How are knowledge management and practice innovation connected? What is a key difference and why are the roles often combined?
As KM has evolved, innovation has become a core part of it. In many firms, there is no separate innovation function, with knowledge management playing that role as well as the more traditional content-focused (PSL-type) knowledge role. Where there is a separate innovation or practice innovation function (usually focused on “buy, partner, build” solutioning to address both internal and client needs), it is critical that this function is closely linked with knowledge management. The “magic” of law firm innovation happens in the link between these teams.
KM functions almost always include lawyer roles who work very closely with the firm’s practices, and indeed are often embedded in those practices. The deep relationships thus formed within a firm’s lawyer population, combined with the subject matter expertise of the knowledge lawyers and their familiarity with the firm’s specific legal processes, provide rich sources of on-the-ground intel that, if managed properly, can give rise to myriad use cases and opportunities for process or technology innovation. Without the relationship to a KM department, the innovation team may find it harder to identify use cases—a problem many firms face. Without the relationship to innovation, the KM department may suffer from the absence of technical knowledge, problem-framing skills, and resources to develop solutions. This is why, in my view, the most effective practice innovation departments will be those that include both knowledge and innovation functions under one umbrella, or that forge close connections between these two functions and actively seek to mine those connections for the rich opportunities afforded by this critical collaboration.
How has technology changed knowledge management practices?
The essence of KM is about capturing knowledge and re-surfacing it in a way that is timely and convenient for those who need it. The means to do so have clearly changed over time, with technological advances allowing for more intuitive mechanisms to enable all of the key processes underlying KM—creating and collecting knowledge, curating it, tagging it, and surfacing it at the right time in the most user-friendly way. For example, where precedent documents might once have been hard copy, they evolved into electronic forms, and have now progressed one step further into automated questionnaires. It used to be a pie-in-the-sky idea to think of delivering just-in-time knowledge to lawyers as they work—in other words, to surface the right forms, tools, guides, and resources to them precisely at the moment they need it. Now, with technology allowing for automated workflows, data linked across systems, and natural language processing able to pick up in real time on the type of work lawyers are doing, these kinds of projects are becoming feasible. Although more data is being generated than ever before, the systems available to manage that data have also become more sophisticated and are able to handle the volume.
None of these technological advancements matter, however, unless the hard work is performed in the back end to review and manage the data. Technology can’t fix sloppy data—it won’t magically transform chaos into elegant, useful knowledge instruments. In order to take advantage of the technology that now exists to boost KM work into high gear, law firms need KM teams that understand the importance of cleaning, normalizing, and structuring data, and are equipped with the skills to be able to do this work.
What insights, data, or information is often overlooked or not counted as “knowledge” in legal practice?
The word “data” is still relatively new to lawyers who are not used to thinking of their work product in such terms. When you start looking at data in a law firm context, there is a lot of useful information that, historically, has not been tracked, captured, or measured in a meaningful way. The recognition of this gap (and the advent of technology that is better able to address it) has caused data to become a recent buzzword in legal, with numerous firms tackling significant data projects that will enable them to start mining their data for actionable insights. These firms will have a competitive edge over those who don’t yet recognize the opportunities in leveraging data to produce outcomes.
When it comes to KM, the old adage “you can’t manage what you don’t track” has merit. An example is search—any kind of search, be it enterprise or local, will be improved if you are able to measure usage, including what searches are conducted on the platform and what documents are opened or accessed as a result of those searches. Tracking this user behavior allows you to tweak search results or the order of such results in order to better meet user expectations, and to set up shortcuts such as saved searches to better serve users. Similarly, tracking the documents that are regularly accessed from a knowledge base, and understanding therefore which precedents are most important to users, allows knowledge managers to ensure that the most helpful content is being collected and surfaced. This careful work in the architecture of search is also a part of what makes Legaltech Hub different from other legal directories in the market—we bring the discipline of knowledge management to bear on our data in the same way that KM professionals apply that discipline to legal content in a law firm. If you overlook this kind of data as unimportant or unconnected to KM, you risk letting expensive platforms fall into disuse due to absence of oversight and proper management.
In KM, we often talk about tacit and intrinsic knowledge, or the distinction between knowledge we can capture through external work product and the knowledge that lies inside the minds of our experts. A KM program will be most effective when it captures and distributes both of these types of knowledge, and connects lawyers to the experts and expertise in their firm. Training programs that draw upon the firm’s experts as faculty can formalize the process of knowledge transfer between generations of lawyers. A more complex challenge is capturing decades of experiential knowledge from senior practitioners before they retire or leave a firm, and turning that expertise into useful knowledge instruments such as guides, directories, and checklists.
What are the biggest technical, procedural, and cultural barriers to capturing knowledge?
I have spoken above about the practical and cultural hurdles to knowledge-sharing. There is an additional barrier to capturing knowledge that I think is also worth mentioning: that is the impact of security and client guidelines in actively obstructing a knowledge-sharing environment.
It is becoming more common for clients to request that their documents and the work product that is developed in the course of a legal engagement be cocooned and kept separate from the rest of a firm’s content, with access permitted only to timekeepers who work directly on matters for those clients. Additionally, as the specter of security threats continues to skulk around firms, broad pessimistic security models are being increasingly considered that have the effect of locking all matters down to just active timekeepers. These developments are problematic not just from a KM perspective but also because the value of large law firms is arguably derived from the crowdsourced nature of collective expertise.
While these hurdles represent the most recent challenges to knowledge-sharing, they can be overcome through a greater investment in KM. It will be necessary in addressing these obstacles to have a deep KM team that is able to operate centrally to redact key documents and distribute critical information without breaching security or client guidelines.
How can knowledge management improve document creation?
The drafting lifecycle is one of the key entrance points for KM support. In industries such as legal, the core work of timekeepers can be described as knowledge work—timekeepers draw upon intrinsic and extrinsic knowledge in order to develop and draft work product and to provide advice. Everything they do in this respect involves reusing organizational knowledge and developing new knowledge content. KM is therefore critical at all points in the drafting lifecycle.
During document creation, knowledge workers need to draw upon precedent and form documents, research memos, and relevant authorities. The speed and effectiveness of document creation will be monumentally improved by KM tools such as effective knowledge repositories; automated precedent forms; enterprise or contextual search; and technology that surfaces best-in-class clauses from a curated clause bank. In the review phase, access to proofreading and auto-formatting tools is critical, as are best practices relating to version control. KM is also able to assist in ensuring clarity and security during any co-editing or collaboration phase on a document, either by streamlining processes, or through leveraging targeted technology to safely support such collaboration. As a document is finalized, KM provides support in the form of checklists; guidance around eSignatures and remote notarization; access to and training on compare tools; and streamlining and automation of closing processes.
What skills do you need to be a knowledge management professional?
Putting aside education and domain-specific subject matter expertise, there are certain core skills that anyone working in KM should have. KM requires organizational skills, attention to detail, and an understanding of the importance of taxonomies, curation, and categorization in structuring information. Perhaps more important, though, are ephemeral traits such as empathy, the desire to be genuinely helpful, natural curiosity, and creative problem-solving skills. The ability to listen without interjecting is critical, as is the instinct to delve deeply into problems and apply analytical frameworks. Often I find that professionals who become knowledge managers are those who instinctively started organizing and categorizing content or finding better ways to do things in a previous role. KM requires the patience to recognize something is not working and the energy to pivot and try another method. It also requires acceptance of the certainty that your task of improving and enhancing the way people work will never end—there will never be a moment where this is “done,” like a corporate transaction, and you can move on to the next thing. KM is a life’s work; it is constant tweaks, twists, turns, and adoption of new technologies, models, and frameworks. Some people find that exhausting and defeating—others find it stimulating.
What tangible value can firms gain from knowledge management?
Although this can be difficult to measure, KM reduces write-offs and increases realization at a firm. It therefore has a direct impact on the bottom line. Firms with strong KM departments are more profitable.
Increasingly, KM teams are also generating direct revenue either through billing time on legal matters, developing subscription products, or by serving their own clients. Subscription products are a means of re-packaging knowledge in a form that clients will pay for outside of the traditional lawyer-client advice model. In the absence of a subscription, external-facing knowledge products are also frequently used as a business development mechanism, drawing new clients to a firm.
Direct client-facing KM might include working with clients to automate their documents or workflows, streamline their internal processes, and advise on digital transformation efforts. Many firms will now bill for these services so that KM professionals become timekeepers alongside lawyers.
How can knowledge management help with remote work?
When COVID hit and the world went remote, demand for KM assistance shot through the roof. When lawyers are located in an office and can walk down the hall to speak to one another, some knowledge sharing happens organically. Without this localized centralization of timekeeper teams, there is a reliance on KM to ensure resources are easily accessible in conspicuous digital locations, and to use technology to enable and facilitate collaboration and connection within and across teams. KM has never been as important as it is now.
About Nicola Shaver
Nicola Shaver has over 20 years of experience in the legal industry. She is the co-founder and CEO of Legaltech Hub (legaltechnologyhub.com), which is the most comprehensive directory of legal technology solutions. Legaltech Hub, launched in 2020, combines the depth of a database with the power of fine-tuned search, allowing users to find exactly what they need. On her path to the legaltech world, Nicola worked as a lawyer in Australia in private practice and in-house with Fortune 500 companies, before moving into the field of legal innovation and knowledge management. Nicola was the Managing Director of Innovation and Knowledge at Paul Hastings LLP, based in New York City, until 2022. She has a proven track record for strategic change, enhancing legal operations, and driving innovation and digital transformation across large organizations. Nicola was named ILTA’s Innovative Leader of the Year in 2020, was recognized as a Fastcase 50 honoree in 2021 (honoring the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, & leaders), and is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management.
About the Knowledge Management Interview Series
This interview is part of a collection of interviews about knowledge management work. Lawyers are the original knowledge workers and knowledge is a key asset in the legal field. By producing this series, we hope to show how document creation fits with innovation and knowledge management goals.
Documents are highly valued for their outcomes, but undervalued as knowledge assets. Create better, more meaningful documents with WordRake. WordRake is clear and concise editing software designed for people who work with confidential information. The software improves writing by simplifying and clarifying text, cutting legalese, and recommending plain English replacements. WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. Learn about our 30-day enterprise pilot or try an individual license of WordRake for free for 7 days.