Knowledge Management (KM) has been on the agenda of almost all law firms with several professionals for almost decades. For good reason.
The most important asset in legal advice is the “know-how of a successful and economic handling of mandates” both with regard to the processes and the correct application of the case relevant legal principles and relevant norms.
To “extract” this knowledge from the “minds” of the lawyers and make it available to the law firm independently of individuals is a decisive factor in ensuring a consistently high quality of advice in the long term and reducing dependence on individual professionals.
Previous experience with knowledge management
In the past, the implementation of this task has shown that a certain success can only be achieved if the organisations were willing to recruit dedicated staff and set up departments that focus exclusively on this topic. In addition, essential changes in the firm’s internal valuation systems are also required in order to “motivate” professionals in higher hierarchies (equity partners or lawyers shortly before the “leap into partnership”) to cooperate. In the past, therefore, only larger units were usually in a position to “set up” a “reasonable” knowledge management system.
In smaller units, attempts were usually made to build up a “knowledge pool” more or less parallel to the actual mandate work. Unfortunately, however, the results of the aforementioned approaches were usually far below expectations, and even with the personnel- and resource-intensive implementations in large law firms, the results were and are far from satisfactory. Why?
Knowledge management - status quo
If one looks at the basic structure of how KM has been implemented in law firms (and also legal departments) so far, this may be roughly represented graphically as follows.
If you take a closer look at this overview, you will notice that primarily document templates (for Word or PowerPoint) for storage in KM systems are taken into account (to a much lesser extent, checklists or playbooks are also “maintained” in the file formats mentioned). A storage of the processes and their management of a mandate in easily reproducible form remains, however, mostly “outside” so far.
Furthermore, it is visible from this graphical overview that, despite all the software solutions used so far, the proportion of manual work and thus the necessary effort on the part of office staff (professionals and non-legal employees) is quite high, especially in the following sub-areas.
Filling the data pool
Where and how do the contents of a KMS come from?
Usually the initial decision as to whether a certain document could be suitable for being included as a template in knowledge management is made by the author, i.e. the attorney in charge. The next step is to “enhance” the document sent to the Knowledge Management team into a template by hand (removal of case-specific information, review of the referenced jurisdiction, enrichment with processing information), which is nowadays usually associated with a lot of manual work in front of the PC.
Maintenance of the database
Once templates and checklists are in the database of a knowledge management system, they must be updated frequently to
be reviewed. This is ( also ) mainly the task of the persons charged with the “knowledge management” work.
Ideally, however, lawyers should also provide feedback to the knowledge management team, as it is almost impossible, given the large number of legal changes, to identify and appropriately classify the necessary adaptation requirements for content in knowledge management systems without a specific reason (e.g. within the context of a case). Unfortunately, this feedback is usually provided by email, which often leads to mistakes and questions.
Using Content from a Knowledge Management System
Even though document assembly solutions (software for text generation) are increasingly used in some areas of mandate processing for the creation of documents from text blocks using query dialogs, I have found that in KM systems entire documents are often still stored as templates, which are then used as rough “basic structures” for the typesetting required in the mandate and still have to be extensively revised and modified by hand before finalization (e.g. deletion of unneeded text passages and addition of necessary text blocks).
Status Quo Evaluation
Due to the high personnel costs involved in creating, maintaining and leveraging content from knowledge management solutions, it is not a surprise that only a minority of the law firms and legal departments surveyed by me are satisfied with their current solutions. What’s more, a large number of organizations have so far “neglected” to strategically address this issue so seriously that they are looking to implement a solution company-wide in the near future. At best, “isolated applications” of a practice group or individual attorneys are operated nowadays more frequently.
Knowledge Management, better with LegalTech?
Can perhaps new approaches to solutions within the framework of the digitization of the legal market in the form of new “LegalTech” software available on the market also improve “classical” knowledge management?
First of all, a small “damper of hope“. There is no solution under the development with which knowledge management in law firms and legal departments can be implemented simply, effectively and fully automatically in one go. But due to the increasing flexibility in software development (see my blog article “Software platforms in the legal market“), significant improvements can be achieved in the following three areas:
- Reduction of personnel expenses for system implementation and maintenance
- Extending the type of information available to including processes
- Simplification of the use of the information stored in the KMS
The following diagram illustrates the possible effects of technologies from the LegalTech environment for tomorrow’s knowledge management:
How can the newest software technologies support and improve knowledge management in law firms and legal departments?
Enhancing the information available in a Knowledge Management System
On the one hand, new application types enable an extension of the information types that can be stored in a KM. In addition to text information for the creation of documents, repeatable workflow processes for procedures (both organizational and legal measures for the management of mandates) can now also be stored in a KM, which can then be activated “with one click” and made available throughout the organization. (e.g. through applications such as Bryter or Microsoft Flow)
Acceleration of information processing
Furthermore, applications in the areas of data analysis and -anonymization can effectively track down the “information treasures” in the document management (DMS) of a law firm from the processing of mandates and prepare them structurally for use in a knowledge management system. These solutions are also able to continuously “monitor” the DMS in order to transfer the latest information from the cases into a KMS as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. However, it must also be mentioned in this context that the last described possibilities are only at the beginning of the implementation and, despite the new applications, it still requires a not inconsiderable participation of internal employees or of companies specialized in content determination and preparation (such as companies like reThinkLegal).
Use of content from Knowledge Management Systems
However, there is already an area of usage for LegalTech solutions in the area of knowledge management, which provides even for small units a considerable improvement in the storage and the re-usability of internal knowledge. The utilization of software already mentioned above for the dialog-guided creation of documents using information (text) blocks (“Document Assembly Solutions”).
In this area, numerous additional services such as Lawlift, Legito, Docengine and Woodpecker have been published in recent years in addition to the “large” and expensive providers such as ContractExpress and HotDocs.
With the help of these solutions it is possible, without extensive training phase, to divide documents, which are used regularly in different versions in the organization, into easily manageable text blocks and then, according to the requirements in a case, to “assemble” these to the desired extent to a document.
Why should one dedicate oneself to this area, in particular if Knowledge Management has not been implemented in the firm so far or only vaguely?
Advantages of a Document Assembly Solution as a starting project of a Knowledge Management
- On the one hand, there is the relatively “flat learning curve“, i.e. in order to (test) use one of the solutions offered in this area, usually only little special knowledge is necessary. This applies all the more the newer the selected applications are.
- Furthermore, in most organizations there are at least some text modules or patterns that are suitable to be used as first sources for the programs. With the help of these (well-known) texts, it is very easy to determine whether the applications are easy to use and whether they simplify and accelerate the creation of documents compared to the previous manual “cut-and-paste” composition.
- In addition, most of the above mentioned applications also provide a database-driven management both for storing the saved text fragments or blocks and for storing the information necessary for the dialog interfaces, which, if there is no knowledge management system at all, can be used as a good first basis for a structured and maintainable knowledge database for the organization.
- Also the financial risks regarding the licensing of such software solutions are limited and can therefore also be dealt with by smaller units. In addition, there are free basic technologies (docassemble.org) on the Web that make it possible to start with little monetary effort.
Tips for introducing a Document Assembly Solution
If you’re considering implementing a specific document assembly solution, I’d like to finish off with a few tips that I think you should bear in mind when choosing an application.
- Data Transfer from your Case Management System
The increase in the effectiveness of the firm’s internal case processing through a document assembly solution (DAS) depends largely on whether this system can accept and use data from your case management application via an interface (API). If not, in my opinion this is usually a NO-GO, since manual post-processing in the form of, for example, manual insertion of contact information for the client or even just the case number in a finished document is annoying and costs time in the long run.
- Connection of the solution to the user management system of your organization
If you additionally have to log in to the “document builder” with a different login name and password, this may be acceptable for smaller units, but the support of the single sign-on user management of the law firm by the document assembly solution is also mandatory for security reasons for larger entities.
Knowledge management will become simpler and also significantly more efficient in the future due to new software offers. However, you should not look for one solution, but rather focus on modular applications and start as soon as possible with partial areas, since – despite all new technologies – knowledge management will remain a “permanent task” for law firms and legal departments in the future with some “learning curves“.
This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)