Lawyers like to think that the law is different, their work is different, and even their personality type is different from everyone else’s (see Dr. Larry Richard’s work on this last point). Back in 2006, David Maister, the grand-daddy of modern thinkers on all types of professional service firms, said, “After spending 25 years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I’m now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different.”
After all, can anyone really imagine Shakespeare, in Henry VI, having one of his characters say “The first thing we do is kill all the accountants”?
But accountants and lawyers (and other partnership-based professional service firms), now more than ever, have much more in common than you might think; and this raises significant implications for law-firm KM work. Having led KM efforts in a large accounting firm (PwC, previously PricewaterhouseCoopers – Canada) and having since left the dark side to work in a law firm, I think I can offer some useful advice and perspective.
The combination of a competitive market, professional services (based on a mix of technical excellence, external oversight, trust, and broader business knowledge), and partnership-owned business model, drives substantial similarities across all professional services firms. From the KM vantage point, the essential similarity is the need to reuse work product (sometimes cleansed and reworked), locate experts (as in, “Does anyone know about…”), and have high-level conversations quickly and efficiently (to, for instance, get answers or explore an idea).
Two fundamental differences have distinguished law firms from other professional service firms. First, those other firms tend to be much larger than firms and this remains largely true. Second, and more importantly, other professional service firms have been engaged in a fight for market share for much longer than most corporate law firms have. Now law firms – that formerly just shared the ever expanding pie of market growth – are facing intense competition for work (starting in 2008 in the US and since 2012 in Canada).
Larger size coupled with more intense competition has driven non-law professional service firms to:
- invest earlier and more heavily in KM-related projects (for example, expertise-location, search engines, and intranets);
- focus KM efforts on supporting marketing and business development outcomes (for instance, client account dashboards joining financial, business development, and client news together and RFP-production through standardized resume and boiler-plate libraries);
- drive efficiencies in those KM operations (through outsourcing certain basic functions, using contingent on-call contractors, and developing value-contribution measures, to name a few);
- link business processes with content stores (to reuse content or guidance) and groups or communities of practice (for continuous improvement);
- explore emerging areas of KM, like enterprise social networking platforms (note that every major consulting and accounting firm has launched a platform – or plans to very soon – while most law firms have yet to move beyond experimentation);
- provide tools and capabilities that support their professionals in finding and filtering news efficiently and effectively (through news aggregators or filters), and
- deliver a richer mobile experience.
So, assuming the experience in other professional service firms is something to go by, what does the future hold for KM people within law firms? We will need people who can implement and support enterprise social networking suites. We will need to build much tighter relationships with both Marketing and Business Development, as well as Professional Development and Training. More KM people will be either outsourced or contingent on-call contractors (for instance, for certain forms of legal research). Firms will directly employ fewer KM leaders as organizations look to combine for economies of scale or strategic advantage. And, in-house KM people will be more business savvy and technically expert in KM and less likely to be former lawyers.
Yes, law firms are different; but, whereas that difference used to be akin to apples and oranges, it is now much more akin to McIntosh and Red Delicious.