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.

In praise of Professional Support Lawyers

Yesterday I attended Ark Group’s Professional Support Lawyer (PSL) conference, along with nearly 50 PSLs from over 35 firms. The presentations and audience contributions reminded me that PSLs are the hidden gems of legal business.

Holborn BarsWhen firms first realised that they could improve the quality of their lawyers’ work, PSLs were expected to focus on technical excellence — creating and maintaining key documents, and ensuring that developments in the law were addressed through training or current awareness briefings. Like other aspects of legal practice, this focus has shifted over the past 20 or more years. Now firms can expect their PSLs to be an essential part of their strategic armoury. This can be seen in a variety of ways, but just two highlight particularly well how PSLs make a real difference: innovation and culture.

Innovation

Coincidentally, today sees the publication of the FT’s annual Innovative Lawyers report. Looking at the list of standout, highly commended and commended initiatives by law firms, I see many that will have involved PSLs at some stage in their development. Some of the client service innovations depend for their success on materials created specifically by PSLs. Some of the innovations in legal expertise draw on insights made possible by the broader overview that PSLs can have over the legal landscape, unencumbered as they are by client demands.

In my own experience working alongside talented lawyers, I have seen a higher rate of products and services created or delivered by PSLs than by partners. And crucially, PSLs tend to be much better at seeing a product development cycle all the way through to the end — partly because they may have fewer distractions, but mainly because they know that this is a significant part of their role and they take it seriously.

Innovation is a tricky concept, much misunderstood and misused, but David Hepworth’s observations last week about ‘improvements’ read just as well when applied to ‘innovations’:

This is a classic case of Hepworth’s Law Of Improvement, which I developed over years of watching people trying to improve magazines. There’s improvement, then there’s the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there’s the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Only the third sort is worth the trouble.

PSLs are often the most capable people in a firm to assess dispassionately what putative innovations would be recognised and valued by clients (and potential clients).

Innovation can clearly happen without PSLs, and some PSLs may not be in a position focus on new products and services for good reasons. But if your law firm is struggling with making innovation stick, try involving some PSLs — you may be surprised by the results.

Culture

Like many commercial organisations, law firms often struggle with culture. Sometimes this can result from the multiple role that partners have as owners and managers of the business as well as workers in it. A junior lawyer working alongside a partner is unlikely to see them as a co-worker, so will hold some things back that they might share with a peer. Partners therefore can only have a distorted view of their team. (Just as the Queen only ever sees perfectly clean, freshly-painted offices and hospitals.) PSLs, on the other hand, see lawyers at all levels in all types of situations. They help juniors with their panics over misfiled forms. They work as peers with all areas of business services (especially BD, HR, Risk and IT). They may be used as confidantes for aspiring partners.

At the same time as having strong relationships with a wider range of people working across the firm, PSLs are often regarded as peers by partners. Many of them will have experience in their area of expertise far in excess of some of the partners they work with. They may also have seen partners in other areas of the firm grow up from innocent trainees to practice-hardened lawyers. As a consequence their dealings with partners are different from any other group in the firm. PSLs often have the trust and confidence of partners across the firm.

This privileged position means that PSLs understand what is really going on (a shorthand for culture) much better than most other groups in the firm. Firms can use this insight intelligently in all sorts of ways. For example, mergers are one area where a number of firms have experienced the benefit of drawing on PSLs for more than their legal expertise. In the phase before a merger takes effect, PSLs from the two merging firms start work on the knowledge infrastructure for each new team. As the merger beds in, PSLs build new relationships with new colleagues — binding the team together better than partners can manage alone.

Why hidden gems?

Even if PSLs only do the core function of maintaining technical excellence, they generate more value for the firm than fee-earning lawyers. An hour of fee-earning will translate directly to income generated at the appropriate rate. There may be some intangible value in a deeper client relationship, but that is not guaranteed. By contrast, a well-focused hour of a PSL’s time spent drafting a standard document or a guidance note, or in providing training on a difficult new legal issue, should translate into many hours additional value by allowing fee-earners to work better. Over time, that single hour could multiply to 50 times as much value for the firm.

When PSLs go beyond the traditional core, they add even more value in all sorts of ways (not just innovation and cultural support). Not all firms see that yet. They forget to value the PSLs in return, or they suppress opportunities for PSLs to demonstrate their full potential (often by allowing them to be distracted by less significant chores). Firms that allow their jewels to shine see real returns on their investment.

If your firm is interested in working better with your PSLs — perhaps finding new ways of supporting their work; encouraging new ways of engaging with them as a group; or allowing them to lead more than they have so far — drop me a line: I would love to help you and your PSLs become more successful.

Key KM attributes

At today’s KM Legal conference, Ruth Ward started us off with a good overview of the challenges facing KMers in law firms following the end of the legal boom (or the great reset  as Bruce MacEwen puts it). Better than that though, she also provided a list of key features that KM needs to demonstrate in the future.

  • Client centred
  • Focused
  • Relevant
  • Open
  • Interested/curious
  • Flexible
  • Resilient
  • Progressive
  • Communicative
  • Collaborative
  • Culturally attentive

These are all great, and I would argue we should have been demonstrating them in the past as well. Ruth was pressed to pick one attribute that was the most important. She chose relevance because it underpinned or enhanced all of the others. Absolutely the right choice, I agree.

Reflecting on the PSL role

A passing comment in Ron Friedmann’s latest blog post has prompted me to recycle some material here that I originally put together for our own Professional Support Lawyers. In the context of a commentary on an interesting report by OMC Partners (commissioned by PLC), Ron notes:

Few large US firms, at least in their US offices, have PSL ratios even approaching those commonly found in the UK. (Some large US firms are now increasing the number of PSLs though in my view, it is premature to call this a trend.)

I think Ron is right to play down the trend. What would interest me more is to know what the US PSL community is being tasked with. That is because I think the role of PSLs in many UK law firms has changed significantly over the past three years or so, and that pace of change is not likely to slacken.

First, some history.

Harriet Creamer was Freshfields’ first PSL (and therefore one of the first in the City) in the late 1980s. She then became a partner with responsibility for knowledge management, and is now a consultant.  Over the past couple of years she has presented at a number of conferences and workshops on the changing role of the PSL. (Reports of those presentations can easily be found on the web, if you are interested.) In November 2009, Harriet summarised her thinking in an article in The Lawyer, entitled “Knowledge management needs serious consideration.” In it, she provides a potted history of the PSL and KM function in law firms, and finishes with a rallying call for change:

At many firms, the basic organisational tasks took longer than expected, and ­eventually became so time-consuming that many KM lawyers remained almost wholly focused on them. In some cases management of the KM function was poor and priorities were commonly set by client partners who misunderstood the ultimate goal or who had particular axes to grind. The vision of the KM function as the ­efficiency engine of the firm, constantly streamlining working practices and driving forward proprietary knowhow, became blurred. Now is the time to clarify it.

To do this it is critical that KM lawyers engage proactively with the business. Their central focus should be on ­profitability. They will need a clear ­understanding, at both the financial and technical levels, of the work undertaken and the systems adopted in the different practice areas.

The comments on Harriet’s piece are intriguing. They don’t display much insight or awareness, and some of them are unnecessarily vituperative. If they are typical of lawyers’ attitudes to KM and PSLs, we have a very steep hill to climb.

One of the firms whose PSLs have taken a lead in the strategic reaction to market change is Berwin Leighton Paisner. Lucy Dillon, Director of KM at BLP (and formerly a litigation PSL at Linklaters), wrote a short note for Law Business Review (“PSLs – Gatekeepers of Excellence”) summarising the ways in which she has seen the PSL role change over the last 20 years.

PSLs, with their experience of practice, are in an excellent position to help review internal processes to identify areas of inefficiency and offer solutions for improving service delivery. Standard forms, document automation, checklists, work flow systems, and FAQs are all areas where a PSL’s experience can be invaluable. They can apply their practical experience and their holistic approach to transactional work to “unbundle” the traditional deal model and identify smarter ways of delivering on clients’ objectives. Such solutions are a pre-requisite to faster turn-around times, while operating in a risk managed environment.

Some of the initiatives that Lucy describes are unique to BLP, and different firms will have different needs. The general theme — that PSLs can take part in driving change is, however, a universal one. I wonder how many firms can say that their PSLs are empowered to do this.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of drawing parallels with other areas of work to try and illuminate the challenges facing law firms (especially in their knowledge-related activities). I think a good comparison here is to consider the ways in which traditional media are dealing with changes in technology and reader behaviours.

In some (limited) respects, the role of a journalist parallels that of PSLs. Journalists are skilled at taking undifferentiated chunks of data and information and packaging them into useful chunks of knowledge. Historically this distillation and delivery has defined their role. Over the past decade, this traditional approach has become inadequate in the face of (a) rolling 24-hour TV news, (b) contribution to news channels by non-journalists (so-called ‘user-generated content’) and (c) commentary away from the news channels (on Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, etc.). One result has been a huge decline in advertising revenues (exacerbated by the recession) and closures of many long-established newspapers. 

If you are interested in some reactions to the challenge facing journalism, I have a number of relevant bookmarks stored online. However, I think a couple are worth singling out.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant in New York. Writing about the challenge facing sports journalism in November 2009 (“This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything”), he poses a key question.

The question to ask about game stories is the same question to ask about everything we do in journalism: If we were starting today, would we do this? That’s the question. Not whether we’ve spent a lot of money on the infrastructure of producing something a certain way, or whether a journalistic form is a cherished tradition, or whether it still works for a niche audience, or whether it can still be done very well by the best practitioners of the craft. All of those questions are distractions from the real business at hand.

If we were starting today, would we do this?

So: If I were starting a sports site (or a sports section on a general-news Web site), would I pay a reporter or some third-party source for a summary of yesterday’s game, knowing that today my audience is much more likely to have watched the game, can get a recap on SportsCenter once an hour during the morning, can see the highlights on demand from a team or league site, and can watch a condensed game on the iPhone?

Absolutely not.

The problem as he sees it is that the medium for which traditional journalism is designed (the daily newspaper of record) has been overtaken by other sources. People get more value from those other sources, but journalists have failed to see that:

Why didn’t we change? Journalists are masters at filtering, synthesizing and presenting information, yet we’ve spent more than a decade repurposing a 19th-century form of specialized storytelling instead of starting fresh with the possibilities of a new medium. Newspapers could have been Wikipedia, instead of being left to try and learn from it. And what are we learning? The news article is in some fundamental ways just as broken as the game story — if it weren’t, Jimmy Wales wouldn’t see a surge of traffic to Wikipedia in the wake of any big news event. We need to rethink the basics: If we were starting today, would we do this? But when will we unshackle ourselves from print and really ask the question? And at what point will the answer come too late to matter?

That question “If we were starting today, would we do this?” is one that I think all firms need to ask themselves about a whole range of issues. In this context, I am curious to know whether US firms that have adopted the PSL role have started to define that role from scratch or whether they have adopted the historic UK model without significantly adapting it for changed circumstances.

(If you are interested in reading further into the journalism debate, I would also recommend Jonathan Stray’s article, “Does Journalism Work?”, which examines the ‘why’ of journalism, rather than the ‘how’ that is Jason Fry’s focus. Stray’s piece still has parallels with knowledge support in law firms, but they are much more strained. However, his hypothesis is an interesting one, and I may return to consider the ‘why’ of law firm KM at some point.)