Where to start with law firm knowledge development?

The history of knowledge management in law firms can be simply sketched:

  • Lawyers and publishers started with standard documents and forms, then moved on to more discursive materials — often managed by librarians;
  • The bigger firms employed dedicated knowledge professionals (PSLs) to create and maintain bespoke material, training and current awareness;
  • PSLs became more common, so firms began coordinating their activities
  • This coordination evolved into strategic support for the firm’s wider goals, and often extended to include information and research professionals and/or learning professionals;
  • Greater strategic focus led to increased diversity of activities between firms — encompassing technology-supported practice, client-facing activities and so on.

This account isn’t perfect, but it covers the main inflection points. However, it also contains the seeds of misdirection.

Chatsworth sundialWhilst there are firms that have reached the final stage, many are still approaching KM as a new activity. They may subscribe to the major services. They may also have some of their own internal knowledge material, drafted by practising lawyers. They might even have a nascent knowledge system of some kind. What should be their next step?

The natural thing to do would be to learn from what other firms have done. (A standard knowledge management tactic.)

How should that learning progress? One approach, which appears to have been suggested at today’s KM Legal conference, is to follow in the same steps as other firms. I am not at the conference, but following some of the tweets.

The advice to start with PSLs without coordination or a vision is risky. It feels right, just as the historic biological view that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” appeared to make sense. The better choice is to start from the current state of the more mature firms. By all means learn from the work already done by those firms, but there is no need to go through the same process to do so.

The most experienced firms have concluded that successful knowledge activities require coordination or governance, and a vision that is congruent with the firm’s strategy. In learning this lesson, they made mistakes and had successes. Firms coming afresh to this work should learn the same lesson without having to have the same sequence of experiences. Learning from other people’s experiences is a critical knowledge principle in itself.

Does it really matter? If only a small investment is possible, why not start with a PSL or two and see how they get on?

The problem with that approach is that without informed guidance as to what the firm needs and/or the experiences other firms have had, there is a real risk that the PSL has to bend to the will of the lawyers they work with. Without an organising force outside the practice group, PSLs will often be forced to support old-fashioned ways of working.

The vision may not need to be detailed. It would be enough for the firm’s leadership to be clear about the things that need to improve. Armed with simple goals like that, PSLs would be able help their practice groups develop in a coherent direction. They could help build a modern firm without having to go through the Enlightenment first.

(As an aside, one thing firms could do to emulate their more forward-thinking peers would be to drop the title ‘PSL’. It is essentially meaningless. Other versions, such as Practice Development Lawyer, Knowledge Development Lawyer, Training and Knowledge Lawyer, are much more helpful.)

If you or your firm is thinking about these issues, and would like some personalised guidance, please get in touch.

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