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Law Firms Face Challenges Getting Partners to Share Know-How

Dec. 7, 2015, 3:31 PM

As law firms grow larger, launching offices in far-flung geographies and merging with foreign firms, it is becoming increasingly difficult for lawyers to collaborate with their colleagues.

Collaboration means referring work, and learning from one another — by sharing knowledge on similar casework and deals.

The problem, however, is that knowledge-sharing is difficult to measure and generally isn’t factored into compensation at law firms, according to numerous professionals in the field of knowledge management. As a result, partners aren’t paying much attention to it.

“The performance yardstick has traditionally emphasized client billable time and relationship capital,” said Vishal Agnihotri, chief knowledge officer at Akerman.

The role of the so-called “chief knowledge officer” has gradually spread through U.S. firms over the last decade and continues to evolve. A 2014 survey of nearly 150 law firms found 42 percent had a dedicated staff member with the title of chief knowledge officer or director of knowledge management, while others gave a different title — or no particular title, in some cases — to the person in charge of knowledge management operations.

Leading KM efforts in some cases falls to the chief technology or information officer, or to a library, innovation, or project management director, according to the survey by the International Legal Technology Association.

Law firms have slowly but steadily given more attention to KM initiatives, the ILTA found, with 52 percent of the survey respondents saying knowledge management has its own dedicated department at the firm, up from 48 percent when ILTA began the survey in 2008.

Managing knowledge within the firm spans an increasingly broad range of functions, as well. The traditional KM initiatives include implementing technology tools — such as customized applications on the Microsoft Sharepoint or Google Docs platforms — to make document sharing and collaboration easier. Training efforts aimed at encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing also play a role.

But the ILTA survey also found an increasing number of law firm functions that now report to the knowledge management director, including the library, legal project management, research and innovation at many firms.

Still, getting lawyers to buy into using the systems faithfully is a challenge, along with the difficulty of designing systems to efficiently manage and allow for searching perhaps millions of internal documents.

One part of the solution is taking the time to customize the technology to ensure ease of use, according to Patrick DiDomenico, director of knowledge management at Ogletree Deakins.

“People have said, ‘Boy, our knowledge management effort just failed. We deployed this system or this intranet, and people just didn’t use it,’” DiDomenico said. “I would guess in most cases that happened because people thought they could buy a piece of software and install it and not put any thought into customizing the user experience.”

Continual improvements in collaboration tools and the use of big data analytics also inspire hope for some knowledge management professionals, as these should help move lawyers away from relying on email for knowledge storage and sharing.

“Email, which was designed to be a one-to-many communications tool, expanded to become both an alert mechanism, performing an attention management role, and a way to share access to information,” said Oz Benamram, chief knowledge officer for White & Case. “Adoption of modern collaboration tools, or a true digital workspace, will help with both clearing the inbox from chatter, and with knowledge sharing.”

How quickly or successfully knowledge management might be fully adopted as a mainstream law firm function remains to be seen.

“Over the years, people have pronounced KM dead,” DiDomenico said. He claims that the business has been “resurrected” because corporate clients are pushing hard to cut costs and lawyers value any way they might be able to streamline their operations.

But is it really back to stay? Not all of the signs point to a rosy future for law firm knowledge management. The ILTA survey found 12 percent of respondents decreased the financial resources devoted to KM in the prior year, vs. only 6 percent of firms decreasing KM resources in the association’s 2012 survey.