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Has the Age of the Legal Knowledgebase Finally Arrived?

By Kevin Fayle on May 22, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
In this post, guest author Jim Groff of PBWorks describes the benefits of knowledge management systems for law firms, as well as the difficulties some firms have had in convincing their attorneys and staff to adopt knowledge management solutions.  Groff argues that Web 2.0 technologies can increase the adoption of knowledge management systems, and thus the benefit to law firms, by integrating the systems with attorneys' everyday experiences.

Throughout the history of the electronic age, firms have attempted to implement legal knowledgebases.  The promise of a systematic database of the firm's proprietary expertise has always appealed to the partnership, but wave after wave of legal knowledgebases have failed, largely for the simple reason that lawyers didn't use them.
If knowledge confers competitive advantage, why has knowledge management taken so long to arrive?

"Knowledge differentiates a law firm from its competitors," according to Gretta Rusanow of Curve Consulting, an attorney and knowledge management expert. "Knowledge management is about leveraging that differentiating asset so that a law firm leads, and breaks away from, its competitors. However, the knowledge management organization is typically isolated and faces challenges in engaging the firm in the broad scope of what knowledge management is--and can bring to this knowledge-based business."

Knowledge Management specialists within firms work hard to set up and maintain KM technology, but without grassroots adoption, many KM initiatives languish from lack of use.  Placing the emphasis on technology, rather than user behavior, tends to distract from the real barrier to adoption: Attorneys and staff simply don't see enough individual value to take time away from urgent (and billable) day-to-day activities to complete additional tasks required by a separate knowledge management tool.

"Too often KM becomes a conversation about technology . . . if you want to converse with lawyers about value, talk about value instead of technology," said Toby Brown of Fulbright & Jaworski. "This focuses the dialogue on the benefits to the lawyers and not on the cost of any technology involved. Solve the problem, instead of offering technology."

Getting beyond technology to deliver value

Now, however, a new generation of legal knowledgebase tools based on Web 2.0 technology (including PBworks Legal Edition, which has users at 24 of the top 25 firms on the AmLaw 100) is solving the usability issues and integrating the knowledgebase into the everyday work of a firm.  These new Web 2.0 technologies may finally fulfill the long-deferred promise.  And they are emerging at the same time as the current economic crisis is forcing firms to place a greater importance on efficiency and productivity. 

"At a time when clients are likely to challenge every item of charge, having efficient systems in place for producing work becomes vital," writes Karen Battersby of Nottingham Law School. "The transfer of knowledge from individual lawyers to teams of lawyers is also essential in a climate where lawyer redundancies are increasing and departments need to operate with leaner resources."

So what do Web 2.0 knowledgebases offer that has been missing until now?  There are three overarching factors that allow this generation of tools to break with the past:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Searchability
  3. Integration with actual lawyering
The first key is to make the legal knowledgebase easy to use.  Few attorneys are enamored of technology for technology's sake.  However, they will gladly adopt technology that delivers value.  In the case of legal technology, the real cost of the technology isn't in purchasing or licensing the product, but rather lies in the amount of time it takes to apply the tool.  With average billing rates exceeding $350/hour, it doesn't take many usability issues or helpdesk calls to make the cost of poor usability far dwarf the out-of-pocket cost for the product.

To meet usability requirements, knowledgebase tools must include the ability to easily collaborate with other team members on research, search and acquire information from a wide variety of sources, organize information in pages with folders and tags, and link to relevant documents downloaded from external content sources.  The interface must be intuitive and flexible to meet the work styles and capabilities of a variety of people -- from administrators to paralegals, attorneys and partners.

The second key to successful legal knowledgebases lies in searchability.  In a Google world, everyone expects to be able to find whatever information they need with a single search.  A knowledgebase product that supports a very broad set of search capabilities will give users better access to information and will be a tool users actually depend on daily.

Users need to search both structured and unstructured data--everything from proprietary knowledge about specific judges, arbitrators/mediators, and expert witnesses, to key citations for legal issues, important jurisdiction information, and other legal issues.  And searches must include both information entered specifically into the knowledgebase as well as information in uploaded and imported documents.  Indeed, simply making it possible to easily search the full text of documents can save an enormous amount of time.

The final, and perhaps most important key to the success of Web 2.0 knowledgebases lies in their ability to integrate with the daily work of lawyering.  The right tools ensure that attorneys and staff don't have to make a special effort to enter additional information into a separate knowledge management system.  

"I can't emphasize this enough: making lawyers enter information multiple times is a recipe for failure," said Dennis Kennedy of Thompson Coburn. "Lawyers have proven that they will not change the way that they work. For better or worse, finding ways to work around them or taking them as you find them have more likelihood of success than anything does that involves a behavior change."

A knowledgebase that grows organically by matching the unique work habits of different users is a knowledgebase users will actually use

When legal knowledgebases can match the work habits and quirks of firm and their employees, the information in them will grow organically, in a self-organizing fashion a la Wikipedia.  However, once you clear the usability hurdles, one more crucial component is required: Law firms require a private, proprietary environment that restricts access to information to the members of the firm, and sometimes to the members of a specific team.  The new tools, like PBworks Legal Edition, must allow firms to restrict access to information as needed.

Access via PDAs and Phones

While firms must restrict access to authorized users, they must simultaneously provide authorized users with access to information via different technology.  As more lawyers turn to smart phones and PDA, products must also include mobile access to the knowledgebase (including files) via Blackberry and iPhone to fully integrate with the way most attorneys actually work.

With the right tool set, rather than sending out ad hoc information requests via team- or practice-wide emails, or in hallway conversations, firms use the legal knowledgebase to capture, store, and refine the legal expertise of their employees.  This legal knowledgebase is especially effective for litigators, though it also offers benefits to transactional practices as well.

This kind of shared information resource is especially valuable for multi-office firms.  Using a legal knowledgebase as a firm-wide clearinghouse is a lot easier than searching individual servers (or worse, attorneys' laptops) in the various offices.  If you wind up on a case that deals with Japanese contract law, this searchable knowledgebase will help you connect with the right resources within the firm.

As more lawyers turn to smart phones and PDA, products must also include mobile access to the entire knowledgebase (including files) via Blackberry and iPhone to fully integrate with the way most attorneys actually do their work.

The lessons of 2.0 make knowledgebases practical for today's law firms

In contrast to previous generations of legal knowledgebases, today's products use the lessons of Web 2.0 to provide an easy-to-use, searchable platform that seamlessly integrates with the way attorneys and staff perform their work.  This integration allows knowledgebases to grow and evolve organically, without requiring users to enter information multiple times or learn separate tools in addition to those they use for their everyday work.  And in these pressure-packed times, with clients demanding greater efficiency from their counsel, re-examining a knowledge management strategy is an investment that pays great and immediate dividends.

About the Author

Jim Groff, the CEO of PBworks, builds powerful collaboration systems that real people actually like using. His company PBworks provides hosted collaboration solutions for law, business and education.

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