s hot? (a highly interactive session) – selected topics from the SKILLS annual survey: this annual survey gathers data on what the SKILLS community is currently working on and planning for the coming year (report available here). The session, moderated by Ron Friedmann (senior director analyst at Gartner and member of the SKILLS 2023 planning committee), is an open mike opportunity for the attendees to share what they are working on, describe successes and challenges and seek advice from peers. It is fair to say that this session provided the group with an opportunity to discuss the advent of ChatGPT and to share early insights. According to a show of hands, less than half of the firms represented were using or trialling ChatGPT in earnest, but everyone was considering it. Some early successes using limited data sets were reported in the room. The general consensus was that there would be an early avalanche of poor-quality products, so a thoughtful, strategic approach, designed in close cooperation with the clients whose data would be used, was essential.

Lessons learned from a life in KM (retiree panel): this panel with retired CKOs / CINOs – John Alber (ex-Bryan Cave LLP), Mara Nickerson (ex-Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP), Deb Panella (ex-Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP) and Jeff Rovner (ex-O’Melveny & Myers LLP) shared some valuable insights from their respective careers. Here are my favourite nuggets:

  • “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” (Peter Drucker), so take a hard look at what you are doing and make sure it is necessary. Remember that the purpose of KM is to change the way people practice law and move from old habits to new ones.
  • KM requires tons of positive resilience, as you are usually encouraging people to make changes they would prefer to avoid. The recommendation was to ask: “what would Wile E. Coyote do”? He was full of creativity and cunning, always bouncing back with a new idea after a knock-back!
  • Triage is not just for medical professionals: you should be intentional about the projects you take on. Always consider the urgent versus important dynamic and try to pick that which will add the most value; be bold in articulating your rationale.
  • Humans are hard wired to avoid situations that will disappoint them, so get out ahead of this with your lawyer community and be the person who is there to solve their problems: that is the best form of communication. If a person feels heard, you have an ally.

Help them grow or watch them go: this panel was moderated by Vishal Agnihotri (senior director, knowledge and innovation at Alston & Bird) and the panellists were Kate Simpson (chief knowledge officer at Bennett Jones LLP), Shawn Swearingen (chief innovation officer at Faegre Drinker) and Gwyn McAlpine (knowledge management director at Perkins Coie LLP). They discussed the learning loss which had occurred for lawyers during the pandemic and techniques subsequently adopted to help improve learning (be it legal or tech/KM tools training). All acknowledged that splitting training programmes into separate audiences to suit different learning needs had been essential. The concept of Knowledge Cafés was highlighted as a successful way to impart knowledge, particularly for junior lawyers, by encouraging people to discuss a topic of interest in a series of small group conversations. The panellists were asked what they would do differently if resources and budget were not a restriction. They all concluded: more one-to-one training!

Earlier in the year, the SKILLS Showcase provided an opportunity for online learning and networking. An annual and growing event, it is open to all.

The day comprised panel sessions, presentations and use case demos of new legal tech and solutions. Here are some of my takeaways:

  • The agenda itself reflects the state of the KM and innovation market: the topics covered were voted on in advance by the attendees, so the agenda in itself is a useful insight into what is on everyone’s mind (note that the topics were voted on at the end of last year, before the launch of ChatGPT, hence its absence from the topics selected). I loved the variety of the presentations. Unsurprisingly data, standardisation, metrics and (pre-ChatGPT) AI featured heavily during the day.
  • What hit the top spot?: attendees were asked to rate each session on how inspiring and helpful they found it. The voting was very close, but the winner was the demo by BCLP of their new KM system which has achieved the holy grail of combining client and matter data with content from their comprehensive knowledge database.
  • Change management also featured prominently: alongside the technical presentations there were a number of sessions focusing on process and people – without which technology projects are doomed to failure. User adoption came up a number of times in connection with change management, tips for training users and a session on amplifying the KM and innovation brand. All these sessions concluded that “if you built it – they won’t come”, but I enjoyed the pragmatic tips on the hard yards (and prizes!) necessary to ensure lasting engagement.
  • Law firm strategy and overlap with KM and innovation: finally, I found Bobbi Basile’s presentation on law firm strategic planning very heartening. HBR Consulting’s annual in-house counsel survey noted an increase in the demand for creative solutions for delivery of legal services, project management expertise and value-added services in outside counsel selection criteria. To develop a law firm strategy to respond to this, HBR suggest the creation of a new “middle office”, comprising all the capabilities/functions that makes a law firm unique and differentiated, which is the domain of knowledge and innovation professionals. This was a great session for those seeking to influence their firm’s strategic planning.

Recordings and transcripts of all the online sessions are available on the SKILLS website and are being shared by Oz Benamram on LinkedIn via the SKILLS’ LinkedIn page. In addition, a very comprehensive summary of the day was prepared by Ab Saraswat from Fringe Legal, which can be read here. Please do have a listen/take a look!

Feedback on SKILLS 2023 has been overwhelmingly positive – however, the planning committee is already examining all the comments to make SKILLS 2024 even better! Save the date: 18 January 2024 for the SKILLS 2024 Showcase.

Lucy Dillon is a leading knowledge, technology and innovation adviser with Lucy Dillon Consulting, and a member of the SKILLS planning committee. Lucy was previously chief knowledge officer at Reed Smith.