Bad Habits

Kudos to Jordan Furlong at Law21 for his summary of the document management presentation by Steve Best and Debbie Foster at the ABA Techshow and his thoughtful observations on the depressing state into which lawyers and their document management systems have sunk:

The speakers emphasized that the only truly effective DM system is one that makes compliance involuntary. Human nature and office culture are both such that staffers will always look for a way to get around the new system of naming, filing and locating documents in order to use their own. This reminded me of what I’ve been hearing more often in knowledge management circles, that the most reliable way to harness lawyers’ knowledge is to automate the process, extracting the information from lawyers without them knowing it or participating in the process: many law firms have not found ways to sufficiently motivate lawyers to freely share what they consider their stock in trade. It makes me wonder about the bad habits we’ve developed in the legal profession regarding the information we use every day, that we’re at the point of needing to circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success. That’s not good.

Where did we go wrong? To begin with, earlier generations of document management systems set up enormous barriers to entry in the form of over-reaching profile pages. These pages collected information that lawyers didn’t care about or didn’t care to share. Truly useful information (e.g., client matter numbers) was mixed up with much less helpful information (e.g., randomly-selected document types). At bottom, there was a huge disconnect between the source of the information — the lawyer — and the DMS. Unfortunately, there were few incentives or cogent explanations to bridge the gap.

And then, there are the lawyers. What is it about lawyers that makes us so uncooperative on these issues? First, the pressure of the billable hour pushes us to move as quickly as possible through our work. When you are playing “beat the clock,” who has time to fill out an extensive profile page? Second, we are tightly focused on client demands. This necessarily makes the non-billable needs of firm administration and systems much less compelling. Third, it is the nature of big law firm practice that very few first-year associates will actually stay in their firm long enough to become partners. So what’s the incentive to contribute to the institution and its systems?

The other problem with lawyers is that we’re only human. And most human beings don’t like to do what they don’t like to do. In fact, some will go to great lengths to launch workaround wars on systems they haven’t specifically endorsed. (To be honest, when was the last time the managers of your DMS sought user feedback much less endorsement?)

And what are the “bad habits” lawyers have developed regarding the types of information that allows us to marshal and manage lawyer work product efficiently? Lawyers have grown accustomed to noncompliance with impunity. Law firms have not made compliance a priority. If they had, they would have found more successful ways of convincing us that sharing this information is useful not only to the firm at large, but to the individual lawyer as well. And, they would have enforced compliance more effectively. Firms have also allowed lawyers to focus on very short term goals (e.g., meeting the client requests of the day no matter what the cost) at the expense of long term goals (e.g., building a knowledge infrastructure that allows tomorrow’s client requests to be met with much less effort).

Jordan Furlong’s observation applied to the full range of KM systems leads to a disquieting conclusion: if we are not able to elicit the voluntary participation of lawyers in the creation and sharing of knowledge, then we will be compelled to build KM systems that “circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success.” But that is success at a high price.