Knowledge management: use it or lose it

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Published on 3/20/06

Corporate clients increasingly expect their law firms to have Knowledge Management (KM) systems. By Knowledge Management, we mean the systematic organization of the firm's entire work product, prepared for all of its clients, so that the collective research and advice of all lawyers are available to each lawyer.

Clients no longer want their lawyer to reinvent the wheel. Once you've done the research, or created the template, the client doesn't want to pay for others in the firm or another firm to re-create it.

No matter how proprietary lawyers want to be, work product is not the intellectual property of the law firm. As work for hire it is the property of the client, who should receive the full benefit of it.

The old KM concept was to look in your file cabinet and pull out the paperwork of your last deal or pleading. Computerized KM systems make the information available faster and more completely. But the process only works when the information is classified and categorized consistently and from the start, by all lawyers in a firm.

That aspect of KM runs contrary to the viewpoint of many lawyers. In small or solo law firms the thought historically has been: "I know where the files are and what's in them; why should I make the process of accessing them unnecessarily complex?"

In larger firms, many lawyers believe that managing a file is not billable time, particularly after a transaction or case is completed, and so they either do not do it or do it incompletely.

Further, in large law firms, lawyers hesitate sharing their work product and client information for fear the client billing relationship will be "stolen" by another attorney in the firm.

The first requirement for effective KM is to be organized in a work file right from the start. You cannot create work product haphazardly, wait until a matter is closed, then try to organize the information after the fact.

Best practices require every firm, whether one lawyer or 1,000, to create a standard classification system for each attorney's work. There should be separate physical and electronic folders for correspondence, memos, forms, briefs and e-mails (which have vital information but frequently are forgotten or ignored). Every folder and document gets labeled with the client matter.

At the end of the matter, ask the client what they want from the file (and keep records of authorization and dispersal). For all information that the firm retains:

  • Identify precedent documents that can be used in future matters and ensure that they are both identified and easily accessible;
  • Make it a policy to begin all new matters by reviewing the precedent file;
  • Review and include opposition or third-party documents that might have useful precedent forms or information for future use.

Following such processes makes KM a built-in part of every matter. The fact that more firms are using shared document management systems, such as iManage and Docs Open, and shared e-mail files in Outlook, makes the effort even more feasible. Systematic organization eliminates haphazard, after-the-fact efforts that fail to make and keep precedent documents accessible.

For effective KM, use a system -- or risk losing access to the knowledge you've built.

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