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 legal department:

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 setting.

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 decisions).
  • 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).
  • Assign 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Ownership. Some clients take the position that they "own" the firm’s work-product.
  4. 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:

  1. 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 documents.
  2. 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.

Additional Reading

Last Updated: 1-Jan-2019