Yellow Lines

Legal KM: what is your impact?

I finished my blog post on the need for unavoidable irritation with a promise to look at the purpose of knowledge management in law firms. On reflection, I think impact is a better word than purpose. What difference can KM make to the performance of a firm, and what will the firm’s experience be? In other words — how irritating can legal KMers be so that they generate most value?

Pothole and yellow linesAs a reminder, the goal is to be considered indispensable by the firm, whilst still promoting goals that might be uncomfortable to individual lawyers. This might sound unnecessarily aggressive, but it actually matches the kind of work that has been done over many years in many successful firms.

Consider, for example, the use of standard documents or precedents to assist lawyers’ drafting (or their modern equivalent, the automated document). Amongst other things, these approved ways of working will force lawyers into a single, consistent contractual format or style. For some, this undermines their right to decide how best to draft or to present the document. (I have lost count of the number of times I have had to listen to lawyers grumbling about their firm’s style rules.) On the other hand, clients appreciate consistency across a firm’s documents and the efficiencies that come from part-drafted or automated standards are undeniable.

In this example, we can see the essence of the value of legal KM: it creates value for the firm by seeing better ways of using knowledge, bringing them into being, and encouraging people to use them to work differently (since legal work is knowledge work). The irritant comes in that final stage — any change to the way people work is likely to create a bit of discomfort.

The most successful people in legal knowledge management are those who bring about the most valuable change. (This group includes, in my experience, Chief Knowledge Officers, Heads of KM, PSLs, Knowledge Officers, and a host of other titles at all levels.) In order to have that impact, they have a few characteristics in common.

  • Clarity of vision/purpose: they work out at an early stage what they stand for, and why the firm should value it.
  • Connectedness: they build relationships across the firm, so that they have a better understanding of the complete range of work done, not just the area they work in.
  • Communication skills: they can present their perspective well, whatever the audience.
  • Diplomacy: they know which battles to fight, and when to back down.

These common characteristics (together with others that are more role-specific, such as the twelve listed for knowledge leaders by Arthur Shelley) allow for the greatest impact. These people can generate more value for their firms by being sufficiently irritating — they create pearls.

By contrast, some KM folk have found it easier to make themselves indispensable by producing just what their teams ask for, without questioning the underlying assumptions. By doing so, the only change they create is a culture of dependence. This is similar to the situation described (in reference to a different context) in the following video.

Demands for knowledge ‘products’ are common in law firms. Just like the managers in the video, partners feel more comfortable when their KM teams are creating tangible items. Equally, producing those items usually feels easier than trying to change the way people work. There are equivalents in other areas of business services — finance teams are sometimes asked for spreadsheets they know to be worthless and BD teams may be expected to support unwinnable pitches. The best professionals in those areas will challenge the requests and explain why there are better things for them to do. Good KM folk should do the same.

Ultimately, the test for impact is the same for knowledge management as it is for other professionals within the firm. How much difference are you making to the firm?

For HR people, the answer to that question might lie in recruiting great people or in managing career changes for those who are doing less well. IT professionals could point to improvements in client service using new technology tools.

For KM professionals, the difference should be found in changing the way people work for the better. Activities such as updating precedents and producing briefings are unlikely to be as valuable to the firm as challenging the way legal work is done and actually changing the way clients get the benefit of the firm’s legal knowledge.

Even diplomatic challenging is irritating, but it is necessary to create the pearls firms need.

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