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January 23, 2013

Legal project management and knowledge management

If a lawyer wants to identify the exact approach that will allow her to deliver services more efficiently, it can be extremely helpful to know how colleagues have handled similar situations in the past. But lawyers are busy, and sharing information is not their strong suit. Knowledge is often passed on haphazardly, or not at all. The result is that an enormous amount of legal time and energy goes into re-inventing the wheel.

There are dozens of definitions of exactly what knowledge management (KM) means, but all are built around the idea of systematically sharing insights and experiences.  Law firms can deliver greater value to clients by identifying useful intellectual property created during earlier matters, and then leveraging that knowledge inside the firm through increased access and sharing.

Like process improvement, KM is often perceived as completely separate from LPM. For example, before we started working with one of our first clients, he asked why we thought his firm should invest their limited budget in LPM rather than in KM. Our answer: You shouldn’t. You need both. By our definition, KM is not an alternative to LPM, it is an important part of it.

KM professionals are now applying a wide array of sophisticated technologies to the law including document management systems, email management systems, business dashboards, and tools to assemble documents, estimate fees, and plan matters. In a 2012 survey conducted by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA), law firm KM professionals reported that the most widely KM used tools collected models and precedents (52%), and legal research and opinions (48%), along with intranets and portals (37%).

Law firms have been working with KM technologies for several decades, and frankly they have experienced varying degrees of success. Technology can do some amazing things, but only if lawyers use it.

However, even at firms that have little or no widely accepted KM technology, it is very easy for lawyers to make progress in KM simply by devoting time and energy to sharing best practices.

Many lawyers have developed forms, checklists, spreadsheets, and a variety of home-brewed tools and techniques to assist them in working more efficiently. Some take these tools and techniques for granted, others think that no one else would be interested. They may not realize that what’s automatic to them may be totally foreign to others.

Sharing even the simplest Rube Goldberg-like tools and techniques may be just what another partner needs to begin becoming more efficient. Starting out in KM does not require investing in elaborate software systems or hiring specialized staff. It simply requires that a group of lawyers make a commitment to collect information about best practices, and then share it. If a best practice works for one lawyer, it may work well for others.

That’s why initial LPM efforts often include collecting sample engagement letters, budget spreadsheets, time/billing reports, and checklists. When these informal project management tools are shared, two things happen. First, lawyers become more receptive to learning about project management best practices because they see that this is not a new fad, it is a refinement of tactics partners have been using for years. Second, when lawyers have easy access to these documents, they can often find some low-hanging fruit that can easily be adapted to their own practice.


This post was adapted from my new book Legal project management, pricing and alternative fee arrangements.


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