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KM innovators lead change in the legal field
Case management solutions streamline processes,
improve client collaboration.

The legal profession, despite having an obvious need for knowledge management, tends to be cautious in adopting KM technology, preferring incremental change to a totally new approach. Many firms are either working to customize SharePoint to create portals for the various practice groups within the firm, or to figure out ways to provide clients access to legal resources and their attorneys.

But some larger law firms have invested in KM innovation as a way to transform their practices. They have hired chief knowledge officers, provided them with staff and funding that is separate from IT groups, and charged them with creating tools to support both clients and attorneys facing disruption in traditional billing models.

Here are the stories of three such firms.

Littler Mendelson

Scott Rechtschaffen, chief knowledge officer at Littler Mendelson, didn't have to convince his firm to create a knowledge management department. "In fact, I was told to create it!" he says. In 2001, as partners in the firm, which focuses on labor and employment law, were doing strategic planning, they had a vision of growing to more than 50 offices, and realized they had to have a way to improve quality and consistency and tie the organization together better.

Building capacity gradually, Rechtschaffen now leads a department consisting of 11 KM attorneys, two technology managers, two content administrators, three dedicated researchers and a library staff, for a total of 30 people. "Most KM departments in U.S. law firms are technology focused and don't have attorneys," he explains.

For the past two years, Rechtschaffen's team has been helping re-engineer the way Littler Mendelson operates. Clients are increasingly reluctant to pay billable hours, he says. They are forcing law firms to be more efficient. In labor and employment law, some of the work can be seen as a commodity and rate-sensitive, such as revising employee handbooks or administrative agency charges.

In January 2010, the firm rolled out a case management solution, called CaseSmart, that uses proprietary technology to streamline the way cases are managed, and help attorneys as they conduct research, prepare responsive documentation and perform their legal and risk analyses.

"We were asked by one of our large clients to reduce their overall spend on administrative agency charge work," he says. "We mediate, settle and defend EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaints for them. We made a proposal to the client to do all their work nationwide at a lower fixed fee price per charge than they are paying now. We needed a more advanced tool than an extranet."

A team of employees re-engineered every step, from how the charge is handled to the file being closed, and built the tool around that. "We tried to move down the steps in the intake process and automate what we could," he adds. "It is like supply chain logistics for a law firm." A cadre of 10 flextime attorneys are dedicated to specific clients and become experts on them.

Most revolutionary, according to Rechtschaffen, are dashboards for clients to see an aggregation of all cases so they can tell how many the firm is settling vs. defending and average settlement amounts. "And it provides them actionable information," he says. "If they see a series of disability claims in Texas, they can take proactive steps such as sending trainers there to help." 

Bryan Cave

Like Rechtschaffen, John Alber is charged with using technology to address a sea change in the legal profession. The strategic technology partner in the St. Louis office of global firm Bryan Cave, Alber says that clients are watching their legal spending very closely. "They want it more predictable, and they want to bring that spend down in terms of fees," he says. "We have tried to look at every slice of that legal spend and streamline through automation."

For due diligence, Bryan Cave, which has 25 offices, has built applications that streamline processes of repetitive litigation in the financial industry. "We automate as much as we can," he says. "We capture basic information and assign it to our workflow system. Many of the elements of reporting to clients can be burdensome and time-consuming. Much of that can be automated."

In another instance, Bryan Cave helped a wireless carrier manage the purchase and sale of units of radio frequency spectrum. But the cost and time involved in due diligence killed some of the potential portfolio sales. "We used our workflow engines to support attorneys in producing reports and doing document vetting," Alber says. The result was a reduction in turnaround time from months to just a few weeks, which translates into reduced costs. "That is transformative," he adds.

Alber believes firms have to be structured for innovation. "It is very difficult to innovate out of a traditional IT structure," he says. "What we are doing is a fundamental undertaking aimed at change. IT groups want stability above anything else. So I think it is important to have a structure where you create other entities that focus on innovation."

Bryan Cave now has three teams focused on innovation: A Client Technology Group researches new technologies to deliver improved, more cost-effective service to clients. The Accelerated Review Team creates technology-driven staffing approaches to some of the most significant components of legal spend facing Bryan Cave clients. The Practice Economics Group (PEG) was created to develop tools and techniques to improve the firm's ability to price projects accurately and competitively and to manage those projects to completion on budget and on schedule.

For instance, when Bryan Cave saw a need related to consumer financial industry litigation, it created tools in less than six months, some key parts in just weeks. "You can't do that from within a traditional structure," Alber says.

Bradford & Barthel

Many firms are weighing their options in terms of cloud computing, but in 2010 Bradford & Barthel took a huge step toward a Google-based collaboration platform. Eric Hunter, director of knowledge management and technology for the 12-office California firm, says the effort actually began in 2009. "We spent time thinking about how it could drive behavior change in our firm," he recalls. "We saw the way Google Apps and Facebook were changing behavior on the consumer side. I talked with senior management about Google as a transition tool. Besides enormous cost savings on software licensing, we thought we would see benefits from improved collaboration, and we have."

Among other things, Bradford & Barthel is using the Google Apps for e-mail, intranet and calendaring. It also uses Google Sites and Google Docs to streamline departmental communication and sharing documents with clients. Google Video has been used to develop a video training program for firm attorneys and clients.

Being the first large firm to move to cloud-based apps may have been seen as a risk, but Hunter says the firm's senior executive team has taken risks before on trying new revenue models and marketing modes. For instance, he says, "they are very interested in how social media can be part of their client contact platform."

So far, the transition has been popular internally. Hunter says, "We had the most pushback from administrative staff. The change in how documents are prepared initially scared the heck out of them, but the Google platform is built to be intuitive to consumers, so that ease of use made the transition smoother." He says the firm is now in a good position to take advantage of Google's ongoing improvements in search and collaboration features and bridging them across all applications.

No doubt, all three of these KM leaders have taken some risks to change business processes within their firms, but all three seem to have fostered a culture of innovation, and perhaps firms like theirs will be more nimble going forward. And KM is gaining traction in law firms. There are 50 to 60 people in the United States and Canada in the legal field with titles such as chief knowledge officer. When I interviewed Scott Rechtschaffen, he was preparing for a regional meeting of law firm CKOs.

Scott Rechtschaffen is chief knowledge officer at Littler Mendelson.

John Alber is a strategic technology partner at Bryan Cave.

Eric Hunter is director of knowledge management and technology at Bradford & Barthel.

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