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December 25, 2013

Research update on knowledge management: Opinions are split

Next week, I will finish interviewing AmLaw 200 managing partners and senior executives for my study of Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, and in January we will begin formally analyzing the results.  But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the data we’ve collected so far, and I must admit that the area I am most puzzled about is knowledge management (KM).  Some of the firms I’ve interviewed have been extremely pleased with their results, and others have been very disappointed, and I am still trying to figure out why.

Part of the problem may be that there are so many approaches to KM, and even different definitions of the term.  KM is built around the idea of systematically leveraging the value of firm-created intellectual property such as documents, insights and experiences, but there are many different ways to do that ranging from informal sharing to sophisticated computer systems.

While some experts treat KM as an independent area, we see it as a key component of the larger discipline of legal project management (LPM). For example, in our LPM coaching programs, lawyers often share and improve checklists that they already have, and some of these quick wins evolve into more ambitious and formal KM efforts. At a recent workshop we conducted for the Ark Group, client John Paris described one of the sophisticated templates Williams Mullen has developed to increase efficiency: a “Road Map for Undertaking a Rule 506 Private Placement” outlining best practices for the firm’s private equity group. Similarly, as described in last week’s post, Bilzin Sumberg, another client and Ark panelist, has established an LPM sustainability committee whose mission includes identifying existing firm documents that can be used as templates for future legal projects so that professionals at the firm don’t constantly have to reinvent the wheel.

A fair number of the decision makers I’ve interviewed for my current research are in the process of expanding their KM programs. Consider, for example, these quotes from three of the interviews:

We are launching a brand new intranet here in about three or four weeks. I think it will be a game changer in a lot of ways, because we’re doing it in a way that it should improve the way every single person in this firm performs their job. We have built certain efficiencies into the program, and lawyers will have access to much more information than they’ve had in the past. It’ll be really interesting to see if we can accomplish all that we want to through this change, much of which is driven by trying to leverage our knowledge management…


Knowledge management has come to the fore a little bit in the last year or so, as we have heard and begun to realize that there is some value in it. We’ve had actually a pretty robust version of that institutionalized for many years. But at the practice group level now I think there’s beginning to be a greater appreciation for the value that that brings to client service… I’ve seen some progress on the understanding that our internal work product has some value and can be shared and leveraged more than we have been accustomed to doing, and that you can bring that to bear for more efficient client service.


We’re starting to do more knowledge management, with the expectation that it will improve efficiency and allow us to deliver the same legal services in a more cost-effective manner.


But will they get the benefits they are looking for? Some firms certainly have, as you can see in these quotes from three other firms that are further along in their KM efforts:

Knowledge management has been very, very positive for us… We have 12 attorneys in a firm of nearly 1,000 that just do knowledge management. So we’ve spent a lot of time there.


We’ve been at the knowledge management business for years… Our corporate group, our funds group, and our private equity group have done an especially good job.


We have brief banks, and we have form files, but we may need to accelerate our efforts there to keep up in terms of innovations and the way we deliver services.


But, on the negative side, here’s what three other firms said about their experience to date:

I think it’s tough to make a KM investment pay off, because it’s such a huge project to really maintain it, and we’re not in the widget business. We have some commoditized practices, but that’s a very small percentage of our overall work. It’s questionable whether the knowledge management model is really worth the effort.


We, like many other firms, have been disappointed in the knowledge management systems that have been available to firms over the past decade. The systems have not produced the productivity gains promised.


We put a lot of time into our knowledge management system before the lawyers working on it got frustrated because everybody had their own idea about how it should be set up. It’s very hard to get several hundred lawyers all committed to the same exact system and to put in the time necessary to make it work… We just haven’t found the best ways to make documents prepared by lawyer A easily findable and searchable for lawyer B. People aren’t going to sit down and do the type of indexing that you really need, and it’s always tweak this or tweak that, and there are still people who say, well yeah, this document was so negotiated, I don’t want anybody else to see it, and then there’s people’s general reluctance to allow access to work that someone else may criticize. We just don’t have as good a knowledge management as I know we ought to be capable of generating.


Exactly what’s the difference between KM initiatives that work well and those that don’t?  As we analyze the data over the next few months, we hope to find some hints.  But in our research, the KM discussions were short since this is just one small part of the much bigger picture of value and profitability.  Those who want a complete answer may have to wait for someone to do a study that focuses exclusively on KM and exactly how it is implemented at different types of firms.

As with so many things in life, the basic idea is easy to agree with:  of course it makes sense to share documents and leverage the value of a firm’s intellectual property.  But when you dig into the details of exactly how to do this, the answers get more complex and controversial.


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Hi Jim,

Nice post. I read it with great interest, since I am in the home stretch of writing my book on legal KM (to be published by the ABA in 2014).

Your view that KM is a component of LPM is also interesting. I can see your point, and I agree that certain aspects of KM are essential to successful LPM, but KM is also an independent discipline. And although you have not stated it this way, I would hate for some readers to interpret your post as implying that KM is exclusively a component of LPM in the law firm (or any other) setting. You can have (and many firms have for years) successful KM programs and initiatives without LPM, however. That's why I would caution that while KM is a key component of LPM, it is not *merely* a component of LPM. Applying one KM activity (e.g., sharing checklists), to the discipline of LPM does not mean that the disciple of KM is solely part of LPM. Rather, I think that your example points out that KM principles, activities, etc. can be applied to (and greatly benefit) various other initiatives and efforts.

Your discussions with managing partners have uncovered many of the KM challenges that firms have had over the years. However, it seems that some of the managing partners you spoke with may have a limited view of KM. KM is not just "KM systems" (I don't really even know what a "KM system" is) or technology. In fact I would argue that KM is more about people (e.g., culture) and processes than it is about technology and "systems." The technology is the (relatively) easy part. The people and processes are the more difficult parts. (One of my KM principles is "People first, then process, then technology.") But, like anything worth doing (LPM included, as I am sure you'll agree) it's worth doing well. And there's no guarantee that it will be easy. "Doing" KM (and LPM) is hard. Doing it well is harder, and it takes people. But, as many of the people I've spoken with as a part of my book research (and in my general discussions over the years) will attest, the benefits are worth the effort.

By the way, I enjoyed the Ark LPM workshop. It was well done. And I look forward to reading the results of your LPM research efforts. Best of luck with it.


Patrick - I LOVE your principle "People first, then process, then technology," which I think applies just as well to LPM as it does to KM. I expect to quote you often on this. I look forward to reading your book, and have a feeling I will be quoting it multiple times in my final research report. - Jim

Jim and Patrick, Jim's post, and both of your comments, are excellent. I agree with Patrick that KM is a 'stand alone' discipline in its own right, but I also agree with Jim that it is 'part and parcel' of LPM. Indeed, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the "PMBOK Guide") uses the term 'Organizational Process Assets' to refer to what we would call 'Knowledge Management,' and harvesting new ideas, processes, forms, etc. at the end of each case or matter for future use is integral to LPM. The KM-LPM connection is analogous to the Risk Management-LPM connection. Risk management is a discipline in its own right, too, but project managers must also manage risk as part of their project management work.

I'm not entirely persuaded that Patrick's priorities triage "People, then process, then technology" is correct - the jury's out on that one for me. I might actually opt for "Process, then people then technology." This may seem heresy, but people (especially lawyers) left to their own devices and preferences makes KM like trying to herd cats. In the end, someone has to just say "Here's how we do it here - just do it..." Further, if you don't require an 'after action' analysis as part of your process for legal projects, where everyone is REQUIRED to do a 'look back' to see whether there were any new forms, processes, etc. for KM purposes at the end of the matter, then it'll never happen. The last firm I was with protested such 'after actions' because lawyers couldn't bill their time for them after the matter had concluded (one of the reasons I left it...). KM is a 'discipline,' which in turn requires the 'discipline' to follow the processes to yield its fruits.

For a useful case for the 'Process, then technology, then people' priorities see Michael Gerber's book (downloadable on Kindle or audible.com) THE E-MYTH ATTORNEY, which has been a thought provoking read for me in the last couple of months. Best regards...

Mark – I agree with much of what you say, but I still strongly side with Patrick on the order “people, process, technology.” In theory, I agree it might be better to define a process and then require lawyers to follow it, but in practice it is almost impossible to require lawyers to do anything. We have found it is far more effective to start by helping individual people to identify and implement actions that they consider useful. This creates internal champions who can later push through formal processes. In the real world of law firms our view is that if you want to produce genuine behavior change in the shortest possible time, you must start by winning the people over first. - Jim

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