By Carlos García-Egocheaga.
We are seeing renewed vigour for knowledge management (KM) in law firms globally, especially given the last couple of years we’ve all had. At long last, lawyers have come to recognise the value of KM in the most impactful way, as they looked for better ways to access information and collaborate, often across offices and jurisdictions in a global pandemic. The upshot is that law firms are now viewing KM as a business discipline, making investments to acquire technology and talent. According to the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Economic Index, KM spending increased by 5.1% in Q2 2021, compared to the corresponding period last year.
With the scope of KM requirement now wider – for example, the need for multi-lingual and multi-jurisdictional capability is ever more important – the biggest KM-related challenge law firms face is to simplify the complexity of this discipline so that knowledge is easily findable and consumable. Effective and efficient document classification capability sits at the core of this challenge.
To illustrate, there are AI-based web services that can automatically classify documents, but as yet this capability doesn’t extend across jurisdictions. In Europe, there are technology vendor champions who provide country-specific capability, but the solutions aren’t applicable in other geographies. A solution may be able to classify documents in French in France, but that doesn’t mean that it will be suitable for the Belgium jurisdiction, despite French being a major language in the country.
So, against this backdrop, what can law firms do to create a holistic KM discipline that works equally well at a jurisdictional level and a firm-wide level?
KM can’t be ‘all or nothing’
The secret to development and meaningful large-scale adoption of KM in firms lies in incremental innovation. Far too often, firms want to create a complete all singing all dancing KM system right from the start, which is not only a mammoth task, but also difficult to get right. In fact, I would go as far as to say that such an attempt is almost certainly set to fail.
Instead, adopting an opportunistic approach to building KM capability, based on business priorities, is much more wholesome. Fundamentally, this means building the KM system, practice area by practice area. If your firm’s key specialism is in M&A, then it makes sense to focus on building a deep taxonomy in this area first and foremost, then continually maintaining that priority whilst simultaneously building out other taxonomies (e.g., Labour Law, International Relations) based
on their order of importance for business.
The quality of taxonomies deserves mention because this is where the firm’s knowledge resides. Using the M&A example above, whilst adopting an ‘off the shelf’ type, generalised taxonomy for this practice area may be a quicker and easier option, it’s worth investing the time and effort in devising a taxonomy that is unique to the firm. This will ensure that the taxonomy truly captures the firm’s knowledge pertaining to that space.
With technology, go global; with approach go local
In the same vein, creating a single multi-jurisdiction, multi-language KM system is folly. The issue isn’t technology. Today technology is advanced enough to create a single system, but one centralised KM solution will simply not deliver value, which in turn will impact adoption. Despite being a global law firm, in every country typically, the regional offices have different specialisms and expertise. Global firm ‘X’ in the UK may be recognised for banking litigation, but in Finland may be a reputed specialist in litigation for the oil and gas sector. Hence, the approach of the two offices will need to be different as they build their KM systems.
Once the country specific KM systems are established, subsequently the firm can look to create a connected, umbrella KM system, with language and jurisdiction-specific solutions underlying it. To illustrate the need and value of such an approach, here’s an example – a global KM system may be sufficient for say high level M&A related international business, but if lawyers need to use the solution for knowledge pertaining to an intellectual property case in Germany, a generalised repository will fall short as IP laws vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction.
Additionally, aside from internal knowledge sources, there will be jurisdiction-specific external knowledge sources too that need to be integrated into the firm’s KM system. This will ensure that the firm is able to take advantage of multiple, local technology and web services providers who are developing innovative technology within their specific markets. Such KM systems, that provide deep knowledge derived from internal and external sources, will deliver significant value to lawyers, thereby encouraging adoption of KM organically. And of course, the more value the system provides, the more users contribute to it and the richer it becomes as time goes on.
Equally, firms should also consider making lawyers’ contribution to the KM repository effortless and even invisible to them. How? Establish rules that provide “triggers” to help the KM department to automatically identify potential knowledge documents. For example, a particular type of document that is saved as “final” in the document management system could be a “knowledge” piece for inclusion in the KM system. To enforce this, a rule could be set that the document management system would allow lawyers to share certain types of documents only if they were marked as “final”. This is easy to do as in actuality, knowledge potentially resides in just one to five percent of the overall documents generated.
The reality is that KM is complex, but least due to technology. The complexity comes from the nature of the legal work and its innumerable nuances arising from jurisdiction-based regulations, laws, language, and so on – which is perhaps why as yet, firms haven’t even scratched the surface of the business value that KM can deliver to them. Firms need to find simple ways of addressing those complexities and the best way to do so is by adopting a smart and incremental approach to the development of the KM discipline.
Frequently, firms start from a high level, and soon find that as they start adding in other sources and services, across jurisdictions and languages, their KM repositories and taxonomies have lost the most important thing – i.e., reliability of information. The intricacy of information and connections becomes too dense to make sense of.
Hence, going the other way – i.e., starting small from the ground and building upwards – will ensure controlled development of the discipline, whilst all the time delivering value as the capability scales. It will create a strong foundation for KM alongside clarity on what the building blocks should be to achieve the end goal, both at the jurisdictional and global level.lawyers, thereby encouraging adoption of KM organically. And of course, the more value the system provides, the more users contribute to it and the richer it becomes as time goes on.
About the author
Carlos García-Egocheaga, CEO of Lexsoft has 25 years of experience in the technology sector. Carlos García-Egocheaga is responsible for driving the strategic direction and expansion of the overall business globally.
Furthermore he oversees all aspects of Lexsoft including the P&L, HR, legal and business development.