Age of know-how

In an increasingly competitive and demanding business environment, law firms have come to recognise the economic value of managing the internal knowledge, experience and expertise daily generated and acquired in the course of client work.

This “know-how” can become the source of decisive competitive advantages for a firm. Know-how provides the firm with the ability to differentiate its services from competitors, to enhance the quality and range of its client services and to offer innovative specialist services.

The challenge is to maximise the value of a firm's unique knowledge base. Here, search methodologies, hypertext, browsers, intranets, extranets, agents, push technology and data feeds have become buzz words in a world of legal know-how professionals.

Know-how development projects are springing up everywhere. To extract full value from them, careful design-analysis is called for. The firm must have clear objectives, match its information requirements with its practice goals and put in place mechanisms for managing the changes that go hand-in-hand with a sophisticated know-how development.

All firms agree that their precedent collections and checklists are a part of the know-how repository, and most also include client advice letters, instructions to counsel, internal memoranda and practice notes.

In some firms the definition is broadened to include other internally generated know-how, such as training materials, contact information, industry gossip, recommended foreign legal contacts and directories of intra-firm expertise. The annotated indexes of hypertext links to Web sites that some firms have developed are themselves valuable know-how items.

Externally-generated information also adds value to a firm's business. This might include counsels' opinion, certain official publications of government and regulatory agencies, consultative documents, external memoranda, case reports, company financial data, newsletters, press releases, conference papers and papers from professional journals.

While some of this remains in hard copy or CD-Rom, much can now be accessed through external data feeds via the Internet. For such material, the development of a know-how system must attend to important copyright considerations.

While know-how is firm-specific, the general watchword must be quality. It is essential to ensure its relevance to the business, its accuracy, its currency and its dynamic character.

In the context of the legal profession this requirement necessitates the design of validation mechanisms, the establishment of regular review procedures and professional legal analysis of materials.

The latter is especially important as it provides added value to already established holdings on an ongoing basis. It is a mistake to regard know-how as a static data bank.

When it comes to designing IT delivery systems for legal know-how, the choice depends on what the firm is trying to achieve and on its current and planned technological environment. Sophisticated and powerful search engines index every word of text and offer intelligent searching mechanisms to assist retrieval.

Internet and intranet technology has opened up possibilities for cross-platform and one-stop access, allowing fee earners to search for information across different internal and external data repositories. A firm's Web site can become a publication centre for selective know-how material, and the development of extranet functionality can provide a tailored know-how information service for clients.

A key requirement is that the internal know-how system houses a well-organised and structured bank of data holdings. By organising know-how collections – for example, by department, practice area, legal subject and document type – and deploying a controlled vocabulary of indexing terms, it is possible to ensure that the system is easy to navigate when using hypertext links and to enhance precision of retrieval.

Ease of use is essential if know-how systems are to achieve their potential of becoming an key tool for lawyers. Whatever user interface, it must provide a simple, intuitive way for lawyers to get answers to both specific and more general questions.

None of this, however, replaces the need for good training and support for users. User-friendliness can be integrated into regularised monitoring and development programmes to ensure that know-how systems stay in tune with evolving business and user needs.

As the business environment of law firms evolves in keeping with the community whose needs they serve, it seems that the opening-up of new horizons may mean that know-how provision has come of age.