Cooking the books

One of the longest-established forms of knowledge activity in law firms is the creation and maintenance of standard or precedent documents. These usually cover the core activities of the firm, and allow lawyers to create the first drafts of client documents in much less time and (assuming they have been well-drafted in the first place) to a higher and more consistent standard than if they were to start with a blank sheet, or a fully-negotiated agreement from an earlier transaction.


When I spoke on Web 2.0 and KM at a conference last November, I likened a law firm’s precedent collection to the domestic KM system represented by a set of recipe books. We tend to collect recipes for dishes that we already like or that look interesting on the page. Whether we use the books religiously or not depends on a number of things:

  • How confident we are as cooks
  • Whether we cook according to what is in the cupboard, or shop to fit a recipe
  • How important it is to get something right (on a big occasion, for example)

In the picture above, one of the books is so well-used that it has lost its spine. That is our copy of the book known generally (and affectionately) in British households as “Delia”: the Complete Cookery Course, by Delia Smith. On the Learning to Fly mailing list this week, “Delia” was suggested as an example of a knowledge asset (defined as “a compilation of know-how, packaged in such a way as to provide valuable reference material that others can translate into tacit knowledge”).

There was some disagreement about this — perhaps it is a better example of an information asset. For me, it was a reminder of a comment of Dave Snowden’s, comparing a mere user of recipe books with a true chef:

There is a huge difference between a chef and a user of recipe books. The recipe book user (for which read the manufacturing model of consultancy) uses best practice to assemble the same ingredients in the same context to produce the same meal, time and time again. If they come into your kitchen, it will have to be re-engineered to confirm with the requirements of the recipe before they start to work (and you will pay in many ways for that). The Chef in contrast can work with whatever ingredients and utensils you happen to have to hand and create a great meal.

In my presentation, I contrasted the traditional precedent/recipe book KM approach with the use of Web 2.0 tools to expose knowledge that the firm did not know it had or to create knowledge from interactions that would be impossible to create otherwise. I think this model is closer to Dave Snowden’s chef, in that it makes the most of what is in the cupboard. For a law firm, this approach means that it is possible to be more adaptable to what clients need, to changes in legal or market practice, or to the economy.

But… The chef needs to start somewhere. Recipes are necessary. We just need to be careful. As Matthew Fort put it:

Just as we have delegated most of our food decision-making to supermarkets so we have bowed our heads to the recipe. We can’t get through cooking life without them. We’ve come to treat recipes like crutches, to help us limp through the process of cooking a dish, rather relying on our own experience and judgement.

Nigel Slater is right when he writes in his introduction to February’s Observer Food Monthly that the purpose of a recipe is to instil confidence, to inspire and allow ideas to be shared.

A view of recipes as inviolate is totally erroneous, they are not the culinary equivalent of chemical formulae. Tamper with the ingredients or the proportions and you tamper with the something precise and ordered. Who knows what chaos and disaster lies the other side of leaving out the celery?

It’s bollocks, of course. You’re just cooking something a little different. It’s not going to alter the course of the universe or cause disgrace at the dinner table.

The same can be said of precedents. They contain the essential ingredients to ensure that a basic agreement is sound, but a confident lawyer will have learnt over time what can be added and what left out to make the final product just what the client ordered. There are many ways of building that confidence. Experience, sound basic documents, mentoring, coaching, insights provided by colleagues through training and by intelligent use of blogs and wikis: these and others are all important tools in the development of confident, inspired, idea-sharing and creative lawyers.

That is why all of these are fundamental to KM in law firms. Our job is to blend the ingredients in just the right way to meet the needs of our clients, their markets, our lawyers, and the firm. This will inevitably be a constantly-changing recipe — the basic elements are all themselves changing.

2 thoughts on “Cooking the books”

  1. This is a terrific post, Mark. I love the notion of the law firm KM collection as a cookbook collection. Perhaps in our firms we’re only just moving past the cookbooks and into the wonderful world of food TV. It may be a while before we’re willing to try food blogs and wikis, but I can’t wait until that level of personalization and creativity is widely available within law firms.

    – Mary

Comments are closed.