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KM helps reshape the practice of law

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Traditionally, law firms are not the most entrepreneurial businesses. They don't tolerate failures or work on research development of their business processes as much as other sectors. For that reason, when knowledge management initiatives run into cultural roadblocks, the resistance to change can snowball on itself and bring progress to a halt. But that hasn't stopped the growing number of legal KM directors from pushing the envelope in terms of technology and collaboration innovations. We asked four of them about their strategies and changing roles. 

Patrick DiDomenico, director of knowledge management,
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart

Patrick DiDomenico's transition from a litigation attorney to KM director happened gradually. In his daily work as an attorney, he spent a lot of time figuring out how to work more efficiently, making his own digital case files instead of relying on paper case files, and figuring out ways to do research more efficiently. "I knew I wasn't the only one frustrated, so I decided to propose this to my firm as a position to help other attorneys with efficiencies." It turns out his firm at the time had been thinking the same thing and was already preparing a KM executive job description. He jumped at the opportunity. That was in 2005.

Two years ago, he moved to Ogletree Deakins with an opportunity to create a KM department from scratch. DiDomenico got to work right away structuring the department and figuring out which things would fall under KM. Besides library services, his team includes two knowledge management attorneys and a KM firm solutions group, which works on internal projects and content development such as a new intranet portal, along with a SharePoint development team. Another team works on extranets  and other client-facing applications.

It was fairly obvious to him which things to tackle first. "We were a firm with a large footprint (45 offices), hundreds of attorneys and growing fast. We had a matter-centric document management system and that is a good place to start, but it isn't easy to find things in. It is not easily searchable. So we implemented an enterprise search capability for that," he says. "Then we revamped the intranet from a basic legacy one to one more strategically deployed based on SharePoint."

DiDomenico says that the fact that he was a litigator for many years helps him get buy-in from attorneys. "It helps that you have walked in their shoes. You are a member of the club, went through the same pain of law school, bar exam and work in litigation," he says. "If they tell me their file organization is one way, they don't need to take two hours to explain that to me because I get it, and I can communicate the heart of the matter to the IT folks, for instance. From my experience, someone who understands well the experience of practicing law has an advantage, although I do know some chief knowledge officers in law who are very smart and talented people and are not attorneys." 

Joshua Capy, director of knowledge management, Clearspire

Joshua Capy is director of knowledge management for Clearspire, a national law firm that has broken the mold of the traditional firm model by relying on a sophisticated Web 2.0 IT platform to enable its lawyers to work more closely with clients and with each other, while streamlining the management of the business. Capy, who is also the firm's principal database developer, said one of his focus points has been the creation of a virtual community of practice that enables knowledge creation, dissemination and management.

Clearspire's model is open and transparent with clients and their counsel, according to Capy. "For instance, we created tools to do matter-staging estimation to allow for the estimation of fixed prices wherever possible," he says. "That is one of the things that attracts clients: They can know the costs upfront."

Clearspire has grown to approximately 50 associates. Because it was a startup, the firm was able to look for people interested in change and open to adopting new technology but more importantly working in a collaborative environment. Capy explains, "We don't have a traditional hierarchy, and the firm structure is fairly flat in terms of remuneration and evaluation."

Capy says that most traditional legal KM focuses on enterprise search and archiving of work product. "I think of that as the digital trail that leads you to the team that has the creative ability to solve new work problems," he explains. "I am more interested in social knowledge. Our system is built around forums, chat and video presence. It has availability trackers so people are aware of others' availability and their time zone, so it helps manage expectations about response times. The focus is social knowledge and finding the right people, then engaging them directly with a new problem set. In general, people who share knowledge rather than hold it do well in this setting." 

Dwight Floyd, director of knowledge management, Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein

Parker Poe, a 190-attorney firm with five offices in North Carolina and South Carolina, created a KM leadership position in 2013 tied into the development of a strategic plan to maximize value to its clients.

Dwight Floyd was a litigation partner who had always been involved in legal technology. "As the need for dedicated KM became obvious, I grew interested," he recalls. "We always had KM initiatives, under the direction of our CIO." The boundaries of KM are nebulous but they involved IT, library, marketing and work in practice areas. "Yet they didn't have the coordination to help with interoperability across departments," Floyd adds.

Although he has no direct KM staff, his job is to communicate and coordinate across departments on KM efforts and keep everybody on the same page. "We switched to a matter-centric document management system, so I am working on spreading best practices across groups," Floyd explains. "We also upgraded to SharePoint 2013 and are talking about improvements to client-facing systems." In addition, Parker Poe is dedicating itself to mobility because so many of its attorneys need to access information from outside the office.

Floyd recognizes that change management is always a challenge. "Few attorneys are itching to change the way they do things," he says, "even when they recognize that change is important. That's why an attorney, and one who has practiced at Parker Poe, is important in this position. I understand their issues and speak the same language."

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