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Knowledge Management

There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common. - Denis Diderot

“Knowledge is power” - Sir Francis Bacon


Knowledge management (KM) is formalizing the collection of valuable knowledge gained from experience and then organizing the knowledge in a way that benefits the entire law firm. Information technology advances and high-speed networks provide an opportunity for firms to formalize the collection, protection, and use of legal knowledge. New software systems and processes are available to integrate with existing networked information to make it available to others inside or outside the firm. This approach is referred to as knowledge management. Knowledge management is already being incorporated in businesses.


“Already an estimated two-thirds of U.S. employees work in the services sector, and knowledge is becoming our most important product . . . .You think you understand the situation, but what you don’t understand is that the situation just changed . . . knowledge is the essential raw material of a new economic era . . . The classic example is Bill Gates. . . There’s no way you can explain Bill Gates’ wealth based on conventional theories of building wealth as they existed in the ninetieth and twentieth century.“ - Lester Thurow. Building Wealth: The New Rules for Individuals, Companies and Nations in a Knowledge-Based Economy.

In one form or another, law firms have practiced knowledge management for years. In a way, lawyers are already the ultimate knowledge workers. For years, they have sat in their offices, talked on the phone, and rummaged through huge knowledge bases. Attorneys constantly reuse past pleadings, settlement documents and other work product. The problem has been that the past knowledge has never been easy to find and has not been electronically accessible.

Knowledge is useful if it can be found easily and in a form to incorporate its use. It must be relevant and what is needed. Time and distance are two key obstacles to the use of knowledge anytime and anywhere. It must be immediately available for use and reuse. The goal is how can you turn today’s solution into an artifact of knowledge that they can use later?

The purpose of knowledge management is to:

  • Collect valuable knowledge gained from experience;
  • Avoid wasting resources by re-inventing the wheel or knowledge;
  • Avoid spending excess time locating prior knowledge;
  • Absorb the growing volume of new knowledge.

Legal “knowledgebases” need to be set up for firmwide use. A knowledgebase would be a collection of case specific or area of practice specific documents, discussion sites, and databases that support the day-to-day work processes for that case or area of practice. Some suggested steps to implementing a knowledge management system:

  • Admit that past firm knowledge is inaccessible.
  • What is the law firm problem to solve?
  • Identify your audience - other attorneys, clients, etc.
  • Keep it simple, keep people involved, integrate sharing into the culture, and build incentives.
  • Use visualization software tools.

Text Box:    Knowledge is the only enduring asset in a law firm.  Leveraging that knowledge by communicating, collaborating and coordinating into a computer work process is workgroup computing.   Workgroup computing will enable parties to work on legal and non-legal matters from their computers anywhere and at anytime.  This will be the most important computing application over the next decade.   It offers the Holy Grail of Collaboration and Productivity as the reward.Lawyers and other legal professionals may be disinclined to share knowledge with co-workers, since they may believe that their worth to the organization is measured in terms of accumulated intellectual capital or knowledge about the firm or cases. They may resist discarding private libraries of “necessary” documents even though the documents are on-line. Or, they may encounter managing partners who believe that knowledge management systems will enable them to fire associates, other partners, or paralegals. In firms where these ideas persist, any attempt at knowledge management will grind to a halt.

It is important to find team players, provide open access to information, offer tangible benefits, demonstrate to the individual and group the value of shared knowledge, make sure management is enthusiastic and involved, and ensure access to needed technology.

Some of the main technological issues:

  • How do we access existing knowledge?
  • What are some simple knowledge search techniques?
  • Can we set up automatic categorization classification systems for present and future materials?
  • Can we build a knowledge warehouse and make it widely available?
  • How do we encourage the end user to contribute by updating the documents and increasing the knowledge flow?
  • How do we increase the use of indexing and taxonomies for effective categorization of knowledge without taking up to much time?
  • How do we accumulate information and set up experts in the organization for a knowledge directory?

Text Box:    “Matt Ghourdjian, a partner at Big Five Accounting firm Author Anderson, who has managed technology for law firms both from within and as a consultant, says because lawyers operate their business on a cash basis, they rarely are convinced that investments in technology pay off in the long term.  The time-honored way for an attorney to find out how best to handle a new case is to walk down the hall and ask a colleague for advice.  In terms of information gathering systems, that is as high-tech as some law firms get.”  - Chris Ford - Cyber, Esq., spring, 2000Some of the technology tools available to assist in managing knowledge include:

  • Intranets;
  • Document management systems;
  • Information retrieval engines;
  • Groupware and workflow systems;
  • Push technology and agents;
  • Brainstorming applications.

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