What has Knowledge Management ever done for Law Firms?
The future of KM in Legal Services
For those that remember the Monty Python sketches of long ago, this is the cue to a rant about the Romans and the question of what they have ever done for us – well; roads, sanitation, medicine, health, fresh water, education… but apart from that, what have they done for us..?!
There has long been discussion about Knowledge Management (KM) within professional services; what does the terminology mean? What does it achieve and what is the ROI? Within law firms in particular, the growth of KM took a rather traditional route, typically initiatives aimed at gathering of the firm’s experience and processes into a series of standard forms, checklists and guidance – all very good and crucial, but not generally successful without a cultural change within the firm, and certainly not when merely delegated to a small group rather than owned by the organization as a whole. Achieving an excellent starting point for the firm’s next transaction is only of maximum benefit if the firm’s know-how is factored into the development of pricing and fully leveraged during the work carried out, all the way through to billing of the client.
As highlighted by Lucy Dillon in her recent Briefing Interview the term “KM” usually implies that the firm’s knowledge can be managed by a discreet set of people, rather than knowledge being expertise that should be owned and used by everyone within the business.
But the future of KM within law is all about utilizing the knowledge and systems that the firm needs to be efficient, more profitable and more innovative; doing more with less and providing best in class services for the client at lower cost.
There are many skillsets, processes and actions needed and few are thought of as part of KM; For example project management; workflow analysis; pricing models; process mapping; utilisation analysis, etc. A classic opportunity is to look at the life cycle of individual matters to identify where costs may be building up as well as looking at how matters are managed, examining how and where processes are carried out and questioning whether they could be done elsewhere / differently / better / faster / at lower cost.
This may sound logical, and surely law firms have always been doing that? Perhaps there is an element of; “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. It can be hard to ask experts to capture and share their expertise. The inference is that they could be doing their job better than they have been doing previously, so there is a certain amount of defensiveness about sharing their knowledge with peers – fear of criticism? Perhaps even fear of giving away an advantageous position? Further, the financial model within some business structures does not always encourage the sharing of knowledge; it can instead encourage the building of niche expertise that nobody else can bring to the job. However, I find that the overriding reason for not sharing knowledge and expertise is time – or rather lack of time.
Which is where KM can help; KM can provide the insight into key priorities to achieve improvements in the processes, systems, and the platform and mechanisms to stimulate innovation and make the gathering and utilisation of expert content as quick and easy as possible.
A good knowledge worker has to be both a facilitator and a diplomat, gradually building a Knowledge culture that rewards learning and development and discourages the hoarding of knowledge for individual advancement.
Can we measure ROI?
Within professional service firms an issue for those working within the knowledge field is often the objective measurement of how KM benefitted the profitability and performance of the organisation.
Full analysis of how much time is saved, how much risk is reduced, how much the quality is improved, how much write off is saved and how much more profit is made by good use of Knowledge work, can often be over shadowed by whether the relationship with the client was well managed or not. That perception of “good work” or repeat work is difficult to isolate to any one contribution. Rather Knowledge work contributes to the whole final product. Even learning about how to improve client relationships can be a very personal and subjective thing; knowledge toolkits can help lawyers to improve their contact in their own way – if the time can be spent capturing experience and building toolkits to start with.
Does KM have a future within legal services?
The term information overload is just as apt today as it has ever been, with the changes in technology making it all too easy to access more and more information to the point of becoming overwhelmed. The demand for finding the right information at the right time combined with the explosion of mobile devices is made more difficult because information is stored in different formats across multiple internal and external systems. The ability to find, correlate and leverage information from all of these channels without becoming an IT software company is a challenge for every knowledge worker.
KM can help to bring some order to all of this, and enable innovation of processes and systems that allow for the contextual provision of quality knowledge at the right time; supporting international firm expansion, driving efficiency, quality, best value and client service.
The future is bright for those firms willing to embrace Knowledge Management as it should be.