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KM for law firms--legal or not?

This article appears in the issue July/August 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 7]
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Law firms have lots of choices when it comes to software; dozens of programs are available for such functions as case management, practice management, document assembly and trial presentation. Those popular products often are a great match for a law firm's needs. However, sometimes a solution based on a generic KM platform, rather than a dedicated legal product, works best. Other times, a specialized legal product works in tandem with a KM product to produce better results than either could alone.

Content Management

Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala specializes in intellectual property (IP) law, including such areas as patents, trademarks, industrial design and computer law. Like other areas of the law, IP law is document-intensive and deadline-oriented, but in other respects, it exhibits some important differences. For example, the issues related to trial law and litigation, such as discovery, do not apply to patent applications and claims. Therefore, software programs designed for firms that are focused on litigation are not necessarily a good match for law firms specializing in IP.

With that reality in mind, Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala began considering a content management system that could be readily customized to its own needs. Documents associated with its cases often undergo extensive revision and must be tracked against an exacting series of deadlines. Therefore, one requirement was a check-in/check-out function. In addition, activities such as filing patents typically involve extensive correspondence that needs to be retrieved and viewed in the context of other client-related matter. The application must include a robust search engine that would allow retrieval of information generated in a variety of formats.

Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala selected Stellent Universal Content Management as a solution that would provide the needed flexibility to tailor the content storage to its needs.

"There is a lot of specialized software for litigation, corporate work and case management," says Cathy Jacobs, legal administrator at Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala, "but the process we go through in our work is not typical of most law offices, and the standard document management fields do not apply." Jacobs identified Stellent as a good candidate from her previous experience in implementing IT solutions in a corporate environment.

Savvy Users

The firm was able to use a more generic solution partly because of the high level of technical expertise its lawyers have. "All our lawyers are scientists and engineers as well as being very proficient with computers," Jacobs says. "When I talked about ‘user-defined metadata,' they were not alarmed." In fact, the lawyers knew exactly what data they needed, and developed a ranking system for the metadata that put all the information into the right hierarchy. A smooth implementation followed, and the documents from the folder system were imported into Stellent Universal Content Management without any significant snags.

Several key benefits have emerged from having the content at Oyen Wiggs Green & Mutala stored in a central repository. "We have a docket merge tool that merges form letters with the client data from the docket system, which tracks deadlines," Jacobs says. "Although we were able to merge form letters before, they were not searchable and were not tied to the docket system." In addition, the documents are now accessible via the Internet.

Stellent Universal Content Management can be accessed directly through Word Perfect, which means that support staff and lawyers do not need to leave their usual work environment to place documents into the repository. The documents include a scanned version of every incoming piece of client mail, which is coded with metadata.

"We can type in any piece of metadata--usually the client number--and can see all the documents in Stellent for a particular client. Before, there was no way to do that," Jacobs says.

When a law firm is choosing between a specialized solution and a broader one, anticipating future needs can help the decision.

Business Objectives

"For a firm that may need to expand its content management function into records management," says Victor Owuor, product manager for Stellent, "a more flexible solution has advantages over a dedicated document management system." In addition, the latest release of Stellent Universal Content Management allows application of retention rules to documents outside the Stellent repository. The search function also extends into other applications.

Just as law firms are becoming more sophisticated in how they handle content, they are also exploring the use of business analytics.

"We started thinking about KM in the context of looking at our business reporting," says John Alber, technology partner at Bryan Cave. "We did not believe that our existing measures were adequate to measure our performance."

Bryan Cave provides a broad range of legal services from offices in the United States and overseas. It emphasizes problem avoidance by combining legal and business expertise to anticipate and resolve client issues. A considerable portion of the firm's work involves creating software applications that deliver legal services to its clients.

To assess whether Bryan Cave was meeting its own business objectives, particularly its profits, Bryan Cave developed a model for measuring profit as a percent of a stated target and tested it using a spreadsheet. After validating the concept, Alber wanted to deploy the model throughout the firm, and began looking into software options.

BI for Law Firms

"Many financial tools are geared toward accountants," says Alber, "but we wanted to provide information to lawyers that would help change the way they think about the business side of their work." Some of the software tools provided very detailed information, "but it was not actionable," Alber says. As a consequence, Bryan Cave decided to develop its own business intelligence (BI) suite. That set of tools, developed by Bryan Cave's Client Technology Group, permits lawyers to plan new engagements and monitor existing relationships.

Eventually, Alber discovered Redwood Analytics (redwoodanalytics.com), which offers business intelligence software geared toward law firms. Bryan Cave shifted its approach toward Redwood's product so that the firm could focus more on innovation and less on developing and supporting software. Redwood's BI software extracts data from a firm's accounting or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and creates a content-rich data warehouse. The Redwood Dashboard presents key results in a dynamic summary format that allows some drill-down options. The specific information presented depends on the role and authorizations of the user, but is designed to provide a snapshot of relevant financial performance metrics directly to the attorneys.

Better billing

With its refined business intelligence platform, Bryan Cave was able to attain a better understanding of the implications of its billing practices. For example, lawyers can compare information across clients to learn what staffing and pricing approaches are working best. The most useful information is likely to be that which surprises the partners.

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