Define the Problem and Focus on One-Year Benefits: Building a Law Firm KM Strategy that Drives Value

knowledge management

Define the Problem and Focus on One-Year Benefits: Building a Law Firm KM Strategy that Drives Value

Q&A with Joshua Fireman

by Fred Levesque, Handshake Product Manager, Aderant

What does it mean to manage knowledge?

Lawyers are the epitome of the knowledge worker and law firms, especially large ones, can have hundreds, even thousands of lawyers. How can firms capture the collective wisdom of their talented attorneys and put it at the fingertips of their entire team – and to the benefit of clients?

We recently posed questions like this to Joshua Fireman, who heads up Fireman & Company, a legal industry-focused management consulting firm.

In our view, Mr. Fireman is a legend of KM in the industry. His future session presented an opportunity to ask him some of those hard questions about managing knowledge – and share his answers with you.

1) If you ask 10 different people to define knowledge management (KM), you’ll get 10 different answers. How do you define KM?

JF: Knowledge management is fundamentally about enabling a law firm to leverage its collective experience. It’s a means to preserve and enhance a firm’s ability to act as a law firm, as opposed to a collection of individual lawyers. That means the ability to access and reuse everything from past work products to the firm’s knowledge and experience. It involves process improvement, technology and collaboration.

2) Do law firms really need a KM program?

JF: Yes, they do, and there are several reasons why.

The first reason is growth. As firms have grown in size, both organically and through mergers, they need to properly leverage the breadth and depth of experience they’ve acquired.

The second reason is the high turnover many law firms encounter. The average large firm will see a turnover of about 30% of its attorneys in a five-year period. That’s top to bottom and includes everyone from associates to partners, which means it’s important to preserve knowledge when you can and make it accessible to the rest of the firm.

The third reason is the sheer competitiveness in the legal sector, which firms of all sizes are facing. Knowledge management is critical to a firm’s ability to maintain the quality of legal services in the face of client cost pressures.

The competition isn’t just about clients; it’s also about talent acquisition – from the top law students to the best laterals. Think about this: if you’re a new lateral hire, how do you quickly integrate into your new firm and achieve the business goals you’ve set for yourself in making that move?

The final reason is security and it’s become more important in the last few years. Clients are increasingly imposing security rules and limiting access to their matters within a firm. As result, firms are locking down documents. This means the traditional ways of finding documents, such as enterprise search, begin to fail.

The role that knowledge management plays in capturing context, rather than solely indexing documents, becomes increasingly critical. That means capturing the context for experience and providing linkages between attorneys within a firm based on experience, rather than documents, will become increasingly important.

3) What do you mean when you say KM should capture experiences and not documents?

JF: Capturing experience means, even in the absence of access to a document, you know nonetheless, there is knowledge and experience connected to it – and gives you a way to connect with people who have it.

In the US, knowledge management has been largely aimed at finding documents, which for many firms requires a straightforward approach to enterprise search. When you start locking down access to documents, then two people can run the same search and their top ten results will be different. This is because you’ve walled things off from some people – and different people have different documents that are walled off.

Imagine a world where you are not allowed to see a document, but you are allowed to know it exists, and know that it’s incredibly relevant. You can also see it was written by a colleague in another office. When this happens, we go from locating things to establishing webs of relationships between content, matters and people.

4) What is the prerequisite work that needs to be done in order to design a KM program that drives value?

JF: Effective knowledge management projects start off with a strategy: you have to know what problem you are trying to solve.

Next, come the prerequisites, and there are many, such as:

  • assurances that the law firm business processes are being followed;
  • processes that aren’t being followed are re-engineered so they will be;
  • certainty that core technology systems are being used;
  • time entry is accurate and timely; and
  • the firm’s content resides within a document management system.

Finally, you need a master data management structure to eliminate the duplication of data, resolve data conflicts where they exist, and generally, break down the data silos.

In essence, knowledge management projects typically require some sort of underlying change in addition to ‘good citizenship’ meaning everyone is following established processes and using the existing systems.

5) That sounds like a lot of work. How would you characterize the level of effort a law firm needs to put KM into a program to reach that level of value?

JF: It sounds unachievable to any business, right? This is why you should begin with a problem. When you do, you find lawyers have basic needs: they want to find their own documents, or colleagues documents, or manage their matters differently.

When you define the problem, you can scope the solution: a next generation document management approach and enterprise search for example. You can do both of those initiatives in under a year together and that gives you a solid win. Since document management is a significant project, this would also give you points in the change management column.

In the process, it introduces a structure for adoption, monitoring, and measuring success. It allows you, with the enterprise search project, to build a miniature version of your master data management strategy because you focus the scope on a limited number of initial sources. You can build on that success.

The key is to avoid trying to do everything at once because it’s too much change and you have a likelihood of failing. If you focus on problems that will bring one-year benefits to attorneys and clients, it will lay a foundation on which you can build upon in the other areas of knowledge management.

6) Are there metrics we can put around the value of knowledge management?

JF: The metrics you choose to measure should be tied to the business problem you identify in the beginning. That problem definition lays out the business requirements, which in turn provides the metrics you will ultimately measure.

For example, one law firm I worked with determined through extensive interviews that their attorneys were wasting approximately an hour per day. Maybe that means that an hour is lost, or the lawyer ends up working an hour longer, but there’s an opportunity cost there.

When we examined the problem further, we realized inefficient searches were a contributing factor. Why can’t they find their stuff? It’s because it’s scattered – it’s in file sharing sites, hard drives, and email – and there’s no search tool that they really trust to find it. This becomes a user behavior that you can measure.

Let’s take it a step further. With a document management system, you can tell how long someone spends drafting a document. This isn’t merely how long your screen is open; it’s measuring active keystrokes. Now you can identify metrics such as the average length of time to draft a document – and set knowledge management goals for bringing that time down.

You can parlay that into pricing a matter. If you want to estimate the time it takes to complete a legal project, you have a better sense for how long it will take based on the staffing. Does Jane take longer than John to draft these documents? Is it right? How do I normalize the execution of this matter type? What adjustments do I need to make? This reveals a very different way of looking at things – and it can make a competitive difference.

One firm I was working with lost an RFP bid to another firm that priced a matter $200,000 more. Why did the more expensive firm win? Because they were able to show with detail how they arrived at those numbers based on multiple data points of their historic work of that type. The client felt more comfortable going with a more expensive firm because they were able to support how they arrived at their higher estimate.

There is a shocking amount of information available around user behavior, just like these examples, that have almost never been properly leveraged in firms to measure productivity and efficiency.

7) In all of your years of experience, are there any overarching mistakes firms make when designing or implementing KM?

JF: The biggest mistake that firms make is thinking change is easy. The easiest example is a search tool: you put a blank box in the middle of the page and hand it to an attorney.

This just couldn’t be easier because everyone knows what search is, right? Wrong.

It’s just not that simple because it doesn’t answer the question: what can I use this for?

If I’m an associate, how is this going to help me find documents relevant to the matter type that I’m working on, and have been used by the billing partner on this matter? That associate isn’t looking for the best documents, he or she is looking for those that were touched by that partner.

That’s just one type of search and there are a lot of examples like this because that’s real life. The lawyer is looking for a clause, a provision, a colleague, a peer, a past example, a similar example, across multiple criteria, and he or she doesn’t trust that the results are going to be reflective of their needs.

That’s the biggest mistake. Firms think since they figure it out, their attorneys will too, and that’s just not the case. You’ve got to have a 6-12-month adoption plan, with demographic segments, review dates, and parallel activities for communication, training and follow up.

I hear people say ‘make it simple and it’ll get adopted’ – I’ve just never seen it happen that way.

Mr. Fireman and his company can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter. We’ll release the details of his proposed session at the Momentum conference in the near future.

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