Know way

Knowledge management is an increasingly important function in offering quality client service, and the tools involved are getting more sophisticated

Janis Law
Janis Law

Q: Do you feel that the knowledge management (KM) function at your firm is supported by senior partners and management?

Janis Law, director of best practice and knowledge, Clarke Willmott: Yes. We are a large firm and the level of hands-on support varies from partner to partner, from practice area to practice area and from time to time, according to the individual, their needs and the non-fee-earning time they have available.

Just as some people are particularly good at rainmaking or marketing, others are good at getting involved in KM activities, whether that is producing precedent documents, delivering training sessions or preparing legal updates or marketing literature. We try to play to people’s strengths by encouraging them to get involved in a way that is comfortable for them.

Differing needs also dictate whether and how people get involved. It all depends on their circumstances and what their focus is at any given time. They may have a lot of juniors in the team, need to offer fixed fees or want to become more efficient, in which case precedents and training take on more importance. Marketing content or client added-value takes priority if they’re looking to generate more work, raise their profile in an area or win a tender. KM should support the strategy of the firm and the teams within it, so it’s inevitable that the way teams will interact with us will vary and that we, in turn, will provide support to them in differing ways.

Would I like more support and involvement from partners and lawyers? Yes. However, 100 per cent hands-on involvement from all lawyers all of the time is unrealistic given the many other pressures they are under. From speaking to other KM professionals in different firms I think we enjoy an equivalent, and perhaps higher, level of support from our lawyers than many other firms.

Jessica Magnusson, head of knowledge, Osborne Clarke: Yes, more than ever. KM is at the heart of our strategy. Investment in knowledge and development programmes, and ensuring our lawyers are technically excellent as well as commercially astute is a top priority. The KM function is a hub for facilitating knowledge-sharing and delivering legal training, and our partners expect lawyers to be contributors to know-how as well as attending and delivering training.

The increase in the minimum CPD to 25 hours per year is another example of the firm’s commitment. Equally, the appointment of new, dedicated KM professionals is a reflection of the support of the KM function.

Lorna Ferguson, head of knowledge and learning, Bird & Bird: Yes. People at all levels see knowledge-sharing and collaboration as a priority. There’s a real appetite to be connected and showcase expertise both internally and externally.

Our senior leadership team ensures we leverage all our legal and business expertise for our clients through our knowledge programme, which emphasises dialogue and collaboration.

Our partners and teams have seen the success that collaborative technologies such as our online client portals can bring in achieving superior client service. They encourage and support our team to deliver improvements in this area, as well as enhancing our networks and harvesting and sharing our best content.

Q How can law firms leverage clients’ know-how to improve their KM?

Law: This year the KM function has been more involved with delivering knowledge to our clients – for example we manage our client extranet offering. As a result we increasingly speak directly with clients to identify what information they want us to deliver through the extranet and how this is presented and accessed. This gives us a user perspective on our systems and how we structure and manage our knowledge.

I also have advised some of our clients on their knowledge systems, particularly when they are starting from scratch. But I haven’t yet had any discussions with clients who have more developed KM systems than ours.

I’ve often spoken to KM professionals in other industries about their KM systems and it has been interesting to see how they have met the challenges in their particular industries. It’s also reassuring to hear that many of the challenges they face – getting people to become involved, capturing tacit knowledge, developing a knowledge-sharing culture, taxonomies – are the same as we face and the solutions they use are often similar to those we implement.

Ferguson: Clients are keen to share technical know-how and collaborate with us around our key sectors. Our deep industry knowledge makes us well-placed to do this. We can still learn a lot too.

Increasingly, clients want to share commercial knowledge, for example around business management. Creating opportunities for us to learn alongside our clients and listening to what their priorities are, how their businesses are run and what their challenges are helps us prioritise and target our knowledge and learning activities. We like to create as many opportunities for knowledge-sharing and networking as possible.

Q: What developments have you made to your KM function in the past year?

Law: Our focus has been on making what we know about our clients more accessible within the firm by bringing together the information held in our disparate databases – financial, marketing and document management – into one area on our intranet. This makes it easier for our lawyers to get an overview of what we know about the client, for example before attending client meetings.

Efficiency has also been key this year. We have fewer KM professionals in the firm now compared to five years ago, which has made us make better use of the systems at our disposal. We’ve always had a policy of giving our fee-earners access to electronic information and encouraging them to self-serve where they can. Every month we have trainers from one of our database suppliers come to our offices to deliver training to us and to fee-earners so we can use these resources fully.

As a KM function we have looked at our own efficiency – reviewing our use of our library management software and streamlining many of our processes.

We are also increasingly using consultant professional support lawyers (PSLs) to service the KM needs of different practice areas. Our consultant PSLs work on a freelance basis and focus on specific KM areas, such as producing only marketing content or legal updates. Internal PSLs can often get pulled off track by ‘can you just do this little thing for me’ requests from partners. Our consultant PSLs seem to be less affected by this so they manage to deliver consistently what they have been asked to. Using consultant PSLs also provides flexibility, as a smaller practice area that could not justify employing a full-time PSL may be able to justify employing a consultant for one or two days a week or to assist with a project.

Magnusson: In the past year we have made many changes, but a significant one has been to focus more on our PSLs and better align KM resources. By introducing dedicated KM paralegals and PAs we have freed up our PSLs to focus on high-end work. We are also playing to PSLs’ strengths by involving them in firmwide initiatives. The refreshed PSL meetings have become an important platform for sharing know-how across departments. This has helped increase collaboration.

Lorna Ferguson
Lorna Ferguson

Ferguson: We have plans to reinvigorate our knowledge-sharing platforms and create an environment that allows the necessary behaviours for knowledge-sharing to become second nature.

As the knowledge and learning functions are one here, we are integral to the firm’s culture. Our people know their knowledge contributions are fundamental to their own career success and that of the firm.

 Q: How can you capture the knowledge held in lawyers’ heads, gained from experience, which is not necessarily written down?

Law: I don’t have any magic answer to this question, which has vexed far better minds than mine. This is very difficult to do systemically so you have to accept that it will be ad hoc – the watercooler phenomenon to a large extent.

We try to facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge through encouraging people to submit to our knowledge bank and by developing close working relationships within teams. Transference of tacit knowledge happens naturally when people work closely together. They develop the trust to share their knowledge. As they work in a common environment they speak the same language and can more easily see when they know something that would be helpful for others.

We encourage our lawyers to share their experiences in knowledge-sharing and training sessions. Many of these are held cross-office, through video conferencing facilities. Although many people initially find using video conferencing creates a barrier, the more it is used, the easier it becomes. We also hold training and social events to give people the opportunity to meet each other face-to-face, as once people have met each other, knowledge-sharing becomes much easier.

We have an expertise locator database so our lawyers can easily find the expert they need. Our knowledge workers – information managers or PSLs – are also great conduits to connect those who want to know with those who know.

Magnusson: To capture tacit knowledge and training sessions we often record and store these sessions as videos and podcasts on our intranet. The knowledge team does most of the editing. Having this available in-house offers flexibility and is cost-effective compared with using external specialists.

Ferguson: The knowledge inside a lawyer’s head is never easily captured. Knowledge gained from experience results in opinions, insights and predictions among other things. This type of knowledge is most useful in real-time; clients are interested in what we think now and what the future looks like.

So really the question here is – how do we enable lawyers to regularly share what they know and make it easy for others to access this knowledge? It’s important not to be too prescriptive. Forms and processes can be a barrier to uncovering this type of knowledge.

There are a variety of ways this more unstructured knowledge can be shared, for example via seminars, lunchtime networking sessions, social media and online collaboration. Of course, providing the mechanism is only half the battle – it has to be done in conjunction with inspiring people to want to share. This means an emphasis on incentives, recognition and clear expectations.