Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Law firms embrace the philosophy of ‘knowledge management’ in hopes of not being the people who lose the dinosaur

RALEIGH, NC — Imagine that your law firm has, squirreled away somewhere in storage, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. You own the bones of a six-ton prehistoric beast that could net big bucks and inspire envy among paleontologists everywhere.

Would you know how to find it? Would you even know that you owned it?

If the Army Corps of Engineers is any guide, maybe not. According to The Washington Post, when the Smithsonian recently asked to borrow the T. rex skeleton owned by the Corps, some of its senior officials were surprised to learn they had one. How could anyone forget they owned a dinosaur skeleton that weighs more than an SUV?

As the Post explained, it happens. People transfer. They retire. The things they know go with them.

While few law firms are likely to have a dinosaur in storage, they are vulnerable to information deficits on a smaller scale. Attorneys move around. They retire. The things they know go with them. In the past few years, several firms in the region have decided to address the issue head-on by embracing the somewhat squishy sounding discipline of knowledge management.

Knowledge management, KM for those who embrace it, has been around for a while. In 1998 it was sufficiently established as a trend to inspire a Dilbert cartoon strip. No surprise that the Pointy-Haired Boss salivated over phrases like “knowledge optimization initiatives” and “leverage our key learnings.”

Three years ago Jack Bostelman, a former partner at Wall Street law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, founded KM/JD Consulting, a West Coast-based knowledge management consulting practice specializing in advising AmLaw 200 firms. He is also chair of an American Bar Association committee on knowledge strategy. Bostelman said large firms that had the resources to experiment with KM embraced it a decade ago. Now that it’s a proven concept, it’s moving its way down to smaller firms.

Demographics and economics are also fueling interest in KM. A generation of senior-level attorneys is preparing to retire, taking with them lifetimes’ worth of institutional knowledge. At the same time, a tighter economy has forced firms to focus on retooling internal processes to maximize efficiencies. Carolina firms that have adopted KM practices or created a full-time knowledge manager position in recent years include Parker Poe, Smith Anderson, Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd and Nexsen Pruet.

“Knowledge management is kind of a fancy name for a lot of things that a lot of firms have been doing for a long time, they just haven’t had a name for them,” Bostelman said.

No more walks down the hall

At its core, KM is about how the key workers in an organization share what they know.

Rob Duggins, the partner in charge of KM at Raleigh’s Smith Anderson, said leveraging accumulated experience isn’t new for law firms. At one time, that involved walking down the hall to ask a partner what he knew or sitting in on another practice group’s meeting. That became more cumbersome as Smith Anderson grew to its current size of 125. The firm created a KM position in 2012.

“The surrogate for asking, became an email to the right group of lawyers, which is more reliable than walking down the hall for a chat, but still kind of hit-or-miss,” Duggins said.

Adopting a KM strategy formalizes the practice. Creating a knowledge manager puts someone in charge of executing the strategy. “The object is to become more intentional about capturing our experience in a way that allows efficient and reliable access,” Duggins said.

Bostelman said one of the main challenges for law firms trying to make KM practices work are the lawyers themselves.

“There have been studies that show lawyers have a different personality makeup than your average business person,” he said. Lawyers tend to establish routines and traditions that work for them, and cling to them, Bostelman said. They thrive on working independently.

“These are all things that make you a good lawyer but they don’t make you a good manager,” he said. The problem is KM can’t be done without the cooperation of lawyers, but because of who they are and how they operate it’s hard to get them to cooperate.

Bostelman said that’s why attorneys make the best KM advisors to law firms. It takes one to know one, basically.

Leaders at Parker Poe seem to agree. Last month, the firm named partner Dwight Floyd as its first director of knowledge management. He has been at the firm since 2004, so he knows the culture and people. His educational background is science, and he has always been interested in technology

Floyd describes KM as “a cradle-to-grave kind of process.”

“From the minute you start to try to bring a client in the door, to the time you have some agreement with them for your billing and your services, to doing the work, to closing out the matter, KM can touch on all of those,” Floyd said.

The forms and processes integral to all of those functions can be standardized across practice groups and offices so the information gathered in each step can be organized and accessible. The knowledge manager’s role isn’t to design the information sharing technology, but to tell designers what the firms’ attorneys need, Floyd said.

“You have to talk to these people to figure out what their issues are, and by issues I don’t mean problems but ways that you can make an individual practice that much more efficient,” he said. “Then you put the right tools in place and start to make that happen, whether that’s dealing with data or dealing with knowledge that’s trapped in somebody’s head.”

Managing the process

Bostelman said KM is more than IT, but matching information management needs with technology is a key component.

“This is not a novel or revolutionary concept but it’s all in the details,” he said.

Duggins works closely with the firm’s head of IT. “The future of KM is to have as much of that information automated as possible so that attorneys don’t have to set aside extra time or mental energy in putting it into the system,” he said.

But the information you get out of any system is only as good as what you put in. Duggins said that puts a premium on developing knowledge management in a way that works with culture.

At Greenville, S.C.-based Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, KM is among the duties assigned to director of information management Russell Altman. He has worked in libraries for 15 years, eight of them for Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd. Altman oversees the technology piece of the firm’s KM strategy.

“You can’t really manage the knowledge,” Altman said. “You can manage the processes.”

He said the firm also runs a mentoring program that puts senior partners and younger associates together so the elders can pass on their institutional knowledge. Altman said the knowledge sharing has been good for Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, and he didn’t have to hard-sell the new approaches.

“You have several attorneys who bought in early, so my job was kind of easy,” he said. “I just had to get these types of data bases and pieces in place.”

Floyd said that at Parker Poe the barriers to participation in KM were low.

“To begin with, our firm, even across our five offices has always been very collaborative,” he said. “We do not have thick walls between practices or between offices. We have always emphasized trying to cross sell and work together because we live or die together.”

At Nexsen Pruet, the firm employs KM practices but spreads the responsibilities around to several support personnel. Kevin Floyd, communications director for Nexsen Pruet, said the firm has shifted the organizational model of its business and marketing staff in the past five or six years.

“Traditionally law firms have been divided by practice groups, with one marketing person per practice group,” he said. “While practice groups are good for managing law firms and allocating resources, they may not be the best for marketing.”

One role that has evolved to meet Nexsen’s KM needs is that of client intelligence manager Ashley Pace. Formerly in the firm’s marketing department, she focused on event organization and follow-up. Now she concentrates on managing relationships and contacts throughout the firm, duties that keep her in the management loop and allow her to communicate directly with attorneys who need her intelligence information.

Bostelman said one hurdle for the legal profession is finding the right non-law firm business model to emulate. Professional services like accounting, engineering are probably the most helpful, he said.

“The biggest challenge isn’t so much what a law firm should do, it’s getting them to do it,” Bostelman said.

KM allows law firms to make the most of the information they know they have but can’t access easily. It also helps with that even trickier area of what they don’t know that they don’t know. Nobody wants to be the last to know about the T. rex in storage. Bringing up the rear on KM can make you look like … well, a dinosaur.

Amber Nimocks writes for North Carolina Lawyers Weekly and South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, sister publications of The Daily Record.