by Chris Cartrett

Selling knowledge management (KM) internally is a top-five priority for law firm KM professionals this year. That’s according to an annual survey of professionals fielded Ron Friedmann, Mary Abraham and Oz Benamram, who are collectively some of the most influential voices in the field.

Convincing law firm stakeholders to refocus on KM, or the strategic delivery or retrieval of consolidated client information ranked fourth amongst 15 possible priorities in the survey. Even more interesting, the findings suggest this has been brewing for some time. When asked about priorities versus focus – that is what respondents planned to do versus what they actually did in the previous year – selling KM internally reflected, “the biggest difference at 17 percentage points.”

Mr. Friedmann summed up the team’s assessment this way:

“We think this reflects that ‘hope springs eternal’. As KM has matured and become established in large law firms, KM professionals slip back to thinking that ‘KM will sell itself’. Then reality hits and KM teams realise that change does not happen on its own, that they must actively promote adoption.”

There are other surveys that support the notion. For example, the 2019 Law Firms in Transition survey by Altman Weil found law firms are becoming more likely to incentivise efficiency, but haven’t yet armed their teams with process or tools:

“Most firms (62%) that have moved toward rewarding efficiency and profitability (not just absolute revenue) in partner compensation decisions have seen consequent improvements in performance. However, few firms have made serious attempts to systematically re-engineer work processes (22%) or implement formal knowledge management programs (28%).”

Although it’s possible to read these two surveys and conclude that KM professionals need to keep the pressure on – and law firms need to do more to facilitate change – I think that’s an incomplete picture. If I could offer a glimpse behind the scenes, I’d say there have been flaws in how the vendor community has traditionally approached KM enabling technologies.

Historical Tech Barriers to KM

Historically, KM technology stemmed from knowledge teams curating and organising an array of content with links. As law firms added more tools and systems, the number of links also grew. The volume was problematic to manage because the content had a shelf life and would become outdated. In addition, the lack of interoperability between systems erected walls that siloed more and more information as the digitisation of content proliferated.

Consequently, many of the early KM technologies proved to be interesting ideas on paper that turned out to be difficult to implement – and expensive to maintain – in practice. As technologists set out to improve KM tools, they consistently ran into three large and interrelated barriers.

First, to build great technology, developers must have a well-defined problem. Yet KM means different things to different people. Whilst there is, arguably, some consensus around the importance of document sharing and experience management, KM has so much more potential.

In my observation, some of the most forward-looking KM professionals inside law firms are coming around to the idea that KM means providing legal professionals with a 360-degree view of clients and matters. This means personalised access to everything authorised personnel need: news, research, legal documents, budget information, time and billing, profitability, and more.

Second, vendors could be more helpful in facilitating user adoption. They have traditionally been too focused on building a tool and then getting lawyers to use it. Invariably, vendors and allied professionals alike are puzzled when lawyers reverted back to the tools with which they are comfortable.

Jean O’Grady pinpointed this hinderance in a recent post on Dewey B Strategic. “One size does not fit all lawyer workflows,” she wrote. “Ultimately the best way to get lawyers to use a product is to bring the product to the places they visit on the network.” I couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to KM. For technology to be truly KM enabling, it must bring a single digital workspace to the lawyer and in whatever application they prefer.

Third, to serve clients, law firms need information from a lot of different sources. The problem is, for many years, law firms have stored this data in systems that are siloed. This was the challenge that enterprise search aimed to solve, but it often fell apart because vendors have a weak record of playing well with each other in the proverbial sandbox. As a result, the firm that wanted to link its document management system (DMS) with its practice management solution and client relationship database needed to fund a massive undertaking and field a sophisticated IT department.

Advances in Tech Drive the Renewed Focus on KM

Given all this, are KM professionals stuck in a perpetual cycle of selling the concept of KM to firms that don’t want to change with tools that fall short? No, we don’t think so. On the contrary, we believe the redoubled efforts to bring KM programs to fruition is reflective of a fundamental shift in the industry, combined with the new accessibility of advanced technology.

For example, market acceptance of the cloud has made technical integrations through application programming interfaces (APIs) easier. Similarly, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are easing the burden of maintaining the systems. Moreover, it’s all become accessible to firms of all sizes – not just the elite firms – because the costs have come down as these technologies have gone mainstream.

For their part, lawyers too are increasingly getting on board. When you give a lawyer a tool inside their beloved email program, that provides access to all the client information they could ever need, the value proposition is obvious.

It’s even better when the AI is smart enough to drive an adaptive experience. That’s the capability to recognise when a lawyer might need information even before they ask for it – surfacing relevant research, documents, and experts – the same way searches on Amazon return products, alongside reviews, ratings, and alternatives.

Finally, the level of transparency and collaboration law firm clients are necessitating today is increasingly making KM a requirement. Where the quintessential KM project has largely centered on bringing everything related to a matter together on an internal portal for lawyers, the logical progression is making this available for clients as well. Some of the most sophisticated law firms I’ve spoken with envision this will include not just documents but also budgets, invoices, and even accounts receivable (A/R).

Conclusion

Capturing and sharing knowledge with KM is naturally well-aligned with efficiency and client service. Many of the technological barriers to enabling KM programs are dissolving. Leading law firms are renewing their focus on KM because it’s never been easier, lawyers increasingly understand its potential to provide a competitive edge, and most important of all, clients are demanding it. The services law firms provide represent the epitome of knowledge work – as an industry it’s high time as industry we start setting new precedents in KM.

Chris Cartrett is the executive vice president at Aderant, a global industry leader in providing comprehensive business management software for law firms and other professional services organisations.

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