Having a Fool for a Client?

A 2001 article by John W. Amberg on the Los Angeles County Bar Association website begins with the words

The adage that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client” is the product of years of experience by seasoned litigators, the Supreme Court has remarked. See, Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432, 438 (1991). But do all lawyers know why?

It then goes on to explain all the terrible things that can happen when a lawyer disregards this adage and fails to obtain appropriate professional assistance outside the firm.

More recently, Ross Kodner reprised his earlier advice on the downfalls that result when lawyers attempt to handle their own technology and practice management projects. In a piece entitled REDUX: The True Cost of DIY Legal Technology – Why Pro Se Tech is Such an Economic Disaster, he makes the following pithy observation:

Lawyers should avoid representing themselves pro se on their tech and practice management issues.

Does the same hold true for knowledge management? Should practicing lawyers be running the knowledge management effort in their firms? Or, should they outsource this to “KM professionals”? If they outsource, should those professionals having experience as legal practitioners or is it sufficient that they have demonstrable knowledge management expertise?

To be honest, I’m not sure I have complete answers to these questions. Further, I suspect that the right answer depends on the firm in question. However, there are some things I’ve learned from experience that I think are universal. For example, while practicing lawyers within a firm undoubtedly are closest to their clients and understand best what is required for good client service, they rarely have the time or inclination to translate that knowledge into the wide range of content necessary for a robust law firm knowledge management system. Further, even if they are interested in creating a knowledge base for their practice area, they usually can’t devote the time and attention necessary to create a coherent firm-wide KM system. This suggests that you are going to have to do some outsourcing if you want dedicated attention for your KM effort.

If you are going to outsource the work of law firm knowledge management, your choices of professionals depend on what you want to achieve and the extent to which you wish those knowledge managers to work independently of busy practitioners. If you can hire only one person, be sure that person has experience as a practitioner. Otherwise, they will not have the requisite experience to find and evaluate content for the KM system and most likely will not be qualified to create content for the KM system. If you can’t face the cost of hiring a lawyer, then hire a paralegal who has worked on the kinds of matters your lawyers usually undertake. Alternatively, hire a legal reference librarian. But understand that the paralegal or librarian is more likely to act as an organizer or manager of content provided by practitioners rather than a creator of content. And, if your lawyers are busy or insufficiently engaged in the KM effort, there won’t be as much content to organize.

The other option is to recruit professional knowledge managers who are new to law firms, but have considerable KM experience in other industries or professions. These folks can help rationalize business processes and facilitate the creation of useful KM systems. And they will bring to your firm a broad perspective that can be invaluable in developing your firm’s approach to knowledge management. But, at the end of the day, they will need the consistent cooperation of practitioners to customize the KM system to meet your client service needs. If your lawyers are as busy as most lawyers have been recently, they simply won’t have the time to provide the guidance and input needed by these KM professionals.

So, there are no easy answers. However, if this tempts you to decide that the path of least resistance is to have your practitioners just handle knowledge management on top of their client service responsibilities, remember the old adage about lawyers who represent themselves. Then go and reread Ross Kodner’s article.

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