Search is vital in the modern law firm. The ability to find information quickly and efficiently contributes not only to business success but also to work satisfaction. We’ve all been frustrated at some point when we’re looking for a case, or a research point but no good leads show up. On close of business, it’s much more satisfying to look back on a productive day where you actually finished a project instead of contemplating a day where you found yourself constantly impeded by the lack of necessary information and your productivity diminished by fruitless searching.
Pre-internet, pre-web, pre-mobile…..pre-everything!
In our youth, the only recourse was a set of encyclopedias our parents had been cajoled into buying. We would drag out the large, heavy books just to clarify that Rome is the capital of Italy.
Today, of course, there’s no need to pull a volume of an encyclopedia off a shelf or even leave the room to find answers. In much more subtle fashion, you can simply look down at your phone to search for answers to factual questions. Google and Wikipedia have certainly redefined what it means to search. However, we tend to search because it is easy to do so. A primary reason for Google’s phenomenal success is its vaunted ease of use. Typing relevant keywords is enough to quickly get meaningful results – why bother with hard texts when you can get answers online? Why do physicians not use medical literature, rather than relying on the drug company salesman for information about a new drug? By no means do I imply that fast and easy is best. But only that fast and easy is often “good enough”.
Search has gone mainstream. People search sports and entertainment or to locate a retail store or book a hotel. The reality is that the simplistic notion of search does not carry over particularly well to finding information essential to doing your job.
Recently a colleague reached out to me looking for reading material in a certain area of law. The topic was from a 1942 case. Her issue was that she didn’t just want the 1942 case; she wanted 5 recent cases that reported on the topic, as well as articles. Her initial searches did not yield anything relevant, not even the 1942 case; and she’s not alone. Many lawyers find themselves frustrated when they can’t find the desired information in an immediate way because of how current search applications are designed. They involve typing keywords into a search engine via a browser, at least with respect to online resources outside the firm. Further, internal search applications are complicated by the need to search both structured and unstructured material and the fact that an internal search platform is either non-existent or relatively user unfriendly as compared to the internet.
Certainly the integration of search into the daily lives of most people supports the argument that while search is important to what we do, it certainly does not lead, without more, to anything like a competitive advantage, either personally or for your employer. Why? Because everyone is doing it (perhaps not skillfully) – moreover as more millennials enter the workforce, many have been doing it for quite some time.
But as a Knowledge Management strategy, search is not a “one off” tactical activity whose goal is to find pieces of information and call it a day, but rather a more strategic activity whose objective is to add search results to an evolving and organic narrative around an area of law. It is the ability to plug search results into a narrative, one that provides a holistic context.
Despite the enabling technologies now available, implementing a KM strategy that is viable and market differentiating remains a challenge because of the 3 Ps; people – which requires changing employee thought patterns and behaviours, process – the creation, maintenance and usage of a knowledge base (that is how the initiative is actualized) and the platform – the set of technologies that is leveraged in the actualization and its inherent characteristics such as accessibility, availability and reliability.
Legal Knowledge Management (LKM) is here to stay. I remember when I first joined LKM and guys just couldn’t understand what it is I do. I was in the library, ensuring statutes are up to date, cajoling lawyers to keep up with their CPD points, organizing trainings and lawyers meetings, lots of legal research – at first glance you’d think it just administrivia going on right? Wrong! This perception couldn’t be any further from reality.
So in this post, I offer some realities. As LKM professionals we see ourselves not just as legal librarians sitting in the cornermost part of the office, but as gatekeepers of knowledge. We smartly capture and curate legal know-how to enable its re-use seamlessly.
First LKM boosts lawyer productivity, a key ingredient to deliver better value. Think of productivity in the common sense of the word i.e. output per hour as opposed to billable hours per year.
Then there’s LKM technology. For large practice firms, efficiency is king. In my previous role I used Contract express, a document assembly application on a daily basis and through a base template, I was able to churn out documents in minutes saving myself and my fee earner colleagues’ time to do more substantive work. Other applications complimented this such as Sage for my HR issues or Maconomy for time recording and billing. Legal tech and LKM are now symbiotic in that one cannot exist without the other. A survey done by Mitratech, an enterprise legal software provider, found that law firm spending on LKM technology will grow at 18% for the next few years. A high growth rate compared to other categories of software.
You may be surprised at the breadth of what LKM professionals do. Initially the focus was mainly on creating precedent and taxonomies and building both digital and physical libraries. Now the LKM toolkit is largely digital with innovations in AI, search, document assembly, social media integration into existing legal software and mobile applications for remote access to a knowledge database being some of the hottest trends right now. While the LKM toolkit grows, so does the remit of LKM professionals. Today, many support alternative fee arrangements, process improvement, and legal project management.
For in-house lawyers, LKM can improve efficiency of their own lawyers. And it can avoid paying law firms to do the same work more than once. Law firms can also improve efficiency. Plus firms can use LKM to improve their service delivery, perhaps the only sustainable way to differentiate today.