Knowledge Management in Legal Departments
Knowledge Management has become a mature business management process in team-oriented engineering, retail,
manufacturing and research domains. The KM techniques, skills and technologies that have been refined in these areas are
now proven enough to be deployed in the professions-Finance, HR and Legal.
Knowledge management in corporate
law departments helps identify organizational knowledge and connect those who need it to those who have it, to improve
efficiency and consistency, to foster and sustain a sense of community, and to enable robust professional development.
Articles and presentations on what KM could do for your
- Share the Wealth: what 'knowledge management' could
mean to your legal department. American Bar Association, Business Law Today, Volume 13, Number
2 - November/December 2003. How in-house legal departments can use KM to save time and money,
improve quality, and bolster morale.
And Good Corporate Governance. American Bar Association, CIPerati Newsletter, June
2005. Discussion of Sarbanes-Oxley implications.
- Knowledge Management in a Multinational Law Department – The Schlumberger "LawHub"
at ACCA Annual Meeting on "Knowledge Management/Knowledge Networking in the Corporate Law Department", October
9, 2003. Effective KM programs balance three elements: technology, process and culture. This
focus of this presentation is the technology dimension
of an active KM program.
Various periodicals have analyzed the Schlumberger Legal Department KM activities:
Legal Knowledge Management: Lessons Learned
Experience with legal KM initiatives indicates that there are some clear examples of things that
work, things that do not work, and other kinds of "lessons learned." Each point applies equally
to legal and non-legal environments; but all have been observed in a legal
Things that work
- Management involvement: "The power of asking questions"; e.g., project initiation questions.
- Put a senior lawyer in
charge of the KM initiative who has real passion for KM, and who has people skills, management experience, and credibility
in the department.
- Give a role to department managers in designing the KM strategy.
- Report successes.
- Formalize a "knowledge management" assessment in annual performance reviews (and in compensation
- Burn some bridges; e.g., do away with automatic e-mail remailers and bulletin boards.
- Allow Communities of Practice (CoPs – sometimes called "Practice Groups" in
law firms and legal departments) to act as training/development
crucibles – but not as their primary function.
- Make community leaders responsible for Web-posting decisions; permit
them to delegate this responsibility downward into the community.
Things that do not work
- Expect that people will "make
time" for KM. Either give them extra time, or specifically re-balance current responsibilities
to make it clear that KM activities are included in Terms of Reference (TORs).
people to communities - true CoPs are powered by their members' personal or professional interests. Let
lawyers join the communities they find relevant.
- Assume KM is about technology and let the IT department manage KM initiatives.
- Make communities act primarily as training/development venues.
Critical Success Factors
- Align KM initiatives with operational imperatives (make sure the dog wags the tail).
- Keep content limited - effective
search is crucial.
- Passionate support (and visible involvement) by the General Counsel is essential.
- Design (and execute) an internal, coordinated
communication plan (by the GC and his/her staff) that complements the KM plan.
- Include one KM-specific objective in annual,
formal "Goals & Objectives" for each person.
- Tie with/into the Training & Development function.
- Incorporate knowledge management into the annual performance appraisal
review and setting of goals/objectives.
- Training is a must (e.g., IT training of users).
- Maintain control over technology,
and "Keep It Simple, Stupid."
- Real-time collaboration technology is not necessary. (Ongoing technology innovation may cause this "lesson" to
be unlearned at some point.)
Law Firms vs. Legal Departments
Law firms tend to approach KM very differently from legal departments (either for-profit or governmental legal
departments). Law firms labor under historical and cultural burdens that directly
hinder the development of knowledge sharing. Specifically, most firms compensate partners on an "eat-what-you-kill" basis,
which emphasizes the idea that the partner "owns" the client (at least the client relationship). Law firms
also have four other important burdens that interpose barriers to KM:
- Confidentiality. Work-product prepared for one client cannot easily be shared with other clients, and may not
even be accessible to other law firm lawyers without some sanitization.
- Conflict of Interest. Making the firm’s advice generally available as "knowledge" raises the
possibility that a person with interests adverse to a client of the firm may benefit from this advice.
- Ownership. Some clients take the position that they "own" the firm’s work-product.
- Payment. Most firms bill on an hourly-rate basis, and hesitate to make available institutional "knowledge" which
might otherwise be dispensed gradually, at an hourly rate.
Some of these impediments most-directly affect firms' interest in making their knowledge available
to outsiders (e.g., clients and potential clients). But the eat-what-you-kill and confidentiality impediments
act as the most powerful brakes on even internal knowledge sharing (e.g., among the firm's lawyers).
Corporate legal departments carry fewer of these burdens. Most important, company lawyers share a
sense of identification with their single client (i.e., the company), and fairly easily adopt a sense of being part
of a team, with shared interests and responsibilities. Additionally, the in-house environment is usually "technology
friendly" and benefits from two important functions often missing (or inadequately implemented) in law firms:
- Professional IT department. While a law firm will have a "librarian", the corporation
likely will have a cadre of skilled IT experts. Such a department usually is effective at providing IT training (e.g.,
in use of Word, PowerPoint, etc.). More importantly, professional IT departments are busy providing important IT capabilities
across the organization, which can be critical assets in KM. For example, corporate intranet search capabilities
usually are fine-tuned by the IT department; effective search is extremely important in finding knowledge-laden
- Professional Training & Development. While law firms do dedicate much attention to the training of younger lawyers,
corporations frequently have a formal "Training & Development" function which can more systematically operate
complex training systems and which can synergistically co-operate with a KM program (e.g., embedding KM-acquired lessons
into new-hire orientation programs, and/or producing regular seminars that themselves create knowledge assets).
Several corporate legal departments have made significant KM progress (e.g., Lucent, GE, Johnson & Johnson,
Schlumberger, BP, Siemens, and Cisco). The efforts of five legal departments are reflected in the "Global
Law Department Knowledge Management Benchmarking Survey" of the Additional
Reading list (see below). Some of the law firms with greater
KM experience are profiled in the other articles.
- Gretta Rusanow. Global Law Department Knowledge Management Benchmarking Survey. Curve
Consulting, September 9, 2003. Typical legal department KM goals include: increasing efficiency, providing consistent
service, working effectively as a global team, accelerating professional training & development, and improving
recruiting, morale and employee retention.
- Gretta Rusanow. Knowledge Management is a
Business Imperative. LLRX.com, September 29,
- Legal Knowledge Management Improves Quality and Speed of
Service, Reduces Costs and Delivers High ROI, According to Landmark PricewaterhouseCoopers – Legal Research
Center KM Study. PricewaterhouseCoopers press release, June 9, 2003.
- Judith Lamont. Law
Firms reinvent KM. KMWorld, July 1, 2005.