From enterprise-wide support roles to constantly updated archives, find out how firms are tackling proprietary information oversight.
In recent years, some law firms’ internal knowledge management efforts have been increasingly influenced by external factors. Driven by a desire for more efficient legal service delivery — and an understanding of what firms are doing to achieve it — knowledge management practices have become top of mind for more clients.
Owner Chicago Journalist Media
It’s not uncommon, for instance, for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s knowledge offerings to come up in pitches, according to Ruth Musgrave, Global Head of Knowledge for the firm’s global transactions practice.
“It's something that’s often been part of the discussion with clients,” Musgrave says. “Sometimes they ask what can they expect in terms of education opportunities — what briefings will they get? Can they sign up for seminars?” She notes they also ask what the firm does to train staff. “They want to know the lawyers that will be working on their transactions will be fantastically trained and up to date.”
In today’s tight job and client services markets, a law firm’s knowledge resources can be a key way to distinguish it from its competitors.
As a result, numerous firms are making knowledge-related investments. In the third quarter of 2021, expenses related to knowledge management and library service increased by an average of 5.3% compared to the same time period in 2020, according to the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Index. Knowledge management spending also rose during the second quarter of 2021.
ASSIGNING IN-HOUSE KNOWLEDGE DUTIES
Knowledge management can encompass various subjects and types of content, including guidance on how to handle a specific type of matter as well as information about staff members, white papers and other thought leadership materials.
Some firms have appointed dedicated individuals or groups to oversee and augment their internal knowledge resources — potentially a law librarian, for example, or someone in a brand-new knowledge-oriented position.
ALA’s Annual Compensation and Benefits Survey revealed the industry had added a number of new knowledge management-related roles in 2019, bearing titles such as knowledge/experience management technology administrator and knowledge management technology analyst, with responsibilities that involve supporting knowledge management processes and leading efforts to capture and maintain experience information.
“Knowledge collateral — such as curated collections of materials on particular topics like climate change mitigation, which could include external regulation items, client presentations and other types of content — are stored electronically so firm members can easily access all relevant elements.”
Freshfields’ team of knowledge lawyers perform a number of information-related tasks within the global 2,800-plus-lawyer firm. The work can include providing updates on legal market developments; briefings, blogs and other information used in client outreach efforts; and internal training.
Knowledge collateral — such as curated collections of materials on particular topics like climate change mitigation, which could include external regulation items, client presentations and other types of content — are stored electronically so firm members can easily access all relevant elements.
Having a knowledge team that can pull information together on a large scale is important for firms with locations in multiple countries, according to Caroline Doherty de Novoa, Global Head of Knowledge for Freshfields’ dispute resolution practice.
“There has been an evolution of the knowledge function, and it’s very much not a back-office, just-managing-resources function and hasn't been for a long time,” she says. “We want to make sure if we’re looking at a risk topic, we’re looking at the whole 360-degree view of that risk.”
Along with lawyers who’ve practiced for years, the firm’s knowledge function also includes professionals who are dedicated to research and help with content management “to make sure the wheels are all turning and the taxonomy works,” Doherty de Novoa says.
“There needs to be a fair amount of governance, as well, to make sure things are organized in a way people can find them — [and] it continues to work,” she says. “Because any database or content repository just can get out of hand if you don’t have that.”
STOCKPILING AND SHARING DATA
A number of firms have obtained or produced technological tools and procedures to help facilitate the knowledge management process.
Jon F. Doyle is Founder and Managing Shareholder of International Law Solutions, a boutique law firm that focuses on global workforce matters. He encourages attorneys he works with to use Find Global Counsel, an online search platform he created based on relationships he’s formed with firms in more than 100 countries, when they need to locate attorneys.
“A number of firms have obtained or produced technological tools and procedures to help facilitate the knowledge management process.”
Although Doyle says many of the lawyers in his Miami-based firm have built ample international contact lists during their years in the field, instead of reaching out to potential attorneys or firms in other regions individually, the digital tool allows them to just send one request to a wide audience. Then they’ll receive multiple proposals for assistance with a project, including attorneys’ fee information. Site users can view the proposals and project status updates on a dedicated page, helping to centralize the information in one place for future reference.
The firm is also currently creating a more robust version of the Office 365 folder-based database firm members refer to for information about the tax and regulatory elements involved in offering stock options and other equity to workers in more than 50 countries.
The new searchable database — which will be organized by criteria such as country and type of project — will provide the firm’s attorneys with the most up-to-date information. It will also be available to clients, who can use it to find out what high-level rules apply to employee stock options in various countries, Doyle says.
Because some of the basic information clients used to pay for is now more readily available for free, he feels offering a general overview of what clients would need to do can inspire them to reach out to the firm to take the next steps — and allow its attorneys to focus on more nuanced and potentially lucrative work.
“We look at giving information out to people as a real benefit because, at some point, information is a commodity,” Doyle says. “It’s also a great marketing tool because people don’t know what they don’t know. They’re then more likely to call us and say, ‘We’d like to pursue this in China. Can you help us?’”
Freshfields also recently launched a client-facing knowledge management resource — a data breach notification tool derived from information it has amassed helping clients respond to cyber incidents across multiple jurisdictions.
“Even if a firm decides a knowledge management solution would be a worthwhile asset to add, for it to be as effective as possible, employees need to understand how to use the technology.”
“It’s important internal efficiency tool, but it also benefits clients,” Doherty de Novoa says. “It allows people to insert key information on the breach and get a heat map showing them which jurisdictions there are notification requirements in and what the timelines are. That helps them to triage and understand where they need to focus their efforts.”
Some firms — typically larger ones, according to Alay Yajnik, Founding Partner of the Law Firm Success Group consulting service — have implemented databases that serve as a record of firm members’ proficiencies.
Such solutions can help firms fully leverage all internal expertise to serve clients, whether that involves cross-selling or identifying the most appropriate person to work on a matter.
“At small firms, it tends to be very informal,” Yajnik says. “That can start to become an issue when firms hit maybe 20 to 30 attorneys and they’re growing; attorneys may not know each other well or their capabilities well.”
Firms may be able to house and provide information — such as which team members have handled corporate mergers and acquisitions of a certain size, for example — fairly simply with solutions they already have in place, he says.
“Firms can use SharePoint; if they have [Microsoft] Office, they have it,” Yajnik says. “And they can use a company intranet and make sure skills are listed there. It doesn’t have to be super complicated.”
Doyle’s firm also employs a few low-tech practices to manage and convey knowledge internally, ranging from holding a simple conference call to update firm members about legal developments in another country to labeling correspondence so it can be easily searched.
“Outlook is a great way to find things you’ve worked on,” he says. “We identify every email by client, country, area. You can quickly look in Outlook [to see] if anybody has done anything in Bangladesh lately, and when Bangladesh pops up, [remember], ‘Oh yeah, we did a project for such-and-such client.’”
MAKING KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT WORK
While a tech-oriented approach can potentially help law firms organize some of their knowledge management resources, the technology’s adoption may face some challenges.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in this field to improve productivity and quality through better knowledge management,” Yajnik says. “But to their credit, law firms are being pragmatic about it. Being on the leading edge means investing a ton of time and money in these tools.”
Even if a firm decides a knowledge management solution would be a worthwhile asset to add, for it to be as effective as possible, employees need to understand how to use the technology.
Yet possible search limitations — such as not knowing the best keyword to enter to generate results for a certain type of expertise — can limit some knowledge tools’ ultimate value, according to Yajnik.
Busy work schedules are also often an issue. However, making the time to establish and utilize law firm knowledge resources can be worthwhile, Yajnik says.
“For example, a partner would train an associate, but the person has something to refer back to when the partner isn’t there,” he says. “They can say, ‘Oh yeah, we talked about this, and here are the detailed things we need to do.’ It reduces the need for associates to go back to a partner and ask questions; they’re written down and captured. Knowledge management would actually back up the teaching.”
About the Author
Erin Brereton is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist who has written about the legal industry, business, technology and other topics for 20 years.