My friends were so worried about me that they rushed over to check that I hadn’t lost my marbles. In fairness, their response could be considered reasonable given that I had just declared to a group of law firm knowledge management specialists that much of what we collectively were doing at that time shouldn’t be done the same old way. It was a point of view many didn’t want to hear.
Several years later, we’re enjoying the benefits of enterprise search, better document management and work product retrieval tools, and lawyers who are much less phobic about technology. As a result, I’m even more convinced today than I was back then that law firm knowledge managers need to think hard about the work they are doing. If they are still stuck in the mode of document collection and organization, they may face the unpleasant discovery that electronic tools can do much of this work in an automated and more reliable fashion. Even those involved with content creation (i.e., the classic practice support lawyer), may soon find that the materials they currently create and struggle to maintain can be produced and more reliably maintained outside the firm on competitive economic terms. For example, the Practical Law Company offers lawyers an up-to-date set of model documents, practice notes, checklists and guidance on market terms (among other things), coupled with the economies of scale that are possible because PLC has more practice support lawyers than most firms and can spread the cost of those lawyers across many firms. (Disclosure: I’m on PLC’s advisory board.) For many firms in the UK and the US, this is an attractive option.
An even more radical alternative is what Jeff Vail refers to as “open source knowledge management,” which he claims is “the most potentially disruptive technology for law firms.” According to him, even a large firm with a KM staff will have a hard time replicating the range of resources that will become available on the web through collaborative efforts of lawyers in many firms. Here’s how he describes it:
What lawyers do, at its core, is manage knowledge and implement systems for applying that knowledge to solve clients’ problems. I’m not talking about case law, statutes, and other knowledge accessible via legal research here …. Instead, what I’m talking about is the knowledge of how to apply the law, lists of best practices for doing so, and systems for applying those best practices. …[but] even the most experienced lawyer doesn’t have access to the depth and breadth of best practices available to the “crowd.” For that reason, the potential of open-source knowledge management and development of legal systems (checklists, indexes of best practices, etc.) has the potential to truly disrupt the way most lawyers and law firms do business today. Additionally, while many firms tout the benefit of their institutional knowledge to clients, no firm can compete in breadth and depth with a cooperative, open-source knowledge management tool that connects solo and small firms across the country.
Put another way, if a lawyer is carrying out tasks that are closely circumscribed by the requirements of statute or regulation, with little room to improvise, chances are that the task list that lawyer creates to manage that process will look a lot like the task list created by a lawyer in another firm. In this context, an open source industry standard begins to look very appealing.
Obviously, risk management experts will have concerns about the reliability of open source legal resources and I don’t intend in any way to appear to be minimizing those risks. Their concerns are reasonable and valid. That said, I must admit that if there were a reliable open source knowledge management resource, it would be the most rational and cost-effective approach as far as clients and lawyers are concerned. Of course, if that day ever comes, some law firm KM jobs will have to change quite radically. Are you ready?
[Photo Credit: Brooks Elliott]