KMers can do anything: is that wise?

Ron Friedmann has spotted a trend for law firm KM people to branch into new activities, such as legal project management, alternative fee arrangements, and so on. He also offers a hypothesis for this:

So why does KM continue to expand beyond its core remit today? My theory is that KM professionals span multiple disciplines and think laterally. They can handle complex problems that fall outside the boundaries of other support functions. Moreover, successful KM professionals have gained the confidence of lawyers; many come from the practice; others have worked closely with lawyers for a long time. Whatever their background, they develop excellent rapport with partners and practice groups. Of course, many are lawyers and in the caste system that defines BigLaw, that is a big plus.

A number of people have supported his observations in comments on the post, which Ron has extracted into a separate post. For example, Patrick DiDomenico (CKO at Gibbons PC and blogger at LawyerKM) says:

I’m head KM (CKO) at my firm, but I also manage the library and litigation support department, have an active role in our E-Discovery Task Force, and am the social media evangelist (among other things). My role as a former practicing litigator at my firm has a lot to do with what I now do for the firm. The fact that I do these things does not make them “KM activities.” Rather, these are some of the things that the head of KM happens to do.

And Meredith Williams of Baker Donelson agrees:

These days CKOs and KM professionals are being asked to expand their roles further and further in addition to continuing many traditional KM tasks. As Patrick referenced, I too aid in multiple projects that are not traditional KM such as Social Media, Competitive Intelligence, E-Discovery, Legal Project Management, Alternative Fee Arrangements and Mobility.

In part, I think what Ron describes is in fact a change in what we understand to be part of KM (in any organisation). Social media is an example — one of the things that traditional document- and repository-based KM spectacularly failed to do was to draw people together to share their knowledge. Various forms of social media now allow us to address that challenge. From that perspective, law firms are just the same as other organisations.

However, there are a couple of other interpretations which I find more troubling.

In The End of Lawyers? Richard Susskind bemoans the tendency lawyers have to describe their jobs by reference to anything other than advising clients on the law. He talks of lawyers referring to themselves more as project managers or commercial advisors. (I still need to retrieve my copy, so I’m afraid I can’t provide a better quotation or reference.) Putting aside the question whether they are actually any good at those roles, it is odd that many lawyers would prefer to be thought of as gifted amateurs turning their hands to any odd job that comes along, rather than talented and focused professionals — masters of their own specialisms. That tendency really comes to the fore in knowledge roles. Amongst all the functions that modern law firms need to support their core fee-earning function (take your pick from HR, finance, marketing, IT, office services, sales, building and facilities management, training, library, etc.) the knowledge team is often alone in recruiting predominantly from the ranks of practising lawyers. In all those other areas, firms are willing to accept the advice and insight provided by functional specialists, but it appears that the non-legal KMer has yet to make an appreciable impact. 

One consequence of this ‘lawyers can do anything’ attitude is that the firm is less likely to get the benefits that come from the wider perspective and expertise of the knowledge professional. The benefit is that the knowledge support the firm gets reflects what lawyers need. I think there is merit on both sides, but there is a risk that a firm using lawyers in these roles may find that they learn little from the interesting approaches to knowledge development and use in other organisations and contexts. They may just get the usual precedents and know-how.

(By coincidence, Tim Bratton opens a similar can of worms when he suggests that firms could use lawyers in a dedicated client relationship role:

Is there a role in large City law firms for a lawyer who has no billing targets but whose role is to act effectively as an account manager for a small number of major clients?  I think there is.  But this would only work if it is a real role, it cannot be farmed out to business development or marketing.  To succeed from a client perspective it has to be a role undertaken by a lawyer.

As a general counsel, Tim may favour lawyers. However, not all law firm clients are lawyers — many are finance directors, bankers, commercial managers, company secretaries. Should firms employ relationship managers that match those roles too? And are clients prepared to accept the greater (albeit hidden) cost of employing lawyers as relationship managers? In fact, client relationship management is widely practised in other professional services firms (especially advertising, for example). Why should firms turn their back on that expertise or develop it themselves at huge cost?)

My other concern is that when firms take the view that their knowledge people can be directed to any new project (possibly with only a tenuous link to their core knowledge focus) they aren’t really demonstrating respect for those people or their activities. If your role is valued by the organisation, it will project you in it. The procurement manager who monitors the firm’s supplier relationships and negotiates hard to keep the costs of contracts down is unlikely to find themselves diverted into managing working capital, even if that role uses very similar skills. When a firm asks their knowledge leader to take on consideration of the firm’s billing structures and alternative fee arrangements, I wonder why it was felt that (a) the knowledge work could be scaled down and (b) the expertise of the firm’s own accountants and business managers could be ignored in favour of the gifted amateur. A callous interpretation might be that in fact the firm does not value the knowledge function at all, and so its senior people are fair game for diversion to other (probably equally unvalued) projects.

On the other hand, the response might be that these new activities are actually highly valued and so it is important for a senior, respected person to lead them. This is a compelling argument, but it calls to mind the advice to CEOs that I found in an HBR blog last year. In the fourth of a series of conversations on personal productivity with Bob Pozen, chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, he was asked “How do you decide what to spend your time on when you’re the boss?” His response was interesting:

Top executives usually say they set their priorities and then figure out how to implement them. But in this process many executives make a critical mistake. I’ve noticed this when I’ve mentored new CEOs. They say, “Here are the top five priorities for the company. Who would be the best at carrying out each priority?” Then they come up with themselves as the answer in all five areas. It might be the correct answer, but it’s the wrong question.

The question is not who’s best at performing high-priority functions, but which things can you and only you as the CEO get done? If you don’t ask yourself that question, your time allocations are bound to be wrong.

For Pozen, then, senior people should stick to the things that truly need their attention. To do otherwise dilutes their attention and limits the opportunities for development of others in the organisation. He actually extends this principle further down the business:

What about those of us who aren’t CEOs?

The key, I’ve found, is to become messianic about the principle that everybody owns their own space. This is the human resources analogy to bottom-up investing.

Under this approach, every employee is viewed as the owner of a small business — his or her division, or subdivision or working group; the performance of this unit is his or her responsibility. As the boss, my role is to provide my reports with resources, give them guidance and help them do battle with other people in the broader organization. But they own their own unit.

If law firms’ knowledge leaders are really to be respected and to ‘own their own unit’ they need to be protected from distractions that take them away from that core responsibility. They and the firm get the best results that way.

Another response might be that some of these new projects are experimental, and may not persist. That is fair: why invest in something if it may be temporary? But look at this from a different angle: if you aren’t investing in it, might you be guaranteeing that it will be temporary? Here’s an alternative approach: given that (as ever) law firms are facing many of these issues some time after other organisations, why not buy in expertise on a fixed (but renewable) contract? If you want to explore how matters might be managed or billed differently, why not take on people from the major consulting businesses or accountancy firms to see if their experiences in non-legal professional services firms might be transferable? If you are, in Pozen’s terms, messianic about people owning their own space, and you are exploring a new space, get a new person to lead the exploration.

Knowledge leaders should, by all means, explore new ways of developing and using knowledge in the firm (and they may be able to contribute that expertise to the new activities), but (a) that should not be seen as a change in KM itself and (b) respect for the knowledge function is best expressed by not drawing its people into unrelated new projects.

3 thoughts on “KMers can do anything: is that wise?”

  1. it is odd that many lawyers would prefer to be thought of as gifted amateurs turning their hands to any odd job that comes along, rather than talented and focused professionals

    There’s actually quite a simple reason for this, in my experience (I’m a professional support lawyer in a global law firm). It’s that clients take our professionalism and knowledge of the law for granted, so the only way to distinguish ourselves in the minds of the clients is to be better than other lawyers at the non-legal stuff. Clients also consistently say in surveys, after-matter reviews etc that they want their lawyers to be good commercial advisors rather than just reporting the law – so the “commercial advisor” positioning was one of the first non-legal ones that most firms went for. And yes, clients are willing to pay for it – more willing than to pay for our core legal skills, it often seems.

    Knowledge leaders should, by all means, explore new ways of developing and using knowledge in the firm (and they may be able to contribute that expertise to the new activities)

    This is the key, I think. In addition to the core professional support lawyer functions of KM and training, over the past few years I’ve done quite a lot of risk & compliance management, a bit of supplier management and some general practice management – and I think that’s been beneficial. The test I use is “Will this benefit from legal and/or KM input?” If the answer is “no”, I delegate it to non-legal, non-KM staff. If the answer is “yes”, I either do it myself, delegate it to a more junior lawyer or ask one of our “pure” KM staff if they can take it on. But the answer is “yes” far more often than you might think.

    1. Thanks for the comment Liz. I think you are right on the lawyer point. It will always be a challenge for lawyers to prove to clients that they are competent lawyers. In relation to clients paying, I think it has been the case in the past that clients have paid for lawyers to perform tasks in the context of a matter that could equally well have been done by a non-lawyer. I am not sure that we can rely on that good will any longer. My experience is that clients are getting increasingly bullish about what they will and won’t pay for.

      I also agree that there is a case for wider KM input across the firm. If we see traditional legal KM as covering the usual precedents, know-how and so on, we miss the opportunity to improve the quality of the firm’s decision-making and innovation processes. The relevant knowledge in a law firm is not just what goes into a contract — it must include our understanding of clients, the business itself, how the support teams improve their work, and so on. All of that knowledge can benefit from KM input (but probably not ownership).

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