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Knowledge Management Innovation in the Legal Sector: The Value of Interdisciplinary Teams
By Camille Reynolds, Senior Director of Knowledge Management, Fenwick & West LLP
Law firms and the legal market as a whole continue to endure accelerating change. The convergence of technology, evolving client needs and the rise of competitors in many sectors inside the legal eco system are at the heart of this accelerating change. Law firms have traditionally represented the pinnacle of knowledge work. As with any highly specialized profession, lawyers spend years developing expertise in their given specialty whether it is tax, litigation, intellectual property, employment, general corporate work or one of the many sub specialties that make up these larger areas.
Lawyers provide advice based on the law, their deep past experience, the experience of their colleagues and the fact pattern specific to the client. In many ways lawyers are the original knowledge workers. So, what role can knowledge management plays in a law firm? How can it directly benefit clients and contribute to efficiency and revenue growth?
Knowledge Management as Process and Technology Integrators
In a law firm environment where the most valuable asset of the organization is the knowledge and expertise of individual lawyers, knowledge management professionals can amplify that expertise through process, people and systems. They can capture and reuse lawyers’ expertise in efficient and transformative ways to solve client challenges quickly and effectively. Knowledge management is not only content management, tagging, search and recall; it also deeply understands both the process and subject matter expertise possessed by lawyers and other legal staff. Knowledge management professionals with diverse backgrounds working side by side with lawyers inside the practice, can link together process, knowledge and experience effectively. Creating aligned processes across the firm that efficiently brings together diverse skill sets in pursuit of a common goal.
At our firm we like to say there are no KM projects, only firm and client projects, where KM can contribute to the larger goal of delivering high quality legal services to our cutting edge technology and life sciences clients. This mantra is a good reminder to our team that we cannot solve every challenge. We must work together with our peers in other operational departments, such as finance, marketing, IT, professional development and HR. KM professionals themselves often come from varied backgrounds and that makes the team much stronger.
Knowledge management is not only content management, tagging, search and recall, it is also deeply understanding both the process and subject matter expertise
For example, on our KM team we have former practicing attorneys, dual degreed researchers with law and business or information science graduate degrees, creative writers and technologists. Some of our team has a combo of two or three of these.
Interdisciplinary Teams: Connecting Dots and Seeing the Big Picture
This tapestry of diverse academic backgrounds and varied work experience forms the basis of a team that is well situated to connect dots. They can see the big picture inside the individual business unit or practice group, the larger law firm organization and a legal ecosystem which includes vendors and clients. As changes to the legal market continue to accelerate, law firms and their member attorneys are consistently asked to do more, faster and for a predictable price from clients. High quality legal advice cannot be delivered effectively by cutting corners or automating every piece of the work. This advice helps build tomorrow's companies that deliver services in some of the most important sectors of our society (health, financial services, technology, transportation, hospitality and more). They cannot grow without the advice yet they cannot provide unlimited financial resources either. Automation, technology mediation and client self-service are ways to maintain high quality and provide cost flexibility to clients.
By identifying information assets the KM professional can help practicing attorneys think through how the work is created, delivered and maintained. How does the client interact with the advice or work product? Is the work repeatable? Does it have intrinsic value outside answering the specific question? Can it be applied to similarly situated clients? How does increased reliance on technology and automation impact how junior lawyers are trained?
These are the questions we tackle, discuss and consider with every project we collaborate on with our practicing attorneys. Process improvement and process standardization are always at the center. However, they have to be balanced with customization of workflow that is specific to the business unit or practice. Each business unit or practice often is serving very different needs for a client. The nature of how the work is created and delivered also varies between practice specialties so there is no one size fits all approach. Having knowledge management professionals with varied backgrounds in technology, business, law and humanities provides a foundation for the work we do with our lawyers in building process, platforms and systems to harvest legal knowledge and deliver legal services.
Role of Vendors in KM Strategy & Service Delivery
As law firms continue to respond to clients’ changing needs it is also necessary to work with vendors directly in new ways. Many vendors could be potential competitors so law firm KM professionals have a role and responsibility in understanding the larger legal marketplace, the players and who might be a competitor in the future. Watching these developments and working closely with vendors to collaborate on customized solutions to benefit clients is another role the KM professional can play. Partnering with vendors can enable firms to respond more seamlessly to client needs by integrating attorney workflows into existing tools. This kind of close collaboration can be another differentiator for firms in an increasingly competitive market.
Law firms and the legal ecosystem continue to experience accelerating change. Knowledge management professionals with varied backgrounds are key enablers for delivering legal services using flexible methods that directly meet client needs and balance costs. By having cross disciplinary, KM teams, firms and organizations will be well positioned to move with agility into the future and continue to innovate the sector from the inside out.