How paralegals can
head up KM projects for their firms.
By Linda A. Potter
January/February 2005 Issue
The success or failure of a law firm is
highly dependent on two factors: the firm’s composite legal knowledge
and its ability to effectively manage that body of knowledge. Despite
this correlation, law firms in the United States generally have shown
little interest in adopting formal knowledge management initiatives as
part of their overall management strategies. However, economic and
professional indicators suggest more managing partners gradually are
realizing that utilizing KM practices can allow their firms to provide
more cost-effective legal services that meet the needs of the client
base, without sacrificing the professional quality of the services.
Although the majority of legal KM
literature is targeted at attorneys, especially those involved in firm
management, paralegals should learn as much as possible about KM.
Paralegals who increase their understanding of legal concepts, available
technology and work processes, can make a valuable contribution to the
firm by identifying KM needs and developing initiatives. Paralegals with
exceptional technology skills and a superior understanding of legal
principles will find their role in the delivery of legal services is
expanded as firms increase the utilization of KM tools. In larger firms,
paralegals might be assigned to formal KM planning or implementation
teams. In smaller firms, a paralegal also might wear the hat of
knowledge manager in addition to, or in place of, other substantive
legal work typically assigned to paralegals.
This article provides basic information
about KM for paralegals interested in implementing it in their law
Lawyers are in the business of selling knowledge. They do
this when they use their expertise in drafting transactional documents,
appellate briefs or estate planning documents. Even though they might
not realize it, lawyers are using KM techniques when they “capture” the
knowledge they have acquired and reuse it the next time they have to
draft a contract, pleading or living trust. In the not-too-distant past,
knowledge was captured almost exclusively in file cabinets where print
copies of briefs and forms were stored. Usually, an issue index was
tediously created and routinely updated using the ever-present IBM
Selectric II, so the attorney could locate a brief or form dealing with
a particular issue or point of law. A busy law practice would fill a
room with brief banks and form files, making the indexing more and more
tedious and less and less effective. Sadly, some firms still operate
this way today, albeit using word processing software to index the
firm’s knowledge holdings.
Today, the practice of law has evolved
into the business of practicing law with firms using common business
practices such as strategic management and marketing tools to stay
competitive in the legal environment. Law firms also have started
embracing technology to handle a broad spectrum of business and legal
needs, including time and billing software, conflict-of-interest
management, contact information, document collections and the firm’s
calendar system. The time is ripe for the implementation of formal KM
initiatives. However, not everyone — especially attorneys — really know
what knowledge is or how it’s managed.
Knowledge is typically broken down into
two categories: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit
knowledge is knowledge captured and stored in either a print or
electronic format, such as document templates, briefs and memoranda on
various points of law and transactional documents containing the
preferred language for terms and conditions used in subsequent
agreements. Explicit knowledge is fairly easy to capture, share and
Tacit knowledge exists in the mind of
each individual; it’s what the person knows about a specific topic or
process. Tacit knowledge is commonly referred to as oral tradition or
tribal knowledge. For example, an attorney with years of experience in
the courtroom has learned certain tricks of the trade he or she
routinely uses in practice. The attorney doesn’t need to write these
procedures down anywhere because they are just part of the routine.
Obviously, tacit knowledge is much more difficult to capture, share and
Different firms and practice groups rely
on different types of knowledge when providing services. All firms need
legal knowledge, or the understanding of the legal principles and
processes in the areas of law practiced by the firm. Large firms that
offer services in many types of law and geographic locations can use
firm knowledge to help clients find an attorney in a certain practice
area or part of the country for representation in a matter or
jurisdiction the client’s primary attorney doesn’t normally handle. Firm
knowledge also is used when assigning projects requiring expertise in a
specific substantive area.
“Client knowledge” is knowledge about
the firm’s clients — whether they are corporations, small businesses or
individuals — and understanding the client’s interests, positions and
expectations. Maintaining an accurate client knowledge base also helps
prevent conflict-of-interest problems and other potential malpractice
Process knowledge is knowing how things
are done, whether it’s knowing how to properly serve pleadings on
out-of-state parties in an action or knowing all the steps required for
due diligence in a real estate transaction. Process knowledge generally
is tacit and requires extra effort to capture so the knowledge is
disseminated to those who need to use it.
Cultural knowledge can have more than
one meaning. The first is having an understanding of the firm’s culture,
its business objectives, management style and the image the firm wants
to project. The other facet of cultural knowledge is in the perception
of the culture surrounding the substantive area of law the firm
practices. Firms handling matters that are highly emotionally charged,
such as domestic law, plaintiff’s personal injury and personal
bankruptcies will need to have a cultural knowledge structure completely
different from a firm specializing in business law, real estate
transactions or employee benefit plans.
The KM needs of each law firm or legal department are unique.
However, there are a number of KM tools a firm or department can
customize to meet its KM objectives. The most common KM tools and
categories for which data can be captured are best practice collections,
document and form templates and processes.
Best practice documents are documents
the firm has prepared in response to a specific event or transaction.
The firm maintains the “best” documents for other attorneys to use as
examples of form and content. A synthesis is an annotated collection of
best practices on a specific topic or issue. The annotations include
notes about when the document was used in the past, for whom the
document was drafted, the name of the author and any other information
relevant to the original use or subsequent use of the document or
Document templates are similar to
“fill-in-the-blank” forms. Some of the ways in which firms use document
templates include form letters; simple contracts and wills; litigation
documents such as Notice of Hearing or Notice of Taking of Deposition;
discovery documents and other documents prepared repetitively based on
an established format. Some form-intensive legal specialties, such as
bankruptcy or tax work, purchase special software packages that allow
attorneys or paralegals to prepare the required forms using a merge
feature. The information contained in the client’s file on the computer
automatically is merged into the form document.
Processes are the series of steps it
takes to complete a project or accomplish a goal. The goal can be
something fairly simple, such as making sure all parties in a lawsuit
are served each time something is filed with the court, or something
more complex such as a commercial real estate transaction.
After the knowledge management plan is formulated and the
firm has decided what data needs to be captured, the firm must decide
what hardware and software are needed to implement the plan. The array
of available legal technology packages is overwhelming. Some firms use a
different application to handle each aspect of their KM needs. Others
rely on one centralized product such as a case management or matter
management package, and utilize add-on features as additional needs are
Paralegals are in a unique position to
recommend or choose software applications. Much of a paralegal’s work
involves utilizing a number of programs to conduct a myriad of tasks. An
experienced paralegal will understand what the software needs to do and
whether the need is met by a certain application or suite of
applications. Other computer users in the firm might only be interested
in entering data or the quality of an end product.
Firms that manage best practice
collections frequently use a document management package or searchable
database. Many databases allow full-text searches of stored documents.
Others require users to formulate search queries from a pre-defined
collection of words and phrases called taxonomies. Developing an
effective taxonomy is a never-ending process as new phrases must be
added and others become outdated and must be deleted or archived.
Database applications that require taxonomies generally have modules
included in the purchase price or can be acquired separately. These
modules contain search query terms common to a particular area of law.
The firm’s KM team then can customize the existing taxonomy rather than
building one from the ground up. Developing or even modifying a taxonomy
requires an extensive understanding of legal terms and phrases.
Form creators and generators are
becoming more and more sophisticated, frequently using XML structure to
broaden the utility of the application. However, many firms prefer to
use word processing or standard office suite applications to create
templates and mail-merge documents. When more complex applications are
used, the responsibility for developing the forms frequently is
outsourced to a technology firm or consultant. Unless the developer
understands the unique needs of the legal world, the end product might
not be what the firm envisioned, or even worse, the result might not be
in compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
Process management is accomplished with
applications that keep track of tasks, dates and resource allocations.
Office suites and case management programs usually come with a
calendaring program or task manager adequate for small firms or
individual use. There also are applications specifically used to manage
projects from start to finish, including cost accounting, generating
charts and reports on various aspects of the project, and the creation
of a generic timeline so future projects can be planned based on the
time required by previous projects. Process management, whether done
with a hand-drawn flow chart or a sophisticated project management
software program, requires a complete understanding of the logistics of
the process, the resources needed to complete the project according to
established deadlines, and the ability to plan for contingencies that
might arise during the course of the project.
KM is Not for
Although most professional services fields actively are using
KM principles as a strategic management tool, the legal world is not yet
completely convinced of the value of KM practices. Some attorneys are
very territorial about the ownership of work product or client base.
It’s very difficult to persuade these individuals to contribute to a
firm-wide knowledge base of best practices. Some think using KM tools
will stifle the creativity associated with drafting legal documents
addressing unique legal issues.
Others don’t want to implement KM in a
law firm because knowledge work is time consuming but not billable.
Salaries and bonuses frequently are based on meeting and beating
billable hour quotas; therefore, attorneys and paralegals have little
incentive to invest valuable time in nonbillable work. However, those
who use this argument should consider all the time that will be saved
firm-wide once the KM system is up and running, thus allowing firm
employees to be more efficient and increase their billable work.
At the other end of the spectrum are
firms that attempt to launch a full-blown KM initiative without a
thorough understanding of KM theories and how KM will benefit the firm.
Managing partners who believe installing a certain software program on
the firm’s network server will solve all the firm’s ills will be
disappointed. Frequently, when this approach is taken, employees are not
provided adequate training to learn to use KM systems effectively.
Management becomes disenchanted with the program and refuses to allocate
adequate resources for it to succeed. Then, the firm goes back to the
old system of providing services that everyone understands, but isn’t
really very effective or efficient. Don’t let your firm get caught in
this trap. Make sure training time is included and enforced in the plan.
There are firms with a progressive attitude and proactive
management style. These firms are successful because they recognize that
to stay competitive, they must adopt new systems and procedures that
enhance the quantity of work produced without sacrificing the quality.
They also plan carefully before making dramatic changes. The following
are factors firm management must consider when determining if the firm
is ready for KM:
Identify the need for KM. How will the
firm benefit from utilizing one or more KM tools? How will the firm’s
clients be impacted?
Identify the appropriate KM tools,
techniques and technology. Which tools will work best to meet the
firms needs? Is the necessary technology compatible with the firm’s
existing systems? Are the techniques easy to understand and simple to
use, or will employees require additional training?
Identify potential problems and
Identify the cost of the initiative.
This includes the direct purchase costs for software, hardware and
consultant fees, plus the cost of lost billable hours during the
learning phase and implementation.
Identify the time frame for launching
the initiative. Include the time involved in developing the plan,
obtaining management approval and sponsorship, revising the plan,
ordering equipment, arranging training and the time involved in
Identify the metrics for determining
success. How will the firm determine if KM has increased efficiency
and effectiveness of service? Will it use a Return on Investment
formula to determine if the firm earned more net profits after the KM
program was launched than it did before? Will efficiency be determined
by an increased volume of work completed, or a larger client base for
whom the work is performed?
Identify the person or committee
responsible for launching the proposal. Also identify how often the KM
manager or KM committee will report to the firm’s managing body and
what information the KM manager or committee will report.
Leading the Way
Paralegals are in a unique position to assist in and even
direct the development and implementation of a formal KM program.
Because paralegals have an understanding of legal principles and
practices, as well as the extraordinary organizational skills necessary
to handle the logistics of a massive document production, they often are
the best staff members to launch and sustain a successful KM initiative.
A paralegal who sees a need for a KM
solution and would like to lead the project should prepare a
well-researched, carefully thought-out proposal to present to the firm’s
management committee or managing partner. In addition to convincing the
firm’s management of the need for a KM program, the paralegal must
provide justification that he or she is the correct person to lead the
charge. The paralegal must demonstrate he or she has the technological
know-how, the leadership abilities and a sincere interest in the
project. Although a formal education in computer technology isn’t a
prerequisite to paralegal work, an individual who wants to work in KM
should consider participating in training sessions for the software
applications being proposed.
There are several resources available to
paralegals who wish to expand their understanding of KM in the law firm.
“Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer” by Gretta Rusanow
(published by ALM Publishing, 2003), and “Effective Knowledge Management
for Law Firms” by Matthew Parsons (published Oxford University Press,
2004) both provide a comprehensive look at the status of KM in law
firms, in the United States and abroad. The Law Practice Management
Section of the American Bar Association has a number of articles
archived on its Web site that address KM issues at
www.abanet.org/lpm/home.shtml. A Google search for “knowledge
management and law firms” returns more than 3 million results.
KM isn’t just a trend in legal
management that will dissolve when the next fad emerges. A paralegal who
arms him or herself with a solid background in KM theory and practice is
making a wise investment in his or her professional future.
KM Software Connections
There are many knowledge management
solutions available for firms of all sizes. Below are a few of the
popular options available.
Practice Technologies Inc.:
Gavel & Gown’s Amicus Attorney: