While no one can really predict the future, I can tell you that I’m scheduled to talk about the future of legal knowledge management (KM) in the near future. Barring any unforeseen, intervening circumstances, that will happen on Monday, August 29, 2016, at 1:00 pm at ILTACON in a session aptly called “The Future of Legal KM.” I’ll be joined on the panel by Rob Saccone and Sam Nickless. Steve Lastres will moderate.
In addition to talking about it in the future and blogging about it presently, I’ve also written about the future of legal KM in the past. Wait, that’s confusing. What I mean is I’ve written about this topic (the future of legal KM) before. It’s the topic of the final chapter of my book, Knowledge Management for Lawyers, which I wrote (and you may have read) in the past. Or perhaps you will read it in the future (or never).
I mention the book not as a shameless plug, but because some of what follows is reproduced from the book and the publisher (American Bar Association) made me tell you that. I do, in fact, feel great shame about the plug.
Anyway, back to the future…
At the aforementioned future ILTACON session, my co-panelists and I will discuss the future of legal KM in four main sections:
- the current state of KM,
- what drives change in KM,
- the role of KM professionals, and
- the role of technology in KM.
We also hope that the audience will have questions, and perhaps, some answers. The official session description reads:
“Knowledge management (KM) in law firms has been a key component to the successful delivery of client services. Thanks to recent advances in better analytics, less expensive start-up costs and a focus on empowering the next generation of workforce, KM of the future is shining bright. As law firms move quickly to address new client-first imperatives, they are leveraging knowledge management to support smarter answers, improved decisions and better outcomes. What does the future hold for legal KM? Come find out what’s next!”
I’m not sure the exclamation point is warranted, but we will do our best to live up to the hype.
I’m reluctant to make any predictions about the future of KM because in the worst case scenario, I’ll be completely wrong. In the best, we’ll all shrug and say, “Well, that was obvious.”
KM’s changing roles
One topic related to the future of KM that came up in our presentation preparation, and in my personal experience, is the changing role of KM professionals. But it’s not just the changing roles; it’s the ability and willingness to change. I believe that one reason for the longevity and resiliency of KM over the years – and the promise of the future – is the nature of the people who are drawn to the field. KM professionals are an innovative and entrepreneurial bunch. They seek out new and better ways to do things. They are not satisfied with the status quo. They seek constant improvement. As entrepreneurs, they search for change, respond to it, and exploit it as an opportunity. This is a fundamental reason that the future of KM is so bright.
Just one example of many that we will discuss in the ILTACON panel is the changing role of law firm librarians. Now, I know that this can be a touchy topic, especially among librarians, so, please understand that this is just my personal perspective. That said, when I talk to KM leaders at other law firms, I’m starting to see a trend. The trend is not to eliminate librarians or to minimize their value. To the contrary, the trend is to refine their roles to maximize the value that they bring.
In my 10+ years in legal KM (at three different law firms), librarians have always been an important part of the KM department. It’s a natural fit. But it was not until a relatively recent deep-dive analysis of librarians’ actual activities that I realized how much of a fit it is.
For example, take reference librarians, who primarily (though not exclusively) conduct legal research. One of their main activities, helping attorneys find information using third party resources, is really the “flip side of the coin” of what many professional support lawyers do – helping attorneys find information using firm-facing, internal resources. For my firm, it made sense to consolidate the reference librarians with the professional support lawyers under one manager. We similarly consolidated the library technical services staff with the KM firm solutions staff under a different manager. As this new consolidated structure matures (we’re only about eight months in), we are finding great benefits. The tighter bond between the previously-separated groups is creating more efficient workflows and increased collaboration. Lines of communication have opened, and our customers (the firm’s attorneys) are better served. I expect additional benefits in the months and years to come.
Clients’ role in driving change
There are many more areas of change ahead in the future of legal KM. The most significant driver of that change is client demand. It’s probably safe to assume that the legal industry will survive (and thrive) for quite some time in ways that are at least vaguely similar to its current form. That does not mean, however, that there will not be changes in what clients expect from their lawyers. We don’t need a crystal ball to know that clients will likely continue to demand more for less when it comes to legal services. For years, lawyers have heard the cries from clients demanding greater value for their legal spend. These cries are not likely to stop and will probably grow more intense.
Clients also continue to demand pricing options, such as fixed or guaranteed pricing. If a matter is based on a fixed price, the only way for a lawyer to make a profit is to spend less money executing the work than the lawyer received to complete it. KM’s role in ensuring that matters are handled efficiently can help ensure profitability on those matters. In fact, no greater direct relationship between increased efficiency and increased profits exists than when a matter is guaranteed to be completed at a fixed cost. If KM efforts can help a lawyer complete a matter in 10 hours that would otherwise have taken 20, then the profit margin more than doubles (assuming a profit margin was built into the 20-hour budget). Each minute saved as a result of the efficiencies gained from KM is pure profit.
KM’s bright future
This is another key reason that the future of KM is bright. The primary purpose of KM is to improve the efficiency with which lawyers do their work and deliver legal services to their clients while maintaining or increasing quality. Greater efficiency means more for less, and this means happier clients. But some might say that efficiency has its limits; you can only squeeze so much waste out of a process or activity before it reaches peak efficiency. That’s true, and that’s when the shift in focus must go from efficiency (doing things right) to effectiveness (doing the right things). As Peter Drucker noted, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”
So, in some ways, the future is not as much about finding a better solution to a problem as it is about eliminating the need to solve the problem in the first place. However, with new ways of doing things comes the opportunity to make the new ways we do them more efficient. There is always room for improvement, and KM can help.
I hope to see many of you at ILTACON. Please consider attending “The Future of Legal KM” panel. And as a thank you for reading this far, if you would like a PDF copy of “The Future of Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession,” which is Chapter 11 of my book, Knowledge Management for Lawyers, send me an email with “future of KM” in the subject line. Free, of course. No strings, no spam.