How well informed is your firm?

Failing to manage your information properly can have a negative impact on the bottom line. What are you doing about it?

What do we Know?

The legal profession rightly prides itself on its deep technical expertise and the sound professional judgment it can bring to the variety of business challenges faced by clients.

It also applies tried and tested ways of handling information, be that sensitive commercial information supplied by a client (perhaps the details of a proposed merger or acquisition, or a new consumer product) or its own information (the information derived from that deep technical expertise) such as know-how; templates and other specialist materials.

Information (or rather the value that can be derived from the conscious process of managing, protecting and exploiting information) lies at the very heart of successful legal practice. That’s much is surely a ‘given’.

Information is a valuable asset to the firm and so, naturally, all firms manage and control their information effectively at all times and extract maximum commercial value from it.

Because lawyers are also bound by a professional duty of confidence, and that duty is inculcated into us during the training process and is well understood by each individual lawyer in the firm, it might seem a fair assumption that confidentiality (and the broader issue of ‘information management’) is one of the few things we really don’t have to worry about.

But is that a well-founded assumption?

Do we know what we know?

Well, perhaps not.

What we find from speaking to them and exploring their existing approach is that information management is often regarded by firms purely as a compliance issue rather than a commercial one. In other words, the emphasis is on not sharing information but instead on keeping it locked away.

But even in terms of compliance it will readily become apparent to many readers of this article that beyond putting in place the standard governance arrangements that are discharged by the Colp and Cofa roles, actually there is very little governance around information management. Or if it exists, then it sits in a number of discrete areas of the firm that rarely speak to each other. Very often, no single individual in the firm has accountability or responsibility for information management.

The end result is that firms compartmentalise their information and fail to develop processes for information sharing. That has a negative effect on the firm’s bottom line.

Your firm has spent a lot of time and expertise developing that information. Surely it merits both protection and exploitation? In fact they are two sides of the same coin; if it’s the firm’s information you want to know it has been identified; that someone is responsible for making good use of it and ensuring it does not fall into the wrong hands (be that the competition or a disgruntled employee who doesn’t have the ‘need to know’.)

How does your firm shape up in this respect?

When firms seek advice on how to address this issue it is often as a consequence of an unhappy incident, perhaps one involving a breach of the data protection rules, or an inadvertent breach of a client’s confidence during a multi-party commercial transaction. These things happen. They seem to be happening more often.

Since we live in the ‘information age’ and have all the technology we could possibly want to enable the quick and inexpensive transfer of information, it is perhaps not surprising that more breaches are occurring. Typically the technology becomes the focus of attention and whilst it is certainly part of the picture (technology is both a part of the problem and a part of the solution), what is most effective is an holistic approach, one that draws together both the technical and, more pressingly, the non-technical solutions.

Instead of thinking purely about what can go wrong (ie how might a disgruntled member of staff steal a project ‘bible’ or email himself copies of sensitive advice notes to a personal g-mail account) it is vital to align those compliance issues and risks with your commercial and business development strategies. Why? Because information is an asset. It needs managing so you can profit from it. Any FD will also be delighted to know that your information assets are finally being put to good commercial use too.

In order to do that, the leadership team should ensure that a member of the board or a senior partner is given sole responsibility for the firm’s information management.

Previously invisible know-how; old data that hasn’t found its way into the new DMS; knowledge that sits quietly in the background, not making its presence felt- all can be brought into the spotlight, managed and exploited as it should be.

This often proves to be an untapped source of new income streams.

Key to unlocking this potential for new income generation is placing accountability for effective information management in the hands of a single member of the leadership team.

If your governance arrangements include a board, then it should be a board member (executive), someone with the authority to make things happen and promote the initiative.

Once that person is established in the role it becomes relatively straightforward to generate momentum across the partnership and the whole firm based on a clear, concise plan of action.

What will those actions involve? Well, they will cover multiple aspects of your practice, from HR and Knowledge Management to compliance, risk management, IT and Finance. In other words it is a cross-cutting function and one which all areas of the firm need to support.

The tools that you’ll use will vary, but the skills, standards and characteristics of the solution are consistent and can turn the firm into an ‘information hub’, making your information assets usable and billable.

The secret is bringing the firm together under the banner of Information Management, making it a strategic priority so that it can compete more effectively in the information society.

Tim Heywood, legal consultant, Templar Executives