[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. I ran across this article today. It's from 2003, and it distilled a lot of my thoughts on "personal knowledge management" (PKM) in the legal profession. I remember that it was one of my better-received articles. I really enjoy writing about knowledge management and don't get as many chances as I'd like to wribte about KM and PKM. My latest approach to PKM is that I have created a folder called Research and I save PDFs and other documents into that folder and use Copernic Desktop Search as a way to find information when I need it. In a sense, I'm creating my own little "information cloud" of locally-available information that I've already identified as potentially useful. I also still use a good number of the techniques mentioned in this article. As I mention at the note at the end of the article, I was a little pessimistic about KM when I wrote the article. I'm now quite bullish on today's KM tools and techniques. I've added a few notes in the article to update certain sections.]
Do-It-Yourself Knowledge Management: Practical Personal KM
Recent experiments implanting memory chips directly into brain tissue notwithstanding, the holy grail of integrating computer technology into the practice of law remains a distant hope. Lately, we have heard much about “knowledge management” as the new tool to “leverage” lawyer knowledge, experience and expertise and more efficiently use what we know.
There is much hype about knowledge management, or “KM” as the cognoscenti call it. KM is a nebulous, seemingly ever-changing concept that varies as each new vendor enters the field. For the average lawyer who needs a time management tool just to schedule some time to learn the differences among case management, document management, litigation management, customer relations management and practice management, the introduction of KM into the mix may be the “management” straw that breaks the camel’s back.
KM software “solutions” are generally expensive and directed to big firms. They can do amazing things, but too often are not implemented in effective ways. However, the promise of KM appeals and applies to all lawyers, even if million dollar KM solutions do not.
This article takes a different approach to KM. I call it “do-it-yourself KM.” I believe that individual lawyers and small firms can use existing tools, obtain inexpensive tools we don’t already have and employ unused features of those programs to create simple, practical and useful personal knowledge management tools that help them not at the theoretical level, but where the rubber hits the road.
I will take a look at a number of software programs you probably already own and suggest simple ways to turn them into tools and resources that simply and quickly achieve some of the basic goals of knowledge management, such as easy retrieval of reusable knowledge materials. Try a few of these approaches and you will begin to understand the practical value of KM and use KM more effectively than the big firms with high-end but underutilized KM software.
1. Email Programs.
Collecting and retrieving relevant information easily is a key element of KM. Today, we receive much useful information through email. Email newsletters, messages from discussion lists and emails from clients and colleagues contain valuable “knowledge” that might be reusable. Emails contain references to cases or articles, instructions, recommended professionals, tips and other valuable material.
While there are many good reasons to improve your management of email, KM may provide the best incentive. I suggest the simplest of approaches: start to use folders for email. Using the “New” option under the “File” menu, you can create new folders and subfolders in your inbox. You can then copy messages you later might need into one or more of those folders. When you later are trying to remember something you saw earlier, simply use the “find” function to search the folder and you have a solid “knowledge retrieval” system. [Note: If you use Outlook, the free Lookout plug-in from Microsoft will change your entire outlook on Outlook. It is an astonishingly fast search engine that typically returns results in under a second.]
For example, for several years, I have routinely placed all of my email newsletters into a “Newsletters” folder. When I run into an issue that I think I might have seen something about recently, I run a search in that folder and generally can find the reference I need. I usually delete newsletters after they get to be six months old to keep the folder manageable.
Similarly, you might create separate folders for discussion list messages, messages from colleagues and the like. I suggest resisting the urge to set up too many folders so you don’t have to figure out which folder you might have put the information into. In fact, you might just set up one folder, call it “KM” and copy any message that contains useful info into that folder for later searching. Don’t forget that you can use email “rules” to automatically move or copy messages to particular folders and that can make this process even easier.
Because Outlook and other email programs do not have the greatest search tools, looking at inexpensive search tools such as Enfish (www.enfish.com) or making use of email search tools in a document manager such as Worldox (www.worldox.com) might improve this approach for you. [Note: In addition to Lookout, I also use the Copernic Desktop Search tool. Another interesting option is to use Adobe Acrobat 7's ability to create PDF files from your Outlook folders and then use Acrobat's cataloguing and indexing tools. You can also use your RSS news aggregator as another ad hoc KM repository.]
2. Word Processing.
You can find a number of tools in your word processing program that can be used for knowledge management. Sophisticated users can take advantage of autocomplete features, smart tags and wizards to create reusable material that can be invoked and reused with little or no effort. I recommend that you take a look into some of those and consider training for those features.
However, let’s keep it really simple. The simplest form of KM is creating forms. When you finish a document, consider whether it might serve you later as a form. If so, replace the names with blanks, add a few notes (such as, in a lease, is it pro-lessor or pro-lessee?) and save it as a new document. Keep all your forms in one folder so you can find them easily. Merely adding the notes and a descriptive name (“Pro-lessor triple net lease form”) is an enormous advantage over the common approach of trying to remember the last lease that you did.
Another simple and powerful approach is to harvest new clauses or legal arguments on a regular basis. Create a “clauses” or “legal analysis” document and, on a regular basis, copy new contract clauses you create or use, variations of clauses, arguments from briefs on standard issues and similar material into this document. Add a few notes about each and you have a stored repository of valuable work, plus the “knowledge” you associate with it by adding notes on use.
3. Document Management.
Many lawyers and firms have a document management tool, such as Worldox (www.worldox.com). These powerful tools help you identify, locate and retrieve your documents. You can do full-text searches, key word searches and associate documents with each other. In most cases, lawyers do not take full advantage of these tools.
However, with a minimal amount of effort, you can greatly enhance the KM value of these tools. In document management programs, you create a “profile” of each new document, which typically includes client and matter numbers, author name, title, etc. Lawyers hate to be bothered with filling in these profiles. As a result, it can become very difficult to find documents and the software is not as useful as it could be.
There are four simple steps to take to enhance the KM potential of your document management software. First, spend a few extra seconds filling out as much of the profile as you can. Second, when you are finished with a document, dictate some key words for your secretary to add to the profile. Third, clearly label forms and make sure that forms are kept in one place where they are easy to find. Fourth, choose title names and key words with the idea that you will want to find and reuse the documents later.
It’s not what you know but whom you know. Outlook, other contact managers and practice management programs will keep track of your contacts for you.
Too many attorneys, however, enter only the basic address, phone number and email information. Each of these tools provides places to enter additional data, to group contacts by categories and to retain important information about your contacts, from names of secretaries, birthdays, where you met and much, much more. A minimal amount of effort to add this information to a contact listing can pay off big later.
Also, most of these tools let you process the information you collect. Do you know which of your contacts provided you with the most referrals last year? Would you like to know that the next time you have an extra hockey ticket and see a note that the contact is a hockey fan? [Lookout, Copernic Desktop Search and other desktop search tools make searching contact information easier and faster today. If you upload your contacts to LinkedIn and use its "grab" tool, you can harvest contact information from emails automatically and even use the LinkedIn network with ease.]
5. Internet Bookmarks.
You can find a lot of great information on the Internet, but it’s not so easy to find it again when you want it. Traditionally, browser programs have allowed you to collect links to web sites either as bookmarks (in the Mozilla family of browsers (FireFox or Netscape)) or as favorites (in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer).
Your list of bookmarks or favorites can quickly get overwhelming and unwieldy. The good news is that the browsers contain organization and management tools. These tools (e.g., those found on the drop-down “favorites” menu in Internet Explorer) allow you to create folders, move and organize your bookmarks and favorites. Using convenient folders and cleaning up your list of favorites can make them substantially more useful and aid you in retrieving information that you have already found once.
There are also third party bookmark managers (e.g., PowerMarks, www.powermarks.com) and online bookmark repositories which allow you to access the same set of bookmarks no matter where you are. [Note: There is still no "great" bookmark management tool. I like the Omea Reader from JetBrains and also use Copernic Desktop Search to index and search bookmarks.]
There are also great tools like Copernic Agent (www.copernic.com) that allow you to search multiple search engines and once and to save and reuse the search requests. These tools are another set of simple and inexpensive tools that provide excellent KM results.
6. Practice Management Software.
According to a recent ABA survey, the number of lawyers reporting that they use case or practice management tools (for example, Time Matters (www.timematters.com) and Amicus Attorney (www.amicus.ca)) has doubled in the past year. [Note: Most recently, I've heard that these programs have a market penetration of about 20% in the legal industry.] These programs have definite KM implications because they offer ways to collect, retrieve and, most important, share knowledge and expertise.
The key to using these tools for KM is to start to think about ways to use them other than just for standard office and case management. Here are just a few examples in Time Matters: stored Lexis search capability, full-text search tools, and the ability to create “non-client” cases and matters for stored research, training tools, forms and instructions. Thinking about these kinds of uses will help you realize the potential of these programs as a great platform to implement simple and beneficial KM initiatives.
7. Document Assembly.
A significant number of lawyers are using document assembly programs (such as HotDocs (www.hotdocs.com) and GhostFill (www.ghostfill.com)) to automate the drafting of documents. These programs allow the user to answer a set of questions and automatically generate a good first draft of a document based upon those answers.
With only a little extra effort, these tools can have KM implications. Implementing a routine effort to add new clauses to the document assembly system will help you consistently use your latest and best approach and save you from reinventing the wheel. More importantly, building some explanations into the system will help with training, minimize mistakes and improve quality.
For example, if the user of your document assembly system reached a question that gave a number of choices, you might explain in what circumstances a choice was or was not appropriate. In addition, by using the answer to a question to generate all related clauses, you could eliminate situations where a user answered questions in a way that produced inconsistent results. All of this leverages the knowledge and expertise that you have gained in your practice and turns it into practical results – the primary goal of all KM. [NOTE: I am the eternal optimist when it comes to document assembly. I created some document assembly applications for my law firm more than fifteen years ago. The adoption in the legal industry has proceeded quite a bit more slowly than I expected, to put it mildly. In 2005, we saw the arrival of some new tools and approaches that make document assembly an area to watch in 2006. People still underestimate the value of simple document assembly apps.]
Even the best KM effort has limited impact if you implement it only for yourself, while even the simplest KM effort can have results multiplied many times over if your whole office shares it. In each case where you consider a KM effort, look for ways that you can use your computer network. Because case management tools are usually network applications, they make an excellent platform for simple do-it-yourself KM efforts.
As many lawyers have also discovered, there is KM power in other networks. The ABA Solosez list and state bar email discussion lists are often cited as invaluable resources for solo and small firm attorneys to get advice, recommendations and help over the Internet. [NOTE: The network of bloggers is an amazingly valuable network for me these days.]
CaseMap (www.casesoft.com) is a litigation knowledge management tool that costs under $500. CaseMap allows you to work with the facts and issues of your case in powerful ways to formulate strategy, assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case and organize and present your case in the most persuasive manner. It also unlocks all the information in your case that is typically hidden in legal pads, banker’s boxes and attorney’s heads.
For example, in CaseMap, you and your colleagues can assess each fact in your case for its relative strength or weakness and determine whether it is favorable or unfavorable. Facts can also be associated with specific issues. In how many cases would it be helpful to you to have a list of all strongly favorable, undisputed facts on the causation issue, with the names of the relevant witnesses and researched associated with each fact?
CaseMap is an inexpensive and powerful KM tool that no litigators should be without.
10. Routine Recording and Transcription.
Do you routinely tape your presentations and arguments? Why not? If you think you have a good reason, why not videotape or audiotape your practice sessions?
Recording spoken and performance materials can be an excellent KM tool. The recordings might be used for training other lawyers. Transcripts might be made so that the material s could later be reused for articles, seminar materials, email newsletter or web site content. Would a potential new litigation client benefit from seeing a video clip of you in action?
The opportunity to capture this type of material is routinely lost by lawyers. The availability of relatively inexpensive video cameras, recorders and voice recognition software, when combined with the today’s digitization techniques, opens up a new world of possibilities in this area. [NOTE: I feel even more strongly about this today.]
Practical Tips for Getting Started in DIY KM.
Here are a few of my best tips to get started with do-it-yourself KM.
1. If you don’t understand the whole KM concept, don’t worry about that one little bit. Even the experts can’t agree on what KM is. What you care about is the practical, real-world impact of KM techniques for you. You practice law, not linguistics or philosophy.
2. Start with a few easy efforts. Look through the items above. Make a list of the ones that seem easiest for you to do and where you can see that they would bring quick, concrete results. For example, it’s easy to record presentations and have your secretary transcribe them. It’s also easy to create a “KM” folder for email.
3. Consider how you work best. KM techniques that force you to modify how you work are doomed to failure. If you aren’t collecting clauses with notes, circle the clauses on a printout and dictate some notes and have your secretary take care of it. Dan Felean of PensEra (www.pensera.com), a KM tools company, argues persuasively that KM is a team sport and that the best approach to KM in the legal profession involves building upon the routine relationships and tasks of lawyers and their staffs.
4. Set reasonable, business-oriented (or personal and professional) goals. We can all go a little overboard on technology. Think in business terms. If you are applying the simple KM approaches that I suggest above to contacts, don’t think in terms of either technology or “contact management.” Think in terms of the effects and goals that you want to achieve. Do you want to “implement a contact management system” or do you want to know who your top twenty sources of referrals are and what kind of “quality contacts” you are having with them? I hope that’s a rhetorical question.
5. The network is the message. Personal knowledge management is great, but the real power of KM comes from sharing. Look to ways to put KM efforts in place across your network and to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the whole team.
The approach that KM software vendors have taken to KM today is not working yet for many lawyers. Lawyers now find KM impossibly vague, very expensive and, rightly or wrongly, just today’s flavor of “management.” At the same time, lawyers need to take advantage of KM tools and techniques to cope with increasing information overload, new competitive pressures and changing economic realities. Ignore the hype. Take a do-it-yourself approach to KM and try to get real-world business results using tools you already have or can cheaply obtain and you will move well ahead of those who are content merely to debate KM concepts. [NOTE: Although I was critical of the high-end KM tools at the time I wrote this article, in part I used that critique as a rhetorical device to make the argument for the personal KM approach taken in this article. The focus of this article is individuals and small firms. I am quite bullish on today's generation of KM tools for larger firms – what a difference a few years can make.]
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
This post brought to you by Dennis Kennedy’s legal technology consulting services, featuring RSS and blogging consulting, technology audit, strategic planning and technology committee coaching packages especially for medium-sized law firms (15 – 100 lawyers) and corporate legal departments.