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How paralegals can head up KM projects for their firms.
(Originally appeared in print as "Managing Knowledge")
The success or failure of a law firm is highly dependent on two factors: the firm’s composite legal knowledge and its ability to effectively manage that body of knowledge. Despite this correlation, law firms in the United States generally have shown little interest in adopting formal knowledge management initiatives as part of their overall management strategies. However, economic and professional indicators suggest more managing partners gradually are realizing that utilizing KM practices can allow their firms to provide more cost-effective legal services that meet the needs of the client base, without sacrificing the professional quality of the services.
Although the majority of legal KM literature is targeted at attorneys, especially those involved in firm management, paralegals should learn as much as possible about KM. Paralegals who increase their understanding of legal concepts, available technology and work processes, can make a valuable contribution to the firm by identifying KM needs and developing initiatives. Paralegals with exceptional technology skills and a superior understanding of legal principles will find their role in the delivery of legal services is expanded as firms increase the utilization of KM tools. In larger firms, paralegals might be assigned to formal KM planning or implementation teams. In smaller firms, a paralegal also might wear the hat of knowledge manager in addition to, or in place of, other substantive legal work typically assigned to paralegals.
This article provides basic information about KM for paralegals interested in implementing it in their law offices.
Defining Types of Knowledge
Lawyers are in the business of selling knowledge. They do this when they use their expertise in drafting transactional documents, appellate briefs or estate planning documents. Even though they might not realize it, lawyers are using KM techniques when they “capture” the knowledge they have acquired and reuse it the next time they have to draft a contract, pleading or living trust. In the not-too-distant past, knowledge was captured almost exclusively in file cabinets where print copies of briefs and forms were stored. Usually, an issue index was tediously created and routinely updated using the ever-present IBM Selectric II, so the attorney could locate a brief or form dealing with a particular issue or point of law. A busy law practice would fill a room with brief banks and form files, making the indexing more and more tedious and less and less effective. Sadly, some firms still operate this way today, albeit using word processing software to index the firm’s knowledge holdings.
Today, the practice of law has evolved into the business of practicing law with firms using common business practices such as strategic management and marketing tools to stay competitive in the legal environment. Law firms also have started embracing technology to handle a broad spectrum of business and legal needs, including time and billing software, conflict-of-interest management, contact information, document collections and the firm’s calendar system. The time is ripe for the implementation of formal KM initiatives. However, not everyone — especially attorneys — really know what knowledge is or how it’s managed.
Knowledge is typically broken down into two categories: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge captured and stored in either a print or electronic format, such as document templates, briefs and memoranda on various points of law and transactional documents containing the preferred language for terms and conditions used in subsequent agreements. Explicit knowledge is fairly easy to capture, share and access.
Tacit knowledge exists in the mind of each individual; it’s what the person knows about a specific topic or process. Tacit knowledge is commonly referred to as oral tradition or tribal knowledge. For example, an attorney with years of experience in the courtroom has learned certain tricks of the trade he or she routinely uses in practice. The attorney doesn’t need to write these procedures down anywhere because they are just part of the routine. Obviously, tacit knowledge is much more difficult to capture, share and access.
Different firms and practice groups rely on different types of knowledge when providing services. All firms need legal knowledge, or the understanding of the legal principles and processes in the areas of law practiced by the firm. Large firms that offer services in many types of law and geographic locations can use firm knowledge to help clients find an attorney in a certain practice area or part of the country for representation in a matter or jurisdiction the client’s primary attorney doesn’t normally handle. Firm knowledge also is used when assigning projects requiring expertise in a specific substantive area.
“Client knowledge” is knowledge about the firm’s clients — whether they are corporations, small businesses or individuals — and understanding the client’s interests, positions and expectations. Maintaining an accurate client knowledge base also helps prevent conflict-of-interest problems and other potential malpractice issues.
Process knowledge is knowing how things are done, whether it’s knowing how to properly serve pleadings on out-of-state parties in an action or knowing all the steps required for due diligence in a real estate transaction. Process knowledge generally is tacit and requires extra effort to capture so the knowledge is disseminated to those who need to use it.
Cultural knowledge can have more than one meaning. The first is having an understanding of the firm’s culture, its business objectives, management style and the image the firm wants to project. The other facet of cultural knowledge is in the perception of the culture surrounding the substantive area of law the firm practices. Firms handling matters that are highly emotionally charged, such as domestic law, plaintiff’s personal injury and personal bankruptcies will need to have a cultural knowledge structure completely different from a firm specializing in business law, real estate transactions or employee benefit plans.
Capturing Firm Knowledge
The KM needs of each law firm or legal department are unique. However, there are a number of KM tools a firm or department can customize to meet its KM objectives. The most common KM tools and categories for which data can be captured are best practice collections, document and form templates and processes.
Best practice documents are documents the firm has prepared in response to a specific event or transaction. The firm maintains the “best” documents for other attorneys to use as examples of form and content. A synthesis is an annotated collection of best practices on a specific topic or issue. The annotations include notes about when the document was used in the past, for whom the document was drafted, the name of the author and any other information relevant to the original use or subsequent use of the document or portions thereof.
Document templates are similar to “fill-in-the-blank” forms. Some of the ways in which firms use document templates include form letters; simple contracts and wills; litigation documents such as Notice of Hearing or Notice of Taking of Deposition; discovery documents and other documents prepared repetitively based on an established format. Some form-intensive legal specialties, such as bankruptcy or tax work, purchase special software packages that allow attorneys or paralegals to prepare the required forms using a merge feature. The information contained in the client’s file on the computer automatically is merged into the form document.
Processes are the series of steps it takes to complete a project or accomplish a goal. The goal can be something fairly simple, such as making sure all parties in a lawsuit are served each time something is filed with the court, or something more complex such as a commercial real estate transaction.
After the knowledge management plan is formulated and the firm has decided what data needs to be captured, the firm must decide what hardware and software are needed to implement the plan. The array of available legal technology packages is overwhelming. Some firms use a different application to handle each aspect of their KM needs. Others rely on one centralized product such as a case management or matter management package, and utilize add-on features as additional needs are realized.
Paralegals are in a unique position to recommend or choose software applications. Much of a paralegal’s work involves utilizing a number of programs to conduct a myriad of tasks. An experienced paralegal will understand what the software needs to do and whether the need is met by a certain application or suite of applications. Other computer users in the firm might only be interested in entering data or the quality of an end product.
Firms that manage best practice collections frequently use a document management package or searchable database. Many databases allow full-text searches of stored documents. Others require users to formulate search queries from a pre-defined collection of words and phrases called taxonomies. Developing an effective taxonomy is a never-ending process as new phrases must be added and others become outdated and must be deleted or archived. Database applications that require taxonomies generally have modules included in the purchase price or can be acquired separately. These modules contain search query terms common to a particular area of law. The firm’s KM team then can customize the existing taxonomy rather than building one from the ground up. Developing or even modifying a taxonomy requires an extensive understanding of legal terms and phrases.
Form creators and generators are becoming more and more sophisticated, frequently using XML structure to broaden the utility of the application. However, many firms prefer to use word processing or standard office suite applications to create templates and mail-merge documents. When more complex applications are used, the responsibility for developing the forms frequently is outsourced to a technology firm or consultant. Unless the developer understands the unique needs of the legal world, the end product might not be what the firm envisioned, or even worse, the result might not be in compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
Process management is accomplished with applications that keep track of tasks, dates and resource allocations. Office suites and case management programs usually come with a calendaring program or task manager adequate for small firms or individual use. There also are applications specifically used to manage projects from start to finish, including cost accounting, generating charts and reports on various aspects of the project, and the creation of a generic timeline so future projects can be planned based on the time required by previous projects. Process management, whether done with a hand-drawn flow chart or a sophisticated project management software program, requires a complete understanding of the logistics of the process, the resources needed to complete the project according to established deadlines, and the ability to plan for contingencies that might arise during the course of the project.
KM is Not for Everyone
Although most professional services fields actively are using KM principles as a strategic management tool, the legal world is not yet completely convinced of the value of KM practices. Some attorneys are very territorial about the ownership of work product or client base. It’s very difficult to persuade these individuals to contribute to a firm-wide knowledge base of best practices. Some think using KM tools will stifle the creativity associated with drafting legal documents addressing unique legal issues.
Others don’t want to implement KM in a law firm because knowledge work is time consuming but not billable. Salaries and bonuses frequently are based on meeting and beating billable hour quotas; therefore, attorneys and paralegals have little incentive to invest valuable time in nonbillable work. However, those who use this argument should consider all the time that will be saved firm-wide once the KM system is up and running, thus allowing firm employees to be more efficient and increase their billable work.
At the other end of the spectrum are firms that attempt to launch a full-blown KM initiative without a thorough understanding of KM theories and how KM will benefit the firm. Managing partners who believe installing a certain software program on the firm’s network server will solve all the firm’s ills will be disappointed. Frequently, when this approach is taken, employees are not provided adequate training to learn to use KM systems effectively. Management becomes disenchanted with the program and refuses to allocate adequate resources for it to succeed. Then, the firm goes back to the old system of providing services that everyone understands, but isn’t really very effective or efficient. Don’t let your firm get caught in this trap. Make sure training time is included and enforced in the plan.
There are firms with a progressive attitude and proactive management style. These firms are successful because they recognize that to stay competitive, they must adopt new systems and procedures that enhance the quantity of work produced without sacrificing the quality. They also plan carefully before making dramatic changes. The following are factors firm management must consider when determining if the firm is ready for KM:
Leading the Way
Paralegals are in a unique position to assist in and even direct the development and implementation of a formal KM program. Because paralegals have an understanding of legal principles and practices, as well as the extraordinary organizational skills necessary to handle the logistics of a massive document production, they often are the best staff members to launch and sustain a successful KM initiative.
A paralegal who sees a need for a KM solution and would like to lead the project should prepare a well-researched, carefully thought-out proposal to present to the firm’s management committee or managing partner. In addition to convincing the firm’s management of the need for a KM program, the paralegal must provide justification that he or she is the correct person to lead the charge. The paralegal must demonstrate he or she has the technological know-how, the leadership abilities and a sincere interest in the project. Although a formal education in computer technology isn’t a prerequisite to paralegal work, an individual who wants to work in KM should consider participating in training sessions for the software applications being proposed.
There are several resources available to paralegals who wish to expand their understanding of KM in the law firm. “Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer” by Gretta Rusanow (published by ALM Publishing, 2003), and “Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms” by Matthew Parsons (published Oxford University Press, 2004) both provide a comprehensive look at the status of KM in law firms, in the United States and abroad. The Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has a number of articles archived on its Web site that address KM issues at www.abanet.org/lpm/home.shtml. A Google search for “knowledge management and law firms” returns more than 3 million results.
KM isn’t just a trend in legal management that will dissolve when the next fad emerges. A paralegal who arms him or herself with a solid background in KM theory and practice is making a wise investment in his or her professional future.
KM Software Connections
There are many knowledge management solutions available for firms of all sizes. Below are a few of the popular options available.
Linda A. Potter earned a bachelor of science degree in paralegal studies and a master of legal administration from the University of Great Falls, in Great Falls, Mont. She currently works as a paralegal for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. She is a member of the Legal Assistant Section of the State Bar of Michigan and co-chairs the section’s newsletter, The Michigan Paralegal. She also is an affiliate member of the American Bar Association including section memberships in the Public Sector Law Section and the Law Practice Management Section. She recently joined the Practice Management and Technology Core Groups of the ABA-LPM.
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