Some artists say they make art for themselves and not for their audiences. Such artists’ accountants are likely frustrated (not to mention owed money). To ignore one’s audience is generally rude, short-sighted and bad business. At most law firms, the primary audience is in-house counsel: busy, intelligent, multi-tasking attorneys fielding questions from and advising many business units within the organization. A law firm’s KM department’s usual audience is the law firm attorneys, striving to provide excellent client service. But how broad could KM’s audience be? Could it go beyond law firm attorneys?
KM’s traditional role is to develop and build systems, processes, and culture to encourage capturing and sharing information within a firm. As Michael Koenig, Professor and former and founding dean of the College of Information and Computer Science at Long Island University, describes, KM is very organizational, very corporate. Legal KM has its roots in helping attorneys practice more efficiently and effectively, by drawing on colleagues’ prior work product and through sharing information, expertise, and documents within the firm. Historically, much of this sharing happened without colleagues realizing it—KM was at work behind the scenes finding and organizing resources created by individual attorneys and providing searchable, efficient access to that product to all attorneys.
For example, when it comes to the production—and reproduction—of certain standard documents, KM can lead attorneys to a more efficient and compliant process throughout the firm. Employment attorneys often are asked to create documents— including employment related letters, forms and agreements—many times over, with little customization for case or client details. Combining strategic development of template or master resources with document automation, KM can shift attorneys from the ancient practice of search/save as/edit to web-based questionnaires that generate a customized “best practice” final document, at a fraction of the time and cost it would take to start from scratch and without the propensity for errors inherent in editing an older document.
Firm attorneys often create and re-create more complex memoranda or briefing that may be too nuanced for automation. A KM department can increase its law firm’s efficiency by going beyond just providing a static set of documents for practitioners to consult the next time they need to draft a key document. At our firm, we provide organized, catalogued access to the best—and most current—of these resources. Our internal Litigation Center and Equal Employment Opportunity Center use pre-set, constantly-updating document management searches to pool timely and easily accessible resources for practitioners working on single-plaintiff, benefits, wage and hour, and employment discrimination litigation. These sites are accessible to litigators, paralegals, and litigation secretaries to enable them to quickly find consistently up-to-date sample documents and resources.
Based on the success of technological improvements like these and others within a law firm, KM departments have flourished and attorneys have grown more confident in KM’s ability to help locate resources. As a result, the client-facing role of KM naturally evolved. For example, an attorney would ask for a resource from KM, receive something on point at a fraction of the cost and time had the attorney created it himself or herself, and then turn around and provide it to the client at that reduced price.
Eventually, at least at our firm, the firm attorney asks its trusted KM department, can you just give this directly to my client? Efficiency begets efficiency, and attorneys should not mind cutting out their role as middle-person, especially when it means the client is happy with the service and information provided and the attorney can continue to focus on counseling and litigating.
The success of a KM department in its role external to the law firm may be measured by how well it is answering the question: WDIHCW? What do in-house counsel want?
They want, and need, answers. Real, practical answers, delivered quickly. They want not to have to pick up the phone each time they have a business question. They would like to look some questions up themselves, in tools provided by their trusted law firm, preferably in an easy-to-use, online, searchable format. And they want information before they ask the questions.
They want to know about changes that will affect their business. They want realistic predictions and practical guidance. They want to anticipate change to prepare their organizations for it.
Who should create such innovative tools? Most law firm attorneys, focused on practicing law and billing their time, are not ideally suited to tool development and implementation, but it is a perfect fit for an evolved KM department. The next post, “KM Asks: WDIHCW (What Do In-House Counsel Want)? Part II” will address more specifically how KM can approach this evolving challenge.