Know chance

New technology and greater awareness mean there is an opportunity to drive the development of knowledge management in law firms

Andrew Woolfson
Andrew Woolfson

How has your firm’s attitude towards knowledge management changed in the past three years?

Andrew Woolfson, director of knowledge management and capability, RPC: At RPC we’ve realised that to look at the firm’s knowledge and how we manage things around this is key. It’s not so much a change, more a management understanding that this was the right time to do it. It’s really trying to build the concept of a firmwide team.

The firm is embracing and endorsing the need to exploit knowledge management. It’s accepted that lawyers need to productively manage what they do during the day, and understood they need to manage what they do with the business of law rather than just in the domain of law. It’s much easier these days to understand knowledge management without talking about it.

Lucy Dillon, director of knowledge management, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP): There’s been a step-change in the firm’s approach to knowledge management in the past three years.

The recession has been good for knowledge management. Clients have had less transactional work and knowledge management has offered ways to maintain and grow our client relationships in the absence of the usual dealflow.

Training, workshops, document reviews, legal updating and horizon scanning are always popular with clients. The knowledge management team has been at the forefront of designing and delivering these services and as a result has extended its relationships with senior members of the firm and, more directly, with clients.

Also, BLP is a firm with a reputation for innovation and the knowledge management team understands this, whether it’s in the development of our knowledge, the way we work or our methods of communication.

Sam Dimond, group director of knowledge, Norton Rose: It’s recognised as being less about databases and more about knowledge as a strategic asset. As Norton Rose Group has grown internationally through mergers, knowledge creation and sharing has become critical to working as one firm and having a deeper understanding of our clients’ global industries.

Steven Turnbull, partner, Shepherd & Wedderburn: We have greater scrutiny of the costs and benefits of internal knowledge management investment, and more reliance on externally sourced materials – especially given their improving quality – but a reduced reliance on externally sourced training due to cost.

Steven Turnbull
Steven Turnbull

What sort of issues are top of the knowledge management agenda at the moment?

Woolfson: It’s knowledge of our clients and the people we know across our various relationships – it’s about ’know-who’.

Because of the nature of some of the new social media tools that are well-suited to both supporting individual relationships and enabling insights to be shared and followed across networks, it’s asking how we can deal with these in the context of business development needs and how we align the needs of the individual with the needs of the firm.

Dillon: The flip side of a more visible knowledge management function is the increased number of projects we are involved in. Making sure we continue to meet the needs of the practice and our clients with existing resources is a challenge.

As we develop and deliver more tools and materials, these need to be continually maintained so they are up-to-date and accessible. Alongside this, we enjoy the challenge of creating solutions to support our developing practice.

Dimond: Using knowledge to work in more efficient ways while maintaining a high level of quality; sharing and developing ideas across the network; and being able to find the right expertise while trying to minimise information overload. For example, connecting our international experts in emerging areas of law to share their approaches to solving clients’ problems.

Turnbull: Using knowledge to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the firm’s capabilities; effective harnessing of social networking tools; externally sourced current awareness information online; and keeping within a demanding budget, with some suppliers insensitive to cost pressures on law firms’ budgets.

Do you think lawyers are aware of the importance of knowledge management to the firm? What can be done to increase their awareness of the issues around knowledge management?

Woolfson: They’re aware of the importance of being more productive, they’re aware of the importance of sharing what they do and they’re aware of the importance of creating new compelling content and insight, but there’s a whole raft of views about what knowledge management is.

If you look at the way the firm has managed communication and the tools we’ve put in place, they all highlight the importance of these tools, whereas a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have done.

Dillon: We have moved beyond this question. Client-led knowledge management has put knowledge management front-of-mind for many who had not focused on it previously. Suddenly, knowledge managers have the key to unlocking a new area of client relationships.

Our younger generation of partners ’get it’. They have grown up with know-how and training as part of the firm’s DNA and understand the difference they make. The need to fight the knowledge management corner has all but disappeared at BLP.

The relationships that the knowledge management team have with members of their practice groups, from senior partner to first seat trainee – illustrated by the feedback I receive – speak volumes about the importance the firm places on the knowledge management function.

Dimond: All lawyers instinctively value knowledge as being at the heart of what they do, but they are incredibly busy so understandably all too often see knowledge activity as something that can be delegated to the excellent knowledge lawyers they have in their departments.

While the latter are essential, knowledge needs to be seen as a vital part of every lawyer’s job. Knowledge professionals can help lawyers remember this by sharing success stories where an individual’s or the firms’ knowledge has led to a lawyer doing better work, solving problems faster and ultimately demonstrating their expertise.

Turnbull: Our lawyers are aware of the importance of knowledge management – their job revolves around rapid access to relevant and accurate information. But they need to be reminded constantly that, especially in a firm with limited knowledge management resources, they are part of the team and have to play an active part in submitting relevant information, feeding back on existing materials and identifying gaps where new materials need to be created.

Sam Dimond
Sam Dimond

What should be the main focus of a firm’s knowledge management team?

Woolfson: The reality is that it’s about clients – being client-centred in all we do, and how we work in a modern way. What differentiates us isn’t what we do but how we do it. Some of the knowledge management work enables that, being innovative in the way we do things with a view to creating a positive impact on our revenue and market share.

It fits into the way our brand is being developed. There’s no such thing in my mind as a knowledge management strategy, there’s business strategy and there’s brand; the tools and techniques myself and the team bring are there to serve that.

Dillon: Our main focus should always be to support the firm’s strategy and to focus on the needs of the business, whatever they may be. All tasks should link back to how we are helping to achieve this.

Our skill lies in identifying legal developments, assessing their impact, advising accordingly and communicating internally and to our clients in a way that adds value to their business.

I am lucky to manage a forward-looking and creative team of people who remain close to the business and whose ambition is to do things better and differently in order to make life simpler for our clients. No room for ivory towers here!

Dimond: Obviously, it should be driven by the firm’s business objectives. Following our recent expansion, for us that includes unifying our international systems and thinking globally. For our knowledge team this means ensuring consistent quality across the network, exploiting our global expertise and using technology to share know-how across the world. And, of course, a knowledge management team, perhaps more than any other, needs to truly collaborate with other teams including business development, IT, finance and HR.

Turnbull: Delivering a cost-effective service that is aligned with the firm’s strategy.

Lucy Dillon
Lucy Dillon

How has technology helped the development of knowledge management?

Woolfson: A lot. We’ve put in a social business platform called ’Edge’ that enables us to use the social media tools. We’ve brought some of these into the business in a way that is customised to how lawyers operate and ensures we can share what’s going on in the business at the same time.

These social business techniques have been crucial for us. It’s about a modern way of thinking and keeping an eye on the future.

Dillon: New technology has made communication easier which, in turn, makes sharing knowledge and information easier. However, technology is only a tool – the challenge is to bring people to use these tools and understand their benefits.

Change in law firms is notoriously slow, but now that people are able to use technology at work that is usually associated with personal use, take-up is generally quicker. The advent of blog technology, Jammer, Twitter and the iPad have introduced a whole new approach to internal and client communications. For example, our tax team tweeted and blogged our commentary on the recent Budget. The brave new world has arrived.

Dimond: It has made it more important than ever for the knowledge team to have a good relationship with the chief information officer and the IT team.

Social media is increasingly playing a role in knowledge creation, capture and sharing, but it is still finding its feet. Great search capabilities across multiple databases and systems are now paramount, and replacing the old focus on a firmwide knowledge database.

Paradoxically new technologies have resulted in a flood of information and noise, so being able to distil and filter what is most important is critical – using knowledge to turn information into something valuable.

Turnbull: You can do more things more quickly. There’s greater flexibility in designing and using knowledge management tools (such as video for training, or ’webinars’) and a shift towards electronic delivery of training.

Information is power

Law firms now rely more heavily than ever on managing and sharing the vast amount of knowledge created every day. Briefings, reports and comments are being disseminated more widely. This week’s panel of knowledge management directors explain how their roles are changing.