Private KM teams

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My latest Law21 column has been posted at Slaw. Read it there.

Or read it here:

The benefits that knowledge management can deliver to a law firm are well documented. They include reducing wasteful duplication, increasing the firm’s intellectual capital, enhancing the firm’s ability to anticipate and meet client needs, improving the firm’s recruitment and retention arsenal, and more besides. Firms that get KM right, like Morrison & Foerster, have every reason to boast about their success.

But the obstacles to successfully implementing a KM program in law firms are equally well-known. They include:

  • Hoarding: lawyers who believe their livelihoods depend on the knowledge tucked away in their files, both print and neural, are intrinsically resistant to sharing it.
  • Hedging: with lateral movement epidemic, even practitioners open to KM are reluctant to share knowledge with colleagues who could be competitors tomorrow.
  • Billing: when KM activities aren’t treated as billable or equivalent time, lawyers aren’t motivated to take the time and effort to add to the firm’s knowledge base.
  • Prioritizing: even if all these challenges are met, lawyers are extremely busy and will often postpone KM duties in favour of more pressing matters – and there are always more pressing matters in a law firm.

None of this is new. But I’ve begun to think that factors like these aren’t just unfortunate aberrations in law firms’ culture that make KM difficult to pull off. I think these might actually be fundamental elements of most modern law firms – part of their DNA – that can’t be overcome any more than you can overcome your own genetic predispositions. If that is so, then that bodes poorly for the long-term success of most law firm KM efforts.

Law firm knowledge management, I’ve come to believe, can only succeed if the people who supply the knowledge are genuinely and enthusiastically motivated to do so. If they see a clear value proposition for themselves, and if they really want to contribute to and build a knowledge center greater than their own, and if they believe there are checks and balances to ensure fairness in giving and receiving knowledge, and if they believe sincerely in the greater good of the firm — then I think KM will flourish.

My sense, though, is that most law firms don’t exactly encourage these characteristics in their culture. With older lawyers continuing to hoard work and neglect mentoring, with associates and partners constantly leaving for greener pastures, with compensation and promotion systems handcuffed to hourly billings, and with all the firm’s efforts bent towards higher profits per partner — well, is it any surprise that KM efforts often find little soil in which to blossom?

KM is fundamentally about contributing to the greater good of the whole; many law firms, I think we can safely say, are not.

Law firms, then, in theory, are perfect places for knowledge management to work. Law firms, in practice, are far from it. That’s why I think the next iteration of KM initiatives in the law – KM 2.0, if you will – won’t involve law firms at all. It will involve individual lawyers coming together to share knowledge on a voluntary, selective basis. It will be private knowledge management.

Private KM teams
Imagine this: a small group of lawyers (as few as five, up to around 20, ideally about 10), each potentially in a different type of environment — a large law firm, a small boutique, a sole practice, an in-house department, a law faculty, whatever. They might all be in different jurisdictions or even different countries. They might not have worked together before, or even know each other that well; some might have never met in person.

But what they all share in common is a knowledge of and profound interest in the same legal subject area — pharmaceutical class actions, say, or business process patents, or asset securitization, or child custody proceedings in Oregon, or small-claims court cases in Nova Scotia, or wealth management in New South Wales, or any of the law’s thousands upon thousands of sub-specialties.

What they want is a way to meet other lawyers with the same interests and complementary knowledge in order to enhance their own expertise through relationships of mutual trust and gain. The Internet generally, and collaboration technology in particular, enables just that.

These lawyers could voluntarily enter into a collaborative knowledge assembly project — private KM teams — with as many or as few other lawyers as they like. All they need is a secure extranet and a simple yet enforceable agreement for giving and receiving knowledge. Each member contributes what he or she knows about the chosen area, and each extracts what he or she needs from the resulting knowledge collective.

Think of it as a private 24/7 CLE program on your chosen subject field, with panelists and other attendees personally chosen by you. Or think of it as subscribing to a specialized online multimedia trade journal where you’ve approved all the contributors (and you’re one yourself). It’d be a novel way for you to gain many of the theoretical KM advantages of a law firm without many of the practical downsides of same.

Here’s what I envision as the four key characteristics of private knowledge management teams for lawyers:

  1. The lawyers themselves. They might be current or former colleagues, law school classmates, or friends of friends. Or they might not have close personal histories at all, but would have encountered one another through professional networking methods old (associations, CLE events), new (blogs, LinkedIn), and both (personal recommendations). Each lawyer knows enough about the others’ expertise and reliability to make a commitment to the group’s purpose, membership and success.
  2. A secure platform. This could be simply an extranet, which are so plentiful and affordable these days as to be almost ubiquitous, or an online project management platform like SharePoint or Basecamp that can serve as a KM portal. Each member would have an exclusive password to be shared with no one else.
  3. Acceptable forms of contribution. Everyone thinks and works differently, and a private KM project would recognize this by being open to numerous types of knowledge: formal memos, written articles, bullet-point notes, dictated messages (maybe through Jott), podcasts, videos, links, caselaw updates (maybe through RSS feeds from a case law site), judges’ tendencies, mediators’ inclinations, FAQs, etc.
  4. The rules of the road. Private KM teams like these would require a concise set of membership rules, with which all members must comply. They might include a minimum number or quantity of contributions per month, agreement as to the types of acceptable contributions, strictures against sharing access to anyone outside the group, and procedures for resolving disputes, adding or dropping members, and most importantly, enforcing the rules.

These points are only the basic building blocks — the format eventually adopted by the group’s members would be more detailed and would vary widely according to members’ consensus preference. Lawyers, as we know, love rules and procedures, so KM team members would have to make great efforts not to lawyer the thing to death. But difficult issues, such as access to the information upon the group’s dissolution, should certainly be figured out in advance.

Private KM teams would obviously be fairly radical (although not unprecedented — we all remember law school study groups, right?), and I can already envision several criticisms of this kind of scheme. Here are a few:

Trust issues: it’s asking too much for lawyers to trust others (or even themselves) not to allow access to friends or colleagues, or otherwise to export the team’s knowledge base for the members’ own ends. But this criticism is equally valid in the law firm context, and says more about lawyer culture than about KM practice. Moreover, most law firm lawyers don’t get to choose all their partners and associates, whereas private KM team members would be personally selected and vetted by each member before anyone joins; the trust bar would actually be set higher.

Client information: one of the most valuable aspects of a law firm KM system is that information on clients can be shared, including work in progress, past cases, internal documentation, personal histories, etc. To volunteer this type of information in a private KM context would betray client confidences and violate ethical standards. That’s a fair point, and client insight is one of the areas in which law firm KM systems would still hold an advantage. But I don’t see any restriction on contributing general industry knowledge and trends to the private KM team, so long as this information is generally available outside the client context.

Divided loyalties: won’t law firms resent their partners sharing knowledge with their private KM team members, in addition to (or even instead of) their own firm? Shouldn’t the lawyer’s loyalties be first and only to the improvement of the firm’s own knowledge base? Perhaps, but it seems to me that law firms already sanction and even encourage their lawyers to give away their knowledge outside the firm, speaking at CLEs, writing articles or blogs, or authoring books. Arguably, the firm receives a profile boost from such public appearances that wouldn’t apply within a private team environment; but that kind of return to the firm has a limited value, and its absence isn’t sufficient reason to forbid a lawyer from privately improving his or her knowledge base — which the firm would likely not be able to do anyway.

What I’ve laid out here is only an outline that can and should be improved upon (comments to that end are welcome). Nor am I suggesting that private KM teams would replace law firm KM efforts — not for a while, at any rate. But I do think that private KM teams could, right now, offer a powerful complementary way for lawyers to upgrade their own knowledge and share what they already know with others.

The key lies in the fact that the lawyer’s participation would be entirely of his or her own choosing and on his or her terms. Whereas many lawyers who contribute to a law firm knowledge base do so by obligation or institutional fiat, lawyers who join private KM teams could customize the experience to their own liking. The niched subject matter, the modes and frequency of contribution, the other members, and the rules of the game would all be tailored to their own needs and preferences. And because of that, participants would approach the process with the kind of enthusiasm and goodwill that many law firm KM directors could only wish for.

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