Ten Tips for Successful KM Projects in Law Firms – Article

[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. This article is an article on knowledge management from 2004. I'd probably include more discussion of blawgs and RSS today. It's practical stuff and was taken from a KM seminar I did in 2004. As I've mentioned, I really enjoy writing and speaking about knowledge management and don't get as many chances as I'd like to do so. I'm now quite bullish on today's KM tools and techniques. I have not updated this article.]
Ten Tips for Successful KM Projects in Law Firms
Law firms struggle with knowledge management. On the one hand, law firms are classic examples of information and knowledge businesses. On the other hand, managing lawyers has often been likened to “herding cats.” Combining “knowledge” with “management” in the law firm setting has proven to be surprisingly difficult.
The legal landscape is littered with the debris of abandoned brief banks, ineffective document management systems and little-used practice management tools. We have reached this point not through lack of effort or failure to make the required investments, but rather because of difficulties inherent in today’s practice of law. Some of these difficulties are well-known – emphasis on billable hours, lack of incentive structures, and the legendary “busy-ness” of lawyers. Others are more subtle and perhaps less subject to change.
Walk into the office of almost any lawyer. What are you likely to see? A desk piled high with files and scattered papers. Files and papers covering the floor, credenza, chairs and any other available space. A computer monitor covered with Post-it notes. The lawyer’s secretary’s cubicle may look no different. How realistic is it to think that we can transform this picture into a sleek, well-oiled, computer-based knowledge management system?
There’s no question, however, that there are many good reasons to try to do so. The following ten tips will point you in directions that maximize your chances for success in legal KM projects. While nothing can guarantee success in trying to manage anything having to do with lawyers, these steps will help you move toward solid, measurable and appreciated results in your projects.
1. Bag the Jargon and Give Us Buttons. If you use the word “taxonomy,” you will lose the interest of many lawyers. If you use “taxonomy” and “ontology” in the same sentence, you may lose them forever. Concepts like “tacit” and “explicit” knowledge are simply not helpful to most lawyers. Forget the “XML” and “SQL.”
Lawyers tend to be doers. They can learn the underlying concepts, but will do so only if there is a good reason to do so. Because the emphasis is on “doing,” it is important to stress the “what” rather than the “how.” Find out what lawyers what to accomplish, give them a method to accomplish it, and then work on making it as simple as possible to execute that process. Ideally, give lawyers a button to click on or a tab that shows the information that they want. Hide the process and highlight the result.
2. Try to Adapt the System to Lawyer Behavior and Not Vice Versa. After twenty years of practicing law, I have a tendency to laugh when I hear about knowledge management systems that require significant changes in lawyer behavior. I heard recently of a system in which lawyers would be expect to fill-in thirty-five (!) fields of information for each document. One CKO I know checked the firm’s document management system and found that at least 20% of all documents were classified only with default options (e.g., Firm – Miscellaneous). I have had lawyers tell me that there is no way that they would enter even two fields. You can bring a KM system to a lawyer, but you cannot make a lawyer use it.
This behavior is clearly self-defeating, but you make a big mistake if you think that it does not exist and will not persist. When in a hurry, every lawyer will develop work-arounds to avoid cumbersome data entry requirements. If you require fields, give lawyers drop-down menus.
More important, however, is that the implementation of any successful KM system requires a solid understanding of how lawyers work and how they will not work. If you design a system that does not reflect the way lawyers work, you all but guarantee its failure. Because lawyers are creatures of habit, especially in times of stress, and conservative by nature, expecting behavioral changes, especially in times of high stress, is simply not realistic.
3. One Size Does Not Fit All. You want to be very careful about rolling out a “firm-wide” knowledge management system that looks and works the same for all lawyers. Lawyers work in many different ways. Practices vary from department to department and from lawyer to lawyer. The needs and practices of litigators are far different than those of corporate or transactional lawyers. Tax lawyers and employment lawyers, for example, may have completely different needs. A system that fits the way some of my former law partners work would be a horror show for me.
If you do not fully understand these differences and you attempt to roll out a single-interface, single-approach KM system, I guarantee you that it will be “doomed.” Your odds of significant adoption, let alone success, will be greatly diminished. You will see significant “leakage” out of your system as lawyers use their own work-arounds or even ignore the system.
You must take the time on the front-end to understand how lawyers work and also look for ways to build in flexibility and personalization to make it easy for lawyers to use your system in a way that complements how they work.
4. Enter Data Once; Use Many Times. For many years, the promise of document management, case management and other legal software has been that we can enter information only once and then it can be used in many places. The reality, however, is that, as a lawyer, I found that I was entering client and matter numbers in many different places, time after time. In too many cases, information that is already in the “system” must be re-entered with regularity. ODBC was supposed to make this problem go away and now most legal back office programs, DMS and the like are all built on SQL databases.
However, far too often, information in one database is not used by other databases. Given the tendency of lawyers to disregard or work-around field entry requirements, it is vital to use existing database information to automatically generate metadata about documents. Even if the results are not perfect, they have to be better than what we are now getting. For example, in many firms, email is an unconnected island of information that exists outside of DMS. Even if all you could do was automatically and invisibly pull and assign client number and a limited amount of other metadata based on the domain name to which an email was sent, you would be miles ahead of what most firms have now.
5. Address the “Pain” and Handle the Perceived Problems. In many cases, a KM system offers lawyers solutions for problems that they do not have. For example, a common selling point for KM is that I can automatically update the cases mentioned in my documents. I am not a litigator. My documents are almost always agreements. This “feature” would play almost no role in my practice. Similarly, a system that helped me locate and use “clauses” would be more valuable than one that focuses on documents.
There has been a lot of emphasis placed on the ability to find “documents” in the world of KM. For some lawyers, this emphasis is correct. For others, the ability to locate the “expert” or other KM concepts may be far more important. In each case, however, I can guarantee that a conversation with a lawyer will reveal several places where the current system gets in the way of what the lawyer wishes to do and causes “pain.” If you can identify those pains and solve them, you will build strong momentum for your KM system, often with surprisingly little effort.
6. Expand the Concept of “Document.” The initial focus on “documents” in DMS proved to be unwieldy when email usage exploded and important “documents” stayed outside the DMS. Today, think about instant messages, RSS feeds, voicemail, social software, deal rooms, web meetings and more new ways people work together that all create valuable information that does not fit the standard concept of “document.” As is the case in email, these new forms of communication may well contain the most valuable “knowledge” with respect to a case, transaction or other legal matter. If my KM system does not sweep this information in and make it usable, then the KM is not as useful as it could be or, worse, is potentially dangerous if I proceed on the basis that it is a complete system.
It has also become clear that expecting lawyers to fill out surveys, write memos or otherwise reduce to paper their resumes, areas of expertise and other information that would be useful to others is not wise. The use of audio and video to gather this information by interviews holds much promise in KM. Even if all you do is to assign interns to interview lawyers on video with a set of questions, you will be miles ahead of where most firms are. The results would include video, audio and transcripts. Audio and video would be especially valuable for firms with lots of offices.
In my old firm (300 lawyers), it was difficult to learn much about lawyers in other offices from the standard bios and black-and-white headshot photos you had available. If, on the other hand, I could have viewed short videos of the lawyers talking about their backgrounds and what they did, it would have been more valuable by orders of magnitude. Think about tip number 2 above for a minute. Lawyers like to talk about themselves and what they do, but they do not have the time to write all of that down. Audio and video techniques offer enormous promise.
7. Mimic the Standard Web Experience. Lawyers use Google, Amazon and any number of the other “ten most popular websites.” Usability experts, such as Jakob Nielsen, confirm that the best approach to take for your own website is to adopt many of the standard navigation, placement and other practices of these sites. As a result, users take advantage of familiar skills that they have learned and used on the websites that they use most commonly. Resist the urge to create new navigation schemes or to “break” common user expectations.
Adopting a web interface or “portal” front-end to your KM system, therefore, just makes good sense, as would using Outlook as a front-end. It is difficult for lawyers and other users to move between programs that work in different ways. We are all at a point where we do not want to learn any more interfaces or find that we have to go to another program to get information. If you can mimic the common web experience and give access to the underlying information from a “start page,” you can expect a great level of acceptance of your project.
8. Make Categories Flexible. I must admit that my eyes roll up into my head when people start talking about taxonomies, especially custom taxonomies. I recently abandoned yet another system of subfolders for email and bookmarks because it no longer worked. I have found that categories evolve over time and that I often will not know what the “right” category for certain information is until I am in a context where I need to use the information.
There are many problems with categories. How do you handle items that should be in multiple categories? How can I split up categories or create new subcategories? What about variations in naming? My biggest difficulty often comes when I am presented with a list of categories and my item simply does not fit any of them.
You will see occasional references to “liquid” categories or “flexible” categories as potential solutions for these kinds of issues. “Saved search” techniques may also become valuable in this context. Much work remains to be done in these areas, but a system that allows for the easy creation of new categories and the easy reassignment of items to categories will be much more acceptable than a rigid, committee-developed taxonomy system.
9. Make it Personal. If I go to Amazon.com, I will find “My Recommendations,” “My WishList” and other personalized features. I can create and customize “My Yahoo,” “My Excite” and “My FindLaw” pages, to mention only a few. I can use “skins” in a number of programs to make my user interface look the way I want. Certain sites with cascading style sheets (CSS) even allow me to change the look and feel of the pages I see.
Consider the likely reaction of an audience accustomed to this level of personalization and control to a KM system that is rigid, inflexible and offers no ability to customize. Nothing is more personal than knowledge management. In fact, there is an argument by some KM experts that KM can only be achieved through personal KM. If you do not give users the ability to personalize and control their experience, your odds for success will diminish greatly.
10. Hitting Solid Singles Beats Swinging for Home Runs. I cringe when I hear that a law firm plans to implement a KM “solution” for lawyers. The best approach for getting lawyers to use technology is to build momentum by introducing a string of incremental successes, each of which addresses a real-world, well-understood problem lawyers are facing while not doing violence to the way they like to practice law.
If you remember back to when you were first taught to hit a baseball, you’ll probably recall someone saying over and over, “Just meet the ball. Don’t try to kill it.” As you adjusted to the more realistic ambition, you noticed that you began to hit the ball more consistently and probably farther than you did when you tried to swing like Babe Ruth. The same principles apply in KM for law firms. Listen carefully to what lawyers are saying, make the effort to understand how they work, develop fast prototypes that show that you listened to their concerns, and make it easy for them to do the things that they care about doing. Reduce your big ambitions, concentrate on the ball, relax and be ready to make adjustments, and focus on the solid hits. Over time, a string of solid results can build something far more spectacular than what you might have originally envisioned.
Conclusion.
Tools are very important in KM, but it will be whether you can use your KM tools to create tools that your users can easily use that will be the key to any successful KM project. KM in law firms is no easy task, but if you implement the tips in this article, you can greatly enhance your likelihood of achieving success for the long term.
[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.