Legal Knowledge Management – What’s it all about?

After a fifteen minute march from the Clyde & Co office where I’m currently based, I arrived at Shearman and Sterling to a bustling room full of legal information specialists all looking keen to establish a channel of communication for their respective KM concerns.


John Beaumont began by explaining that BIALL had been talking about a knowledge management special interest group for a good few months, indeed I’d been made aware of this by my manager who sits on the committee.


Jane Bradbury, head of knowledge at Slaughter and May provided a good overview of the evolution of information roles within law firms since the 1990s. During this decade roles were decidedly more fixed; there was the stereotypical librarian, “the gatekeeper” or library partner. Though such partners may still exist now, the role will tend to be solely budget focused.


Jane highlighted that law firms, by nature are “knowledge businesses” and as the commercial world has increasingly realised the value locked in its knowledge assets, firms have raced to put systems in place to capture and extract the knowledge within the organisation. The fixed and more traditional roles of the 90s have made the transition into information provision (concerned with external information distribution) and knowledge organisation (internal sharing of know-how). The purpose of the interest group was to provide a communication platform for those whose job roles had begun to encompass the latter domain.


Jane mapped out the borders of where information managers, knowledge managers and professional support lawyers converge and shared her belief that when such departments effectively communicate and collaborate, business support can achieve true potential.


The realm of the PSLs, she proclaimed, was the detailed knowledge of transactions and the expertise behind their capacity to analyse, judge relevancy, avoid risk, apply the law to the facts, draft, advise and explain.


Information professionals bring a commercial awareness to the arena, offering not only the ability to do legal research but to provide business information, supporting business development functions and offering skills such as negotiation and an understanding of software.


Knowledge organisers seem to require a hybrid of these skillsets but the emphasis seemed to be on the ability to listen. Anne Ashdown’s (TFPL) follow up talk clarified some of the key skills required. It should not be assumed that information needs are clear; the ability to think commercially, to ask questions and try to understand business needs were highlighted as key skills. Upon reflection, it seems to me to be the mastering of a balancing act between acute listening and successful influencing. Shy and retiring types must find a voice to successfully raise the profile of KM initiatives across the organisation and to find champions across the board and persistently demonstrate value. There was a real emphasis on collaborative working and problem solving.


Jane highlighted some “hot topics” in KM from modes of delivery for current awareness to the deconstruction of transactions to make  them as efficient as possible. There was a variety of methods she alluded to including process mapping, document automation, drafting tools, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. For me, the underlying message was the need to understand the technology behind these tools.


The Q and A session at the end was perhaps the most illuminating in expressing the reality of KM across city law firms. A universal problem was the lack of time PSLs have to devote to advocating KM initiatives, some people expressed concerns about how to assert authority and create a credible image. Another challenge was the often small size of KM departments against the backdrop of much larger organisations. Some people voiced concerns of breaking the traditional stereotype of the library as an antiquated concept related only with physical books and hard copy materials. The advice was to re-brand, re-name and even re-locate if necessary but implicit in all this advice was the need to make waves in the firm and get the message out through as many means as possible. The lesson was to always be listening and always looking for ways of demonstrating value and proving the usefulness of the service. Be aware, be assertive and be innovative. Lawyers don’t want to hear what can’t be done with the resources, they want solutions. Be positive in responding to requests, even where the full requirements can’t quite be met.


All in all, the session seemed perfectly timed with the recent news of my new job starting in July which will have a heavy KM focus. I’ll look forward to BIALL’s new special interest group and the support it will provide.