KM Time Capsule

What can a time capsule from 2008 tells us about progress in law firm knowledge management?

Time Capsules

When Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977, NASA included in their cargo two phonographic records known as the Golden Records. The contents of those records were compiled by a committee led by Dr. Carl Sagan. These records were time capsules that offered an overview of human history, as well as a glimpse of the diversity of life and culture on earth.

People have been creating time capsules for centuries as a means of communicating with future generations. The oldest known time capsule in the United States was found under the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House and is said to have been placed there in 1795 by Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay.

Our Law Firm Time Capsule

Law firm knowledge management is not nearly as old, but I was fortunate to find a document that acts like a KM time capsule telling our 2023 selves what mattered in the olden days of law firm KM. In this case, I’m referring to a wiki page created by attendees of the 2008 predecessor to the SKILLS conference. Then, as now, we asked attendees to tell us what their priority projects were, which projects they actually were able to tackle, and what KM (and now, innovation) topics were hot (or not) in their view. For as long as we’ve been conducting this survey, Ron Friedmann (Prism Legal and Gartner) has shouldered the laboring oar in analyzing the survey results. With the assistance of the SKILLS planning committee, his report is published annually to give a snapshot of trends in law firm KM and innovation.

Current State of Play

The 2023 report makes the following assessment:

Our take is that the level of sophistication of KM, innovation, data foundations, and approaches to adoption is significantly up from 5 or 10 years ago. To be sure, many respondents continue their fundamental “blocking and tackling work”, which we view as always required. But many are doing sophisticated work with data, analytics, and AI. We think that growing resources within firms, better access to internal and external data, the rise of APIs, the growing standards movement, and better legal tech products have combined to allow firms to improve their approaches to KM and innovation.

Analysis of SKILLS 2023 Survey

But how does this compare to our 2008 time capsule? The excerpts below provide some examples for you to ponder:

Signs of Progress

Looking at some of the challenges identified in 2008, it is clear that law firm KM professionals have made some significant progress since then:

  • I haven’t heard many stories of firms having a great handle on experience management. Some inherent problem are needing a central repository but being able to accommodate each team’s needs….
  • Email management is out of control: we don’t share it, we don’t file it, it is discoverable. What do we do?
  • For those of you who have gone down the path of creating email matter filing systems, what have the benefits been? Are there any tangible results other than the compliance benefits?
  • Where is the best place to store email — the DM system or records system?
  • How to use SharePoint for both intranets and website content management without duplication?
  • Will we start outsourcing content creation and if we do will attorneys actually use it or will they continue to rely on their “best deal/last deal” documents?
  • What are the implications of Enterprise 2.0 and Web 2.0 tools for KM activities and communications?
  • Must matter types (areas of law), document types and record categories match across new matter intake, document management and record management resources?
  • Will there be KM specialists in 5 years?

Signs of Stasis

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here are some of the challenges that faced the attendees of the 2008 conference. They reveal that some problems just never go away. (Note: The conference happened at the beginning of the year, well before the global financial crisis.)

  • Law departments want transparent access to knowledge resources available in law firms. Law firms want to bind themselves to clients. When and how will we finally break down the walls and achieve this linkage?
  • How to provide consistently excellent content?
  • Does KM drive technology or does technology now drive KM?
  • Where do KM, Competitive Intelligence and Business Development intersect? How can we maximize the collaboration points?
  • What are effective ways to balance the KM agenda with other administrative department agendas…and still present a unified front/strategy/message to internal and external clients?
  • What is the value of any of this? What would happen if no one uttered the initials KM ever again?

Signs of Shift

If you laughed out loud at some of the quotes above, it’s an indication that KM has made progress. If you winced, then you recognize that some problems are inherent to law firm life or inherent to the nature of KM. In either case, it’s good to be able to take a longer view because it helps provide some context and hope when all you can see otherwise is incremental movement in the current month, quarter, or year.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

[Photo credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Lab]

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