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Law firms reinvent KM

This article appears in the issue July/August 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 7]
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Let's say you've been working on a case for six months and you get a call on a Saturday morning offering your client a settlement. But you need to make a quick decision. Can you get the information you need in order to say yes or no? You need the most recent court filings, and you need to know how much your client has been billed for the case so far, as well as the name of someone in your firm who recently resolved a similar case. Can you pull all this together and make a decision?

At an increasing number of law firms, the answer would be yes. Those firms have systems in place to access documents, analyze costs and find in-house experts.

"Law firms have become more pragmatic in their use of knowledge management technology," says Dennis Kennedy, a legal technology expert. "They are less concerned about the buzzwords and more focused on what can be accomplished."

Rather than putting together a committee to design the perfect solution, successful firms build out their solutions step by step, taking advantage of opportunities to make the most of their investments. The investments may not all be in hardware and software either—law firms are also allocating resources to educate their staff on how to use technology to support their operations. In addition, they are spending time on understanding their own culture and processes, in order to make the technology fit the business rather than the other way around. This commitment helps create a unified approach even if the implementation of systems is incremental.

An enterprisewide initiative

Baker & McKenzie made a commitment to a strong technology infrastructure decades ago when it deployed a global communications network to support its worldwide operations. One of the largest law firms in the world, Baker & McKenzie saw the value of having a single e-mail platform for its communications and a network of dedicated lines connecting its offices. The firm also made a decision to use a common set of software packages across all offices for scheduling, time and billing, accounting and invoicing.

More recently, Baker & McKenzie began deploying an enterprisewide document management system to support its knowledge management initiatives. The firm selected Hummingbird , already in use at some offices, to support its goal of sharing document-based information.

"Document management is a key foundation system that we will be able to leverage for our knowledge management initiatives," says Mary Jummati, a knowledge manager at Baker & McKenzie. "We have taken a very careful approach to rolling out the system, providing significant guidance to our employees in learning how to profile and search."

Baker & McKenzie has also developed a Web-based Global Know-How and Precedent library that runs on top of the Hummingbird system. "The library allows us to support the KM efforts of our global practice groups by making our premium know-how available across the firm," Jummati explains.

Each practice group decides a range of policy and process considerations, including whether it will use an open model or a closed one for contributing documents. The open model allows anyone in the group to contribute, while in the closed model, a "gatekeeper" is designated to review and approve contributions. That flexibility allows each group to select the processes that work best in their particular environment.

A commitment to understanding the enabling technology and how it fits an organization's culture is vital for the success of KM, according to Eric Stevens, director of research and strategy at Hummingbird. "Law firms can have strong partnerships with vendors," says Stevens, "but they need to take ownership of the systems and internalize an awareness about what the technology can do for them."

Baker & McKenzie has consistently nurtured in-house expertise to support its knowledge management initiatives. Participation in professional associations and ongoing professional development in relevant areas form an integral part of the firm's knowledge management program. In addition, the program is supported by a strong IT department.

Reflecting the culture

The extent to which a law firm understands its own culture and supports it with appropriate technology is a key predictor of how well knowledge management will take root, according to Robin Solomon, firmwide knowledge manager at Heller Ehrman. "Our firm has a strong culture of people walking up to each other to seek information, so our approach with knowledge management is to connect people with people," says Solomon.

Rather than focusing primarily on documents or best practices, the approach at Heller Ehrman is on identifying individuals who produced documents in areas of interest and providing descriptions about the context in which they were created.

Heller Ehrman selected an array of enabling technologies to achieve its goal of connecting people. Data flows between core systems to provide people the ability to connect with others who have performed similar work.

"Our philosophy is to carry out the data entry function once and feed all our systems from there, to simplify day-to-day operations," says Solomon. "For example, we have an automated new business intake system that feeds the records, contact management and financial systems."

The firm uses InterAction from Interface Software (acquired by LexisNexis, in December 2004) for its client relationship management (CRM). InterAction provides a Relationship Map that allows attorneys to determine who in the firm has existing relationships with other organizations, including current clients and potential new clients.

A major effort is also underway for the development of a universal library that will provide a consistent interface for frequently used litigation, business and administrative forms. Heller Ehrman has partnered with American LegalNet to build the universal forms library, and a taxonomy is now under development to help users quickly find the forms they need. The forms can be saved into the document management system, where metadata can be added to provide additional context, such as which attorneys were involved, and details about the case or deal. Heller Ehrman uses iManage (now Interwoven) Interwoven/iManage for document management, and LegalKey for records management.

In order to gain perspective on knowledge management, Solomon has often sought information outside the legal industry, attending high-level KM workshops and conferences. She has also derived information from other industries such as large accounting and pharmaceutical companies, which are divided into practice areas much as law firms are. Solomon is a strong supporter of using technology to facilitate existing dynamics. "Technology should enhance what people do naturally," says Solomon, "rather than putting up impediments."

Seeing the connections

One of the key services a knowledge management group within a law firm can provide is the ability to visualize the ways in which business needs are related and enterprise systems are connected.

"A system set up to help one practice group may be able to benefit others," says Brent Miller, director of knowledge management at Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton, "if someone can see the big picture." Among the intended beneficiaries of the KM systems at Cleary Gottleib are the junior associates at the firm who are in the process of ramping up their skills and background to become productive contributors.

Cleary Gottleib made a decisive move toward KM about five years ago when it created a staff dedicated to KM. The timing coincided with some major infrastructure enhancements, including an upgrade to the Lotus Notes (lotus.com) platform for messaging and database workflow and InterAction for CRM.

"The firm realized it was a logical time to re-evaluate its applications to put the pieces together into an environment that best met its attorneys' needs," Miller says. More recently, Cleary Gottlieb has added Recommind to allow for searching across multiple data sources and is redeploying its intranet using the WebSphere portal from IBM. The firm plans to use WebSphere, along with an upgraded version of iManage to help aggregate and organize information in a matter-centric fashion.

One project that expanded beyond its original mission began in a single practice group that wanted to track work assignments of associates in order to determine who was available. Associates were given responsibility for maintaining assignment status information in the database. Eventually it became evident that the database also served as a good indicator of when work on a deal had been completed and could be used to remind partners to submit associate review comments and to obtain deal summaries from the associates while the details of the transaction were still fresh. It worked well, in part because associates were motivated to maintain a database that showed their availability for new cases and contributed to their receiving timely reviews.

Much information is available in the metadata that is created in the course of generating records for content systems. "The challenge has been to pull it together, contextualize it, and use it in a way that produces the greatest benefit," Miller points out.

Kathryn Rakow, VP of marketing at Recommind, concurs. "Firms want more context around what they are doing, not just a document," she says. "They are starting to enter and search for more information in systems. It is helpful, for example, to be able to identify all the attorneys, documents, and supporting information about a matter."

About relationships

Because the legal business is built on relationships as much as it is built on information, some firms have structured significant portions of their knowledge management efforts around those relationships. At Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, an application called MintzConnect has been built on Contact Networks to create and maintain contact lists.

MintzConnect helps identify, manage and foster relationships by allowing employees to find out who in the company has existing contacts with a particular organization. No data entry is required because the application obtains information from Microsoft Outlook or the Microsoft Exchange Server. The application identifies individuals who have contacts at the target organization but does not specify who the contact person is. Instead, the user is directed to the Mintz Levin employee, who can provide an introduction if appropriate.

"This application is very useful, and is lightweight in terms of resources since it does not require any data storage," says Bruce Alltop, chief marketing officer at Mintz Levin. "It is a very effective way to facilitate teamwork."

Mintz Levin also uses SERoutlookAccess from SER Solutions to search all the content within Microsoft Outlook, including e-mail, notes and posted documents. Users can search by keyword or type in natural language queries. The firm expects that attorneys will save significant amounts of time by being able to locate mission-critical e-mail messages and associated documents. Like MintzConnect, the solution also leverages contact information associated with interactions between people.

Knowledge management is not often applied to market intelligence at law firms, but it is a good match. "Often, data is captured but not turned into actionable information," says Alltop. "Using this information for market intelligence, which requires a synthesis of internal information about the firm and external information about markets, is a natural application of knowledge management."

Alltop is also working on a variety of ways to make corporate content more useful. "We are developing some basic taxonomies, so that our personnel do not have to become search experts in order to do their jobs." An example is the development of a set of categories for the HR department, so that frequently used information is readily accessible.

Process drives technology

At Cooley Godward, business processes are a pivotal component of its knowledge management program. "For example, forms utilized in our business intake workflow provide a significant source of information, which is then fed to numerous systems throughout the firm," says Sherry Lalonde, CIO of Cooley Godward. A summary description of the proposed client work is prepared by the attorney and submitted for conflict of interest review. "This is, practically speaking, the only time you will get a busy professional to describe the nature of a case or transaction," says Lalonde. "Attorneys don't have the luxury of time to go back and reinvent it later."

Early investigations of knowledge management at Cooley Godward convinced the firm that a purely document-centric view was not sufficient to meet the firm's goals, particularly in light of the legal resources required to support accurate coding and metadata development.

"We opted to develop rules-based searches to identify specific types of work and transactions, critical documents, expertise and other elements of the legal practice that would present meaningful information that could be used in a practical way," Lalonde says.

But before implementing any technology, Cooley Godward's IS team carried out some important groundwork. "We spent considerable effort standardizing our platforms, databases, and document collections, and developing consistent naming conventions such as file labeling, for example," Lalonde recounts. Those steps helped the transition when the new systems were put in place.

Cooley Godward selected Recommind as its search engine, which will soon be incorporated into a new portal from Vignette. Hummingbird DM is used for document management, and MDY's record management program, FileSurf, was selected for client records and the firm's conflict of interest database. A custom workflow product is also in place to support the business processes.

"Our lawyers are very tech-savvy," says Lalonde. "They are actively involved in the development of our systems and are willing to share their time and opinions." Lalonde took on the role of guide and coordinator. In the long run, she concludes, "Law firms are not about collecting and automating, but about what you do with the information when you get it—practicing law based on what you've done and what knowledge you have."


Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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