April 16, 2013

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Knowledge Management


Knowledge is Power. The significance of this aphorism coined by Sir Francis Bacon has never been felt and understood more clearly than it is in this day and age of internet, print and broadcasting media, blogs and social networks, all of which provide phenomenal amounts of information at the click of a button.

How this information is interpreted and used determines the future of individuals, organizations, institutions, companies and governments across the world. Knowledge is not only information but the human faculty resulting from interpreted information; it is the understanding that germinates from a combination of data, information, experience, and individual interpretation.

Knowledge Management (KM) comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizational processes or practice. In the legal practice, especially in law firms, value arises from what a firm collectively knows, how efficiently it uses what it knows and how readily it acquires and uses new knowledge.

Knowledge in law firms is an asset, a resource and a commodity. It is an asset for the organization, it is a resource for the team and it is the law firm's principal commodity. Therefore, like in any other business, this asset and resource is required to be managed through the use of management techniques and technological systems so that its utilization is optimal.

KM in the legal practice originated in the United Kingdom way back in the 1990s, in response to the growing threat of big accountancy and consultancy firms taking over some of the work of lawyers. The rapid growth and success of these large consultancy firms were to a large extent due to the technological systems that aided them in organizing and managing information and content. Consequently, they were able to save time and increase efficiency of their employees.

While lawyers are traditionally known to rely on their own knowledge and experience and are averse to any change in their way of practice, with the advent of technology into the consultancy space, they were compelled to adapt themselves to this change, in order to survive and to successfully compete as legal service providers. They started investing in KM systems and planned and implemented definite KM policies for their firms with the active participation of management and partners.

Today, almost all mid-size and large law firms in the United Kingdom and the United States have sound KM systems that contribute positively to the quality of their products and efficiency of their lawyers. A KM system is therefore the backbone of a law firm, and is intrinsic and vital to its growth. Having already established robust and dynamic KM systems, foreign law firms have now moved to the next level of KM, namely KM cafes3, communities of practice4, discussion blogs and so on, whereby ideas and experiences are exchanged through storytelling, live and virtual conversations, informal and formal discussions.

These methods of KM provide opportunities to convert tacit knowledge5 into explicit knowledge. In India, KM in the legal practice is at a very nascent stage. Law firms that have the scale to invest in a formal KM system are few. Nevertheless, with growing competition and the likelihood of foreign law firms entering the legal space in India, whether through friendly arrangements or otherwise, Indian law firms can ill afford not to have some form of KM system in place.

An Effective KM System

So what are the components of a good KM system?

  • Vision and Support of Management: It is vital for an organization to have a vision for KM and look at it as a vital part and parcel of its growth and business plans. It is equally vital for both management and partners to endorse the vision and support and carry this vision forward, through pro-active participation in creating and sharing know-how.
  • Clear and defined KM policy: The KM vision must be translated into a clear and well defined KM Policy and KM best practices for lawyers to follow. The KM policy should outline the objectives of the policy, expectations from lawyers, integration of KM with performance evaluations, importance of knowledge creation and so on.
  • Efficient Document Management System: A useful KM system can be designed and implemented only if there is an effective, user friendly document management system (DMS) in which lawyers are able to work, organize, save, tag, search, archive and retrieve documents and content easily and quickly.
  • IT support: A good KM system can only be grounded on a good technological platform. KM and IT must work together to devise a technically user friendly and secure database
  • KM team to manage the KM system: KM lawyer(s) or the KM team should facilitate implementation and awareness of the KM policy. They should be able to understand the requirements of lawyers, suggest ideas and encourage lawyers to share their work with the rest of the firm and provide a knowhow database that is updated with content that is useful and relevant to the firm's practice areas at all times.

    In the UK, KM lawyers are called professional support lawyers or PSLs. These are lawyers who have the experience of working on transactions in corporate and litigation but have opted out of client facing work to be part of KM. They prepare practice notes and updates relevant to their expertise in a particular practice area.
  • Balance of transparency and confidentiality: A good KM system should allow lawyers to easily access and refer to firm precedents and firm documents to help them in advising their clients, without re-inventing the wheel. At the same time, such access may be controlled such that valuable client information and client documents are not misused or stolen. Therefore, the KM system must be secured against this possibility.
  • Training and Professional Development: Lawyers must train and enhance their skills on an ongoing basis in order to remain equipped and informed about the law. Opportunities for enhancing these skills may be provided by law firms through internal and external training sessions or intra-team discussions and debates on various topics and issues.
  • Knowledge sharing culture: The importance of sharing knowledge cannot be overemphasized if a KM system is to be of any use to lawyers. The more the lawyers share with the rest of the firm, the more they will gain from it. Their willingness to share top quality, well researched documents may be rewarded at the time of performance review.
  • Know how Database: The documents that should be an essential part of a Knowhow database are
    • Standard forms or base agreements and contracts: These base drafts make drafting easy and quick and save time
    • Firm precedents or firm positions, on legal issues, laws or regulations: These provide lawyers with precedents and reference material in responding to clients on similar issues
    • Practice Notes and Check Lists: These are notes on a variety of topics that serve as a guide to understanding the topic
    • Transaction De-briefs: These are briefs which capture the learnings and knowhow value of a transaction once it has closed
    • Research on subjects and issues relevant to the practice areas of the firm, including papers and indepth articles on new and existing legislations, regulations and policies of the government
  • Intranet: In addition to a DMS, an Intranet or Portal provides lawyers of the firm with information about the firm, its practices, its policies, key deals, information about its lawyers, their background, experience and expertise. It may also have external articles and publications of interest to lawyers, important commercial and business news, links to a variety of legal websites and legal databases such as Manupatra, Westlaw, Lexis Nexis and the like. The reputation and development of a firm and its lawyers can thus be attributed to a large extent to its KM system. Its importance and potential therefore cannot be underestimated.


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