Storytelling in Legal Knowledge Management

28 Apr

Picture1 Guest post by Flyn L. Flesher, Knowledge Management Counsel, Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Storytelling is one of the evolutionary traits that set humans apart from other species. Other animals can learn by experience or direct observation, but only humans seem capable of learning from stories about others’ experiences. Since the first cave people huddled together in groups, recounting successful hunts and drawing pictures on cave walls to help preserve those stories, humans have relied on storytelling to capture otherwise inaccessible tacit knowledge and pass it along to other group members.

Not surprisingly then, storytelling also has a place in legal knowledge management. Personality studies show that many attorneys may have “a tendency to distance themselves from others and become uncommunicative.” Such a tendency can hinder the spread of knowledge throughout a law firm: if lawyers distance themselves from other lawyers in a practice area, they likely do a poor job of passing along the lessons they have learned.

Fortunately, most lawyers love telling their “war stories.” When pressed, even the most reserved lawyer may have difficulty resisting the temptation to recount past legal victories, innovative litigation strategies that ultimately succeeded, and unusual allegations and fact patterns. Trial lawyers know that weaving multiple pieces of evidence into a compelling narrative can make the difference between winning and losing a jury trial. How can we tap into lawyers’ inherent appreciation for storytelling to capture inaccessible tacit knowledge and pass it along to other members of the law firm?

One effective way of sharing tacit knowledge is to gather around a conference table telling stories over cups of coffee. For example, lawyers in my office meet every Friday morning to discuss hard-won legal victories, difficult legal issues faced and overcome, recent decisions, upcoming legislation and gossip about local attorneys, mediators, and judges. Like the cave people’s gatherings around the fire, these meetings are an opportunity to share in a communal treasure trove of lawyers’ tacit knowledge. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

Sharing experiences within one law office is a good start, but technology enables lawyers to share their experiences with lawyers in other offices across the globe. Encouraging the use of wikis is an effective way to foster enterprise storytelling. Wikis provide a central location for employees to recount success stories, cautionary tales, and project histories. Since all users with access can modify them, wikis support both individual and group storytelling: individuals can recount their experiences, which can be woven into a greater tapestry of stories and viewpoints from different people about similar issues and fact patterns.

Interviewing subject-matter experts can be equally effective for capturing inaccessible tacit knowledge for posterity and the organization’s benefit. For example, our firm has implemented an exciting effort called “OD Emeritus” to capture senior attorneys’ tacit knowledge. The OD Emeritus project involves interviewing our firm’s senior attorneys about their specialties on video so they can pass along their strategies and tips to our next generation of attorneys. The edited videos are used in attorney training and development. Through this program, our firm continues to benefit from the wisdom and experience of top-notch attorneys, even after they have retired from the practice of law.

When lawyers share their war stories, they inevitably impart helpful knowledge that others can apply to their own practices. What is your firm or legal department doing to encourage lawyers to share their stories and tacit knowledge? Do other modern equivalents to fireside chats and cave paintings exist? If your firm isn’t tapping into enterprise storytelling to benefit others in your organization, you may be missing out on a real opportunity.


2 Responses to “Storytelling in Legal Knowledge Management”

  1. David Hobbie (@KMHobbie) April 28, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    I completely agree that internal social collaboration tools can be leveraged for storytelling, and that storytelling is a great KM tool. Wikis can work for that; I think though that the blog format, with its normal narrative structure and typical reverse-chronological plus topic organization, might work even better. The only challenge is that blogs tend to be a little harder to use than wikis (a/k/a “the simplest database that could possibly work”).

    .Ginevra Saylor ran an excellent session on storytelling at the 2013 conference; my coverage of it is here:

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