As we say in our Legal Tech Guide, law firm Knowledge Management (KM) is about the organization of company information and files. This means business info, HR info, client info, and any other information that a law firm collects, stores, reviews, or interacts with.
All law firms have KM systems. Unfortunately, many firms have a helter-skelter implementation. All too often they simply claim, “well, this is how my mind works.” Or, “the system works for me.” Commonly, however, a significant amount of time is wasted finding or recreating information.
Knowledge Management isn’t simply Document Management. Although Document Management is an aspect of KM, KM is much larger. Lawyers, and most businesses, deal in information. The more efficiently they can access it, the better.
Why is Knowledge Management important?
“Working” doesn’t always translate into “working well,” however. Knowledge Management aims to balance quick and efficient access to law firm files and information with thoughtful and appropriate data security. Storing all the files in the file room or saving them on an attorney’s local drive doesn’t necessarily accomplish either of these.
One key to good KM is being able to access the right information at the right time. There are two aspects to accessibility, though. Firms will initially want to make sure the data is in a place where users can get to it (i.e. remote firms using the cloud). Then, they’ll want to confirm the people who need access to the information (and only those people) have the credentials to do so.
Law firms also have a responsibility to use reasonable efforts to protect their client files. And, although there is not necessarily an affirmative duty to do so, they should also protect their business files and teammate information with the same vigor.
Protecting client files, however, doesn’t simply mean keeping them confidential. Lawyers also have a duty to keep their client files from being destroyed, damaged, or lost. Ransomware attacks, for example, will remove a law firm’s access to their files. Although there may be no confidentiality issue, losing a client file would likely rise to the level of unprofessional conduct (provided reasonable efforts to protect them weren’t taken).
Some solutions, although they work, aren’t scalable enough. Even the siren song of OneDrive turns dissonant once multiple users need access to the files. Propper KM practices should take into account the direction of the firm’s growth in both personnel and location. Knowledge Management isn’t just about managing law firm files for the here-and-now, but also for what comes next.
How can firms better understand and implement KM principles?
Understanding a Law Firm’s Knowledge Management
Whether talking about accessibility or security, the first step in a law firm’s knowledge management journey is to document the information they maintain. It may seem superfluous to create more information about the files and data a law firm manages. But it is important to understand the scope and scale of the firm’s knowledge.
This documentation can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet. It should obviously keep track of the what and the where of the information. Firms should also note the sensitivity of the information, who should have access to it (including any third parties), and the importance of the information to the firm.
On the whole, when thinking about where this information should live, firms should focus on finding, rather than sorting. More often than not, users are searching for files rather than following a folder structure to a known destination.
Bryce Phillips, document management systems (DMS) consultant at Affinity Consulting Group, sees one common mistake during initial knowledge management systems implementation. According to Phillips, many firms “ overuse granular classifications due to the mindset of folder structures.” He goes on to say, “The real benefit of a full document management system is the searching capabilities that it offers users.” Since many document management platforms will allow us to search for information inside of the files, this method is much more powerful than simply organizing by title, client, matter, or document type.
Implementing Knowledge Management in a Firm
Once a firm understands what knowledge they are trying to manage, it’s time to build the system. Which means it’s time to document the features that you need. This can likely be a second sheet in the Excel workbook from above. In this sheet, a firm will list things like, “sharing with outside counsel”, “courtroom access of client files”, or “document retention.”
While the firm creates this list, it should also note the importance of each feature. Phillips suggests separating the nice-to-haves from the must-haves. This will help firms quickly eliminate products that aren’t right for them. Although there will never be a perfect product, it’s important to get the big things right.
Once a knowledge management system is chosen, firms should focus on top-down buy-in. Too often, an office will implement processes and systems (often with great effort) just to see them go unused. “The system will do the firm zero good if only part of a firm is actually utilizing it,” said Phillips.
Hand-in-glove with top-down buy-in is a periodic review. Firms should keep in mind that, like any other system, this is a growing and changing organism. Firms should revisit their plan periodically to determine what can be done better and what can be eliminated. This will ensure the system is not in danger of becoming unwieldy and bloated.
More about Systems and Procedures
Knowledge management is only one of many systems in a firm’s repertoire. A modern firm should understand how to build these systems, document their procedures, and implement best practices in their offices. For more on this topic, visit our Healthy Systems resource page.
Last updated January 20th, 2023