Combining business and practice: KM and the law
As one of the most knowledge-intensive "industries" around, the legal profession is perfectly suited for knowledge management. A global study by Curve Consulting (curveconsulting.com), which was referred to in our October 2006 issue (page 1), finds that while firms are quick to acknowledge KM's value to the practice of law, most have yet to embrace it on the business side. We asked Gretta Rusanow, primary author of the "2006 Global Law Firm Knowledge Management Survey" to describe a firm that realizes the value of implementing KM in all aspects of the business.—Ed.
Australian law firms have long been regarded as leaders in knowledge management. A disproportionately high number of top-tier law firms for a population of 20 million makes for a highly competitive market. For many years, law firms have focused on finding ways to stay ahead of their competitors. Their approach to KM, in particular, is considered a key market differentiator.
Allens Arthur Robinson (AAR), one of the largest Australian law firms, is a leader in law firm KM. With 800 lawyers (including 190 partners) and approximately 700 non-legal staff located in 12 local and international offices, its approach to KM is regarded as critical to the firm's success.
Strategy and approach. The firm's KM objectives focus both on the internal and external. Improving the quality of client service is a key objective, although the firm also names leveraging its expertise and improving lawyer development as other main objectives.
To ensure that the firm's approach to KM meets those objectives, it has had a KM vision and strategy in place for the last five years that is aligned with its overall business strategy.
Initiatives are identified at both the practice group level and by a central knowledge management function. The firm takes a hybrid approach—where the central function sets the direction for KM and provides the infrastructure for practice group initiatives. Each practice group develops a KM plan that sets the priorities for that practice group for the upcoming year. To ensure that each initiative is closely tied to the knowledge and business objectives of the firm, a business case and project plan are developed before any initiative is implemented.
Scope. Like most firms, AAR manages knowledge relating to the practice of law, including precedents/forms, best-practice and model documents, clauses, firm and practice area information, case law, commentary and interpretation, staff skills and expertise, internal training papers, information on existing clients, business and industry information, external seminars and presentations, and legislation and commentary.
What distinguishes AAR from many firms is its focus on managing knowledge relating to the "business of law," including existing and prospective client information, client business and industry information and the firm's market position. As the legal marketplace becomes increasingly competitive, the firm recognizes that to provide excellent legal services, its lawyers must understand the markets in which both the firm and its clients operate.
AAR also leads other law firms in managing knowledge relating to internal processes. By focusing on developing methodology and processes, and collecting and sharing lessons learned from past projects, AAR can use that knowledge to work more efficiently (and profitably) in future matters.
AAR has a broad range of initiatives underway. Like many firms, it has implemented precedents/forms, legal research tools and systems, a best-practice document repository and practice group meetings. Like other leading law firms, it has implemented a skills and expertise locator, clause library, professional development program, client relationship management system, know-how files, and a third-party contacts database.
AAR leads other law firms in implementing debriefing and methodologies, a competitive intelligence/business information system and a proposals database.
Knowledge management organization. Knowledge management is led by the director of knowledge education and development services (KEDS), whose portfolio also includes professional development and practice excellence (or risk management). AAR has taken that approach because it believes that knowledge management includes the development of behaviors and processes associated with lawyers enhancing their personal and collective knowledge to increase performance and minimize risk.
Reporting to the chief operating officer (COO), the KEDS director is responsible for managing knowledge management staff, developing the KM strategy, advising management on KM, building wide user support among lawyers and staff, and leading implementation of initiatives.
There are roughly 37 knowledge management staff, composed of KM lawyers, technical precedent support, library and intranet content staff. At one knowledge management staff member for every 22 lawyers, the ratio is lower than the Australian standard of 1:20 but higher than the global standard of 1:29.
KEDS is further supported at the partnership level in two ways: There is a firmwide KEDS partner who is the "champion" of KEDS among the partnership, and each practice group has a knowledge management partner.
Culture. AAR's culture is very supportive of KM. Rather than an isolated initiative, it is largely seen as encompassing all aspects of the practice. Also, it is perceived by the firm as including both technology systems and non-technology processes.
Management supports KM constantly and consistently at AAR. Most valuable is its introduction of a "50-hour policy," which requires each lawyer to spend 50 hours a year on KM-related work. That contribution is considered in each lawyer's performance assessment. The policy was introduced at the suggestion of the knowledge management partners in an effort to