Leading the Charge to Change: The Importance of KM’s Familiarity with the Growing Pains that Come with Innovation

6 Feb

LeadGuest Post by Meghann J. Barloewen, Knowledge Management Counsel, and Marcy McGovern, Littler   CaseSmart, Program Director for Litigation, Littler

When knowledge management teams expand, new KM lawyers often are recruited from within the law firm.  Recruiting internally does offer distinct advantages, including knowledge of the firm’s culture and priorities, experience practicing with one or more of the firm’s business lines, and (one hopes) general loyalty and good will toward the firm. Coming into a KM role already understanding the firm’s strengths and weaknesses can place new KM Counsel ahead of where external new hires would start, meaning the KM department probably will need to invest fewer resources on training the new team member. 

KM Growing Pains

However, shifting from practice to KM can represent a big personal adjustment for the attorney making the move. While practicing attorneys focus on litigating cases or directly advising clients, KM lawyers are focused inward on firm process. Although this new role can be exciting, new KM lawyers will likely experience some professional growing pains in addressing novel challenges. Attorneys themselves freely admit that many in their profession have “type-A” personalities. Although practicing attorneys devote much time to innovating creative solutions for clients’ legal issues, many are averse to changes in their own firms’ processes and how clients are served. KM lawyers in the US face the added challenge of having a less defined role and career trajectory than their colleagues in countries that have more fully embraced KM as a discipline. 

But new KM lawyers’ growing pains really are no different than those a firm experiences at a macro level when trying to re-engineer processes. Comfort with the known and resistance to testing new albeit potentially more profitable ways to practice prevail among attorneys. Practice innovation naturally raises questions like these: 

  • How will offering our clients online services affect my practice?
  • Why should I follow a checklist for a pleading when I already know how to draft a pleading?
  • How will a change in the firm’s structure affect my role as a shareholder, of counsel, special counsel, or associate?

From their first year in law school, attorneys are trained to question everything; it stands to reason, then, that many innovative ideas never make it past brainstorming because the ideas are questioned into oblivion.

Remember – Change Is Hard 

KM lawyers might benefit from recalling their own growing pains when working with colleagues who exhibit similar hesitation to projects. Having experienced the same trepidation when they transitioned from practitioners to innovators, KM lawyers should never forget that change is hard and takes time.

Persistence is the key.

When it comes to profitability, complacency and a “wait and see” approach put law firms at risk of becoming obsolete. Clients increasingly demand new approaches to client services; firms must recognize that sticking with what succeeded in the past could lead to failure in the future. KM lawyers must plan to combat general aversion to change head on, while keeping in mind that not all innovative ideas can be executed in practice. 

Innovator’s Pre-Launch Checklist

Before launching any innovative project, fully considering the following questions helps: 

  1. How will this project and its likely result affect the attorneys’ day-to-day practice and the firm’s bottom line?
    • Are we asking attorneys to assume non-billable administrative tasks to help our marketing efforts?
    • Are we asking them to test a product that will help them complete billable work?
    • Are we about to replace billable hours with a technological resource to make attorneys more efficient (like document automation, for instance)?
  2. Given the likely impact on day-to-day practice, what concerns are attorneys likely to raise?
  3. Do we have solid objective responses to their likely concerns and have we weighed the project’s costs and benefits sufficiently to put those concerns to rest?
  4. Can we point to the success of similar projects in other industries, such as accounting and engineering, or at other law firms to help address general aversion to change?

Champion Change

Firm attorneys averse to change might especially shy away from projects whose benefits are only likely to be felt gradually over time, rather than projects with a real prospect of bringing immediate financial return (for example, one that would showcase a practice group’s depth of expertise but that does not immediately present new clients or work).  However, even with a project that lacks immediate gratification, if the project is a viable one supported by the firm, KM can champion it and effectively manage change so the project can move forward as efficiently as possible.  Fully considering the questions listed above will enable KM lawyers to face resistance, lessen the growing pains, and persuasively explain why investing in the project is wise.


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