Opinion

The typical law firm knowledge management (KM) project scenario goes something like this: in phase one the firm will invest a huge chunk of money on search engines, document management systems, intranet portals and the review, refinement and categorisation of precedents to try to capture its internal know-how resources; in phase two, it will seek to extend the system's capability to search external KM sources, including business information news feeds and the ever-expanding volume of legal content published online by the likes of LexisNexis Butterworths, PLC, Sweet & Maxwell, Westlaw, Justis and Lawtel.

Unfortunately, because so many KM projects become bogged down in phase one, they never fully address the technical and logistical issues associated with phase two, a situation compounded by some misconceptions about external content.

The first myth is that all you need is a good search engine. Most are good at finding internal data, but external content is different, because the relative sizes of a typical firm's know-how collection and the vast repositories held by publishers are so different. This means a search that works well looking for documents in a collection of, say, 5,000 precedents, fails dismally when applied across the whole of Butterworths or Westlaw. Sadly, many firms burn their fingers here as they don't realise this until too late; the all-too-familiar result is a search that generates so many hits that the results are meaningless.

Because the major legal publishers invest so much time and effort in indexing, organising and categorising their content, what is needed to search these sources effectively is not a search engine designed to work with a mass of unstructured free text, but a system optimised for selecting, filtering and integrating content already structured to a high degree by the publisher.

The second myth is that capturing, storing and creating value from internal know-how is far more important than dealing with external content. In fact, some firms genuinely believe their investment in building up their own know-how repositories will in the longer term save them money on subscriptions to published content. To my knowledge, no firm has ever succeeded in achieving this. But where does this leave external content in relation to KM projects?

Everyone knows there is a wealth of valuable information available via law publishers' online services. What is not so well known is that a quiet revolution has been taking place over the past couple of years in how the publishers make this content available. Now, instead of expecting their users to log on to their powerful, highly functional (but frequently complex and difficult to use) online systems – and undertake hours of training in how to use each of these systems effectively – the major publishers have begun to release new interfaces known as application programming interfaces (APIs), which enable their law firm customers to take published content and display it as an integral part of their own intranets, portals and KM systems.

What this means is you can incorporate content from the likes of Butterworths and Westlaw directly within your own bespoke intranet; you can have 'brokered searching' across multiple internal and external information sources; and you can develop precisely customised email-alerting services for fee-earners.

So how do these opportunities fit in within the broader context of KM?

While many firms are agonising over whether their six or seven-figure investments in building their own internal KM systems have been worthwhile, they have so far failed to take full advantage of the opportunities now available, at a far lower cost, to make the most of their equally significant investments in subscriptions to published content.

So yes, some of the information stored in internal document, knowledge and know-how management systems represents the fruit of years of practice and experience – some of it will be truly unique. But why reinvent the wheel and build your own databases of material, which is already available from external sources that you already subscribe to, and which is now available in a format that provides you with the flexibility to use it as if it were your own?