Basic Knowledge Management for Lawyers

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

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Knowledge management” means getting what your business knows out of people’s heads and into easily-accessible storage. It is a way of giving new lawyers and staff easy access to resources and instructions so they aren’t wasting time trying to track down answers.

So many lawyers approach each new client or project as if it was all-new, reinventing the wheel each time. That is just an inefficient, ineffective waste. With good knowledge management in place, you should never have to do the same thing twice, which means happier clients and a healthier bottom line.

You can hire knowledge management consultants and buy expensive knowledge management software, but you can do basic knowledge management simply by developing good working habits and adopting a few simple—and free—tools.

The goal is to get re-usable things—like the standard of review on summary judgment or your file opening procedures—out of your client files and into a central location so anyone can find and use them again. In order to do that, create two folders on your file server or in your Dropbox, so that everyone can get to them. In order to get your firm’s policies and procedures down, build an operations manual.

  1. Create a forms folder that has subfolders for the documents you create, from cover letters to discovery requests to stock certificates.
  2. Create a reference folder that has subfolders for every letter of the alphabet, as well as a # folder for things that start with numbers.
  3. Create an operations manual that includes all of your firm’s policies and procedures.

Forms

Forms are the pieces of a document that you need to use again and again. Start every document in the forms folder. Make this a firm policy. Getting ready to draft a motion to dismiss in the Smith matter? Start in the /Forms/Motion to Dismiss folder, not the Smith folder (start with what you are drafting, not who you are drafting it for).

Start drafting the notice of hearing, motion, memorandum, etc., but leave out all the bits about your client for now. When you have finished generic parts like the standard of review, or the elements of tortious interference with contract, copy the file to your client’s folder and finish it. Last thing, update your form if you made any changes to the generic sections while finishing the document.

If you start every project in the forms folder, you will save everyone in your firm a lot of time on subsequent projects.

You should also keep things like your file opening checklist and your blank client folder template in your forms folder, where they will be easy to find and use.

Reference

Just like every document should start in the forms folder, every research project should start in the reference folder. I subdivide my reference folder with a folder for each letter of the alphabet, and create internal folders as needed for subject area, jurisdiction, etc. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even particularly well-maintained, to be useful.

I throw research memos, web pages (converted to PDF), scanned magazine articles, scanned CLE materials, and anything else I can into my reference folder. Every once in a while, I go on cleaning binges, getting rid of out-of-date CLE materials and other useless stuff.

Before I started using a reference folder (thanks to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, as a matter of fact), I kept a /Notes & Research folder in every client file. This was useless for knowledge management. My research on any particular subject would be scattered through a dozen client folders, doing me little good for a new project.

Operations manual

Your forms and reference folders basically hold what you know how to do. Your operations manual should hold your knowledge about how to do it. You can build an operations manual in your text editing software of choice (Word, OpenOffice.org, etc.), but I am really enthusiastic about using a wiki, instead.

Whatever you use to create your operations manual, it should be comprehensive, and created to be a convenient reference for your firm. It should cover everything from logging into the firm’s network to your legal writing style guide, and your call scripts for legal assistants.

One of the first things in your operations manual should be your policies on using your firm’s forms and reference folders.

Once you have an operations manual, you need to make sure your employees use it. Optimally, they will also help you improve it. Both are easier with a wiki that is searchable and always accessible. A giant binder is less likely to get used.

Keep at it

Knowledge management takes work, but it takes less work than not doing knowledge management. Make it a priority to keep your forms and reference folders, as well as your operations manual, up to date. When someone asks you a question, put the answer in your operations manual. Make sure your employees have a copy or know how to access it.

You’ll be glad you took saved the time.

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  • Susan Gainen

    Thank you, Sam.

  • GeeBird

    Some good thoughts here. My philosophy is slightly different. I want to do all of my work from the Client/Matter folder. I also have a centralized Legal research folder with subfolders for each topic (much like Westlaw Digest topics). The legal research subfolder under a given matter has hyperlinks to the relevant legal research folders greatly simplifying the task of finding the legal research relevant to that matter without sacrificing the intergrity of the knowledge base. Of course new research for a matter is archived in the central Legal Reseach folder for immediate access for any matter. Similarly, I like to work from the Client/Matter folder when drafting documents. Within each document type subfolder (eg. Pleadings) there is a Drafts subfolder which, in turn contains a Templates subfolder. The templates subfolder holds about 20 of the most commonly used templates (Captions, Complaints, Motions, Petitions, Responses, etc.). I recognize this results in some duplication, but the template files don’t amount to more than a megabyte or two and they are deleted when the file is archived. Since I never have more than 30 or so matters open at a time, it works for me. An added advantage is that, if I need to quickly transport a client file – say to a deposition – I have numerous templates at my instant disposal at the remote location.

  • Dan Durocher

    Sam, I realize this is an old post, but do you know of a good guide or how to on creating a wiki?

    • If you mean installing wiki software, I recommend using either MediaWiki (think Wikipedia) or Wikispaces. Wikispaces is better if you aren’t comfortable installing and configuring software on your own server.

      If you mean how should you organize information in a wiki, I would spend some time studying the way articles are organized on Wikipedia, and browsing the documentation.