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Knowledge Management (KM): What's In It For You?

For many lawyers, stepping into a law firm is a bit like visiting a library on steroids. You're saturated with information overload. The challenge is how to manage and share information on cases and processes with colleagues so that the firm's legal professionals collaborate with one another. They focus their energies on working more efficiently and effectively as a team so that young associates and senior partners can use the same intellectual assets to find and share information with one another. That's knowledge management ("KM") in a nutshell.

The concept of KM can still seem rather murky, partly owing to the fact that it involves combining intangible assets, like the array of experiences and smarts that people bring from working with different clients and processes. Sharing all these with the firm's legal professionals might seem overwhelming. It's not.

O.K., the cynical among you might be repulsed by the word "share." Associates often think that firm partners are loathe to share knowledge with them on the theory that "I've been through it, so they'll just have to learn it by doing it themselves!" That short-sighted approach might work at a firm that doesn't want to increase efficiency, foster teamwork, grow revenue, and client satisfaction. In other words, it won't work if you want your firm to be more successful.

Attorneys prone to hoarding information will have some adjusting to do. Think of KM as the new kid on the block trying to give the firm an attitude adjustment. If the firm's legal professionals can't see themselves communicating with one another openly to share information, reducing redundancies, and working together, than they should go back to running their law practices the way things were done decades ago: not as well.

How It Works

Though each firm has it's own particular needs and solutions, developing KM practices at your firm necessarily requires your IT department, management committee, and practice groups getting together for a Sopranos-like sit-down to first decide what it is that the firm is trying to achieve. KM involves more than just letting legal professionals tap into the firm's 'brief bank' or forms database to find out how others have handled tricky legal litigation or drafted documents. It also involves designating 'Knowledge Managers' within the firm to decide what data will be collected, how and what should be shared, and what processes can be used to put the KM system into place.

Think of it as an environmentally-friendly solution to running your law firm: your recycling data to help the entire firm. It also helps your firm keep and retain a sort of built-in 'quality control' over processes and document production. Associates will know from the start that things are done a certain way, and that it's easy for them to do it the way the firm wants.

Case Studies

Consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies having been putting KM to work for years. Ernst & Young, McKinsey & Co., HP, and others had their tech, consulting, sales, and R&D teams come up with solutions for how KM systems should help people access and share information to work together more efficiently. Whether offices were in different cities or continents, KM helped these corporate leaders share documents, processes, correspondence, and other information solutions.

Over a decade ago D.C. firm Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky explored the idea of putting a KM solution into place. Part of the impetus stemmed from the idea that the firm's attorneys should spend more time concentrating on what went into documents than on how they should be formatted. Sounds simple, eh? Not exactly. It took time to decide that e-mail, court transcripts, depositions, letters, memos, and briefs should all be part of the firm's KM solution. To start things going, they tried it out on some 125 people in the firm's insurance department. They had to decide what should be put in the firm's databases, how it should be formatted, and how it could be accessed.

As they learned, KM is not a 'quick fix,' but rather an ongoing process that needs to be updated and modified according to the firm's needs. That's where a firm's KM managers can take the lead. They'll not only have to guide the firm's staff on how to use the KM system, but also find out what departments are doing and using on a regular basis.

Significantly, a KM system that works well, like West kmT, that integrates a firm's intellectual assets with West's legal research expertise, enables firm managers foster a culture of sharing. Firms that put KM solutions into place must instill users with the notion that they're not simply taking information from the system, but putting back into it to share valuable resources and knowledge with their colleagues.

Look into KM

If you don't want your firm's attorneys to keep "re-inventing the wheel;" if you want to collaborate instead of altercate; and if you want to eat dinner that's not takeout or watch a movie in a real theatre (yeah, they still have those), look into a KM solution for your firm.

In the legal world, knowledge is a powerful thing. If you can't harness that knowledge so that you and your colleagues can use it effectively, you've got some catching up to do.

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