In today’s article, we will look at knowledge management for lawyers. The Wikipedia defines Knowledge Management (KM) as “the process of creating, sharing, using, and managing the knowledge and information of an organization. It refers to a multidisciplinary approach to achieve organisational objectives by making the best use of knowledge.”
Knowledge is different from information. It consists of information that is verified and that is highly structured, where the pieces of information have their place in a framework, and where attention is paid to the relationship between those pieces of information. One could say that knowledge consists of an architecture of verified information.
The Wikipedia is a good example of a knowledge management solution (KMS). It contains articles with the relevant information, and that information is structured. The information is also verified (by peer review). Apart from the articles on topics, it contains key words or tags, internal and external references, taxonomies, a thesaurus that keeps track of synonyms and ambiguities and uses redirects and disambiguation. It refers to related topics. The topics themselves are grouped in categories, etc. The knowledge is well-structured and can easily be shared and updated.
Often a distinction is made between two different types (or dimensions) of knowledge: there is explicit knowledge and there is tacit (or implicit) knowledge. Explicit knowledge is what we usually think of when we talk about knowledge. It is the knowledge that an individual consciously holds in a form that can easily be communicated to others. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, represents internalised knowledge that an individual may not consciously be aware of. (Lawyers may, e.g., know which judge will be more favourable to a certain case, but may not be able to express exactly all the reasons why that is the case). Tacit knowledge often consists of patterns that have been subconsciously identified but have not yet been expressed. As such, one of the challenges of knowledge management is to make tacit knowledge explicit.
Why should law firms pay attention to knowledge management? Lawyers are knowledge experts. Their knowledge or expertise is their biggest asset. For law firms, this expertise can be their main selling point, and protecting it can be crucial for their survival. You do not want a situation where only one specific lawyer in a law firm knows how to deal with a specific problem. Ideally, the knowledge should be leveraged across the law firm, meaning that it should be available to everybody in the law firm. Making knowledge accessible to law firm members also increases productivity because you have access to solutions that have worked in the past. It also allows new lawyers to acquire the knowledge faster.
Other benefits are that it facilitates innovation and organizational learning. A decent knowledge management solution also makes it easier to manage and grow the intellectual capital and assets of the law firm. It typically also makes it easier to find new solutions for more complex problems as it is easier to draw on past expertise. Keeping track of best practices and past solutions that worked and those that did not work, also reduces the chance of professional liability issues.
Setting up a decent KMS involves different aspects and phases. These include:
- knowledge mapping, where you create a map that details who in the law firm has expertise in what areas.
- knowledge gathering or submission: once you know where to find the knowledge, it has to be entered into the KMS. For this, one can use push and/or pull strategies. In a push strategy, the people who have the knowledge submit that knowledge themselves. In a pull strategy, the people building and maintaining the KMS ask the experts and enter the information.
- knowledge modelling / structuring. We mentioned above that knowledge is structured, that it is consists of an architecture of information. A KMS typically will use indexes, taxonomies, a thesaurus, categories, etc. This is an important aspect that should not be overlooked. It is largely what sets a KMS apart from a documentation system.
Knowledge management comes with its own set of challenges. We already mentioned tacit knowledge. Another challenge is getting people to share their knowledge. Often, people may be reluctant to share their expertise because they think it may make them more expendable. Or they believe it will benefit others more than them. Lawyers – and especially older lawyers – tend to see it as something where the efforts involved are not justified by the benefits. This can be addressed by a double-pronged approach. On the one hand, people should be educated about the benefits and encouraged to share knowledge. On the other hand, the processes of sharing knowledge can be made less tedious and can be integrated in existing practices: brainstorming sessions can be knowledge gathering sessions. Reviews of actions taken in cases, analysing which were more successful than others is another way. Law firms typically also employ interns and young lawyers, where older lawyers have an ethical duty to assist and supervise them. So, these interns and younger lawyers can add knowledge to the KMS each time they ask for advice.
SharePoint as a Knowledge Management system?
Many law firms these days are heavily invested in Microsoft-based solutions and use SharePoint to store their documents. So, could they use SharePoint as their Knowledge Management system? After all, many users are already familiar with it. It is secure and reliable, and all the information is available in a single system.
As it is, SharePoint only offers limited knowledge management functionality. It stores information, and you can perform queries on that information. But it cannot handle large data sets or more advanced queries. At best, one can add metadata, but these tags / key words must be added manually. There is no support for automation. It has limited functionality to filter the search results. Native SharePoint also does not offer any information architecture solutions: it does not have taxonomies or a thesaurus, etc. Its content is not indexed. As it is, SharePoint is more of a document management and documentation system than a knowledge management system.
In recent years, SharePoint has started offering limited wiki functionality, for which it uses wiki templates which must be configured separately. It is a step in the right direction. Realistically speaking, though, if you would like to use SharePoint as a knowledge management system, you will need a third-party add-on that provides all the additional required knowledge management functionality.