Moving at the Speed of Molasses

It doesn’t really matter how great your law firm knowledge management team is at creating and planning effective KM projects if the bureaucracy of your law firm doesn’t let you get things done in a timely fashion. While all of us have experienced project delays from time to time, one of the most frequent complaints I hear about law firm KM is that it seems to move at a rate comparable to molasses in January. (Of course, there are notable and laudable exceptions to every rule.)

Some may say that the complaints are simply the result of the whining nature of knowledge managers, but that sweeping condemnation really is not fair. Nor is it fair to say that we’re suffering from the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, since there are too many of us who can tell sorry tales of delayed or abandoned projects. It might be instructive to hear from Neil Richards, who has worked in law firms and who discovered it was a completely different experience to work in a bank:

This recent exposure to life outside law firms has provided a stark contrast as to how things get done, which got me thinking. My experience and the experience of friends who work in law firms indicates that projects and plans take a long time to execute. Simply getting a project up and running can take months.

By way of comparison, my current project has only been on the books for a short time. Internal bureaucracy is squashed, decisions are taken and progress is made on a daily basis. The bank has well over 100,000 employees, easily more than the combined sum of the employees of the top 10 UK law firms.

While a sample of one is neither scientific nor dispositive, Neil’s experience as recorded in his blog post, Life in the fast lane, is instructive. And, it probably accords with what we’ve been suspecting for some time.

So what accounts for the difference between KM in a law firm versus KM in other types of businesses? Is it that a partnership inherently operates differently from a company? Do law firms lack the vision and leadership to get KM projects done? Is it that law firms aren’t really geared to operate as effective businesses? Are bureaucratic rivalries more prevalent in law firms? Do IT departments in banks understand the value of knowledge management better than IT departments in law firms?

As with most things, you can’t always generalize. It’s best to ask these questions in the context of your own firm. How does your law firm stack up against the bank Neil is working for? Can you honestly say that at your firm, “[i]nternal bureaucracy is squashed, decisions are taken and progress is made on a daily basis”? If not, why not?

Perhaps once we have answers to these questions, we’ll be able to get a little bit closer to what Neil has had the pleasure of enjoying at that bank:

What I do know is that it’s remarkably more satisfying to work in an environment where one’s own brain is the bottleneck as opposed to the inner machinations of one’s firm, and that means it will continue to be challenging for firms to keep the high-performers within their back-office.

So pay attention to this issue. Neil’s experience contains both a warning and a goal. If you can’t deliver KM projects in a timely fashion, not only will you have trouble hanging on to the best members of your team, but you and your KM effort will lose credibility within your firm. By contrast, when you’re finally at the point where your “own brain is the bottleneck,” you’ll have hit the sweet spot for law firm knowledge management. And then, the sky’s the limit!

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