Storytelling and Law Firm KM

As I was writing my earlier posts recounting Dave Snowden’s concept of “fragmented knowledge” and Fred Nikols’ strong recommendation that we focus knowledge management on human interactions and development rather than structured content, I must admit that I experienced mild anxiety about the implications of this for law firm knowledge management.

For years we’ve been chasing the Holy Grail of model documents and precedents, practice guides and practice notes (best practice materials), checklists and timetables, and the like. These are all examples of structured knowledge that is difficult and expensive to capture, but is so highly valued within a law firm. I imagined having to tell our management committee that rather than working on a record number of model documents this year, I’d be spending my time collecting anecdotes from lawyers. Next, I worried about whether storytelling lawyers actually existed. And then it struck me, if lawyers are humans and if Snowden and Nikols are right about knowledge and human behavior, then even lawyers must engage in storytelling to exchange knowledge. Based on this very narrow view of human beings (or homo narrans, as Snowden refers to them) and some further reflection, I’m happy to report that lawyers are human (really) and do tell stories.

And when do they tell their stories? At practice group meetings, when lawyers provide an oral debriefing on the highlights, challenges and lessons learned of recent or current matters. In formal continuing legal education sessions, when more experienced lawyers use their stories to illustrate the legal points they need to convey in order to help their colleagues master new developments in the law. When lawyers do pitches, they share with prospective clients the stories of their successes with similarly-situated clients. It’s these stories that help the prospective client envision being a client of the storytelling lawyer.

So what are the implications for law firm knowledge management? It would suggest that we should broaden our focus beyond capturing written materials in document management systems and Portals since it is unlikely that many of these valuable stories will ever be written down and stored there. Instead, we should collect, organize and distribute video clips of these stories that can be played and replayed at the point of need. Further, we should consider investing in search engines that can parse, profile and index audio-visual content. It also means that we need to bring the rigor of model document and best practice document creation to the art of storytelling. We must train our lawyers to tell stories well — stories that have a point that is clearly articulated and easily understood.

These are challenges that require law firm knowledge managers to take a turn from the well-trodden path of managing documents. It promises to be a very interesting journey.