4/4/11

Once Were Lawyers

A few weeks ago I wrote a post attempting to define KM. It was simplistic and possibly naïve, but you have to start somewhere. Since then, I’ve come to realize that beyond a conceptual understanding of KM, you shouldn’t waste too much time trying to define it. The search for a single definition that will appease all parties is a fool’s errand. So with a conceptual understanding under my belt I began to focus on KM in a legal environment. How can we use KM within a law firm?
There are a couple of books on the subject and there is a close knit group of Legal KMers that are active on Linkedin, Twitter, this blog and the blawgosphere at large. These are brilliant people, who have spent a lot of time thinking about KM in law firms and they are willing and eager to share their experience and ideas. What more could a new legal KMer possibly want, right? Well, here I go again with my naïve and simplistic approach, but it seems to me that there’s a big chunk of the conversation that’s almost completely missing – The Staff.
I don’t have the statistics at the ready (don’t hold me too closely to the numbers), but experience tells me that non-attorney staff make up approximately 50% of law firm employees, while the Legal KM literature and ongoing conversations are about 95% focused on attorney knowledge flow. I hear a lot of…
· How do we improve knowledge flow within and between practice groups?
· How do we best capture the tacit knowledge gained after the transaction has occurred?
· What technologies will best facilitate collaboration between the attorneys, and between attorneys and their clients?
I don’t mean to say that attorney knowledge flow isn’t important, just that it’s not the only knowledge flow problem we have. Most of the non-attorney staff in a law firm are also knowledge workers. If we’re taking a holistic approach to KM within a law firm, shouldn’t we also be asking…
· How can we make it easier for non-attorney staff to communicate and collaborate?
· How can we more efficiently manage incident response within IT?
· How can we transfer the tacit knowledge of a retiring 45-year veteran legal secretary to the 22-year-old replacing her?
I do not hear many of these questions bantered about in Legal KM circles. (And for those of you keeping track at home, here’s where I’m really going to step in it.) I think that’s because the people writing the books and most of the KMers within the Legal KM-iverse are currently, or were at one time, attorneys. That doesn't make them bad people. In fact, it makes them well suited and qualified to handle the specific problems of implementing KM within a firm. Plus attorneys are much more likely to listen to another attorney talking up KM, than they are to their former IT guy. However, it also means that their perception of law firms is kind of skewed toward the attorneys. I’m not sure to what degree the non-attorney KM problems are even on the radar.
And yet, from my perspective as a non-attorney KMer with many years of support experience (and very little experience in KM), I see the problems of communication and execution amongst the support staff as the low-hanging KM fruit of law firms. Call it my “trickle-up” theory of Knowledge Management. I think we may be better served by building a culture of quality KM in the 50% of staff below the attorney level and then let the attorneys come along whenever they finally get it.
P.S. And this is a serious question. What percentage of KM leaders at the 2010 MAKE (Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise) winners are current or former practitioners of the company’s primary business? Engineers at IBM and GE, programmers at Google, Apple and Microsoft, accountants at Ernst and Young? Just curious.

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2 comments:

Ayelette Robinson said...

Ryan, I am completely on board with you on this one. Thanks for highlighting the issue in a post.

Janet said...

I assume most of us know why KM literature focuses on lawyers - they will eventually be paying for KM initiatives. I totally agree with you about the non-attorney staff benefiting from KM tools and processes. But the partners won't be sold if secretaries Mary and Jerry can share "how do I?" answers. They have to see the benefit to their practice and profits. Let's face it-we would, too, if we were in the same position.

 

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