Jump to Navigation | Jump to Content
American Bar Association

ABA Section of Business Law


Volume 13, Number 2 - November/December 2003

Share the Wealth
What 'knowledge management' could mean to your legal department
    By Vincent I. Polley

Could it be as clear as this: "If we knew what we know, we'd be three times as profitable!" These were the words of Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, describing the promise of "knowledge management" (KM).

HP and other companies have used KM techniques with impressive results. The World Bank has transformed itself from a money lender into a "knowledge bank," deploying its hard-earned knowledge about infrastructure project management to developing countries (and financing their efforts); the U.S. Army videotapes house-to-house sweeps in Iraq for other platoons' later review, like a high- school football team reviewing game tapes.

There is no reason that lawyers cannot enjoy similar success. This article shows how in-house legal departments can use KM to save time and money, improve quality, and bolster morale.

"Knowledge management" is a systematic process designed to collect, validate, and reuse the knowledge and experiences of an organization, promoting consistency and reducing costs. Successful KM projects follow a recipe that gives equal attention to people, process and technology. The key objectives are:

  • Building and fostering communities of practice around substantive areas of practice and responsibility;
  • Developing, preserving and reusing "knowledge assets";
  • Enabling collaboration (within both the communities of practice and larger communities);
  • Capturing and evaluating know-ledge produced as a byproduct of collaboration;
  • Systematically maintaining tacit knowledge (who and what you know);
  • Organizing and efficiently delivering knowledge assets; and
  • Encouraging a cooperative culture that values knowledge management.
Compare this to the quality initiatives of the 1980s, and workplace safety initiatives of the 1990s. Both practices are now widely recognized as successful contributors to the bottom line in companies that have woventhem into company operations and culture. KM can have a similar impact on your bottom line.

In 1999, a multinational corporation, MultiCo, was facing competitive business pressures — it needed to accelerate the introduction of new products and to reorganize into a more customer-responsive enterprise. Moreover, rapid changes in applicable law were putting pressure on an already overworked legal department. How could the company's lawyers (assigned to field locations, supporting disparate business units) cope? How could every lawyer become an expert in increasingly specialized areas of the law?

MultiCo's legal department also faced other, more familiar challenges: lost expertise from employee turnover, a constant "reinvention of the wheel" by lawyers in different departments (to say nothing of the uneven and inconsistent quality of the reinvented "wheels"), and the ever-pressing need for effective training and career development.

MultiCo's legal department had about 125 professionals — lawyers, patent agents and paralegals — representing more than 20 different nationalities, and operating in as many countries. Although they shared a common language and employer, they were otherwise mostly unconnected. Only two locations had more than 15 professionals and most had three or less. Law department meetings were rare and collaboration even rarer. Even socially, the lawyers almost never congregated. A "silo" mentality reigned.

In this context, MultiCo's general counsel, Beth Sims, and her deputy GC for information technology, Bill Wyatt, decided to pursue a knowledge management strategy to:
  • collect and distribute the department's knowledge and expertise,
  • foster the development of communities within the department, and
  • facilitate better communication among the lawyers.
Wyatt and Sims divided their challenge into three parts — technology, process and culture. A successful KM solution would need to address all three elements:
  • The "technology" component would facilitate communication among lawyers, and could serve as a repository and distribution vehicle for the department's "knowledge."
  • "Process" changes would affect the day-to-day manner in which lawyers worked, and would capture knowledge during daily workflow.
  • "Cultural" changes would serve to encourage knowledge creation and use, while discouraging knowledge hoarding.
To understand KM, it is essential to understand that "knowledge" is more than raw data or information. Knowledge is a mix of content, experience and judgment that produces a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences. Knowledge is the cumulative body of wisdom that an organization needs to access and apply in order to succeed.

So, how could MultiCo capture its legal "knowledge"? Wyatt and Sims approached this issue from two directions. First, they wanted to provide some examples of "knowledge assets," and then to build on these examples and create new assets (and new kinds of assets).

The law department already had contract manuals, which served as best-practice guides for new lawyers handling routine transactions. These manuals were greatly expanded, offering comprehensive explanations for contract clauses, detailed annotations, fall-back alternatives as well as samples of both good and bad negotiated language; these served as models for other manuals.

Other examples of knowledge assets were developed, including annotated transaction checklists, frequently asked questions, opinion letters, annotated PowerPoint presentations and training materials.

Second, to promote evolution of these knowledge assets, Sims persuaded senior department lawyers to create an additional organizational structure within the department. Before KM, the department structure strictly followed business unit and geographical lines. Sims created 11 "practice groups," each dedicated to an area of substantive law that was strategically important to MultiCo, such as employment law, acquisitions, patents and software law.

Each practice group was chaired by two senior lawyers with proven subject-matter expertise. Practice groups were responsible for identifying company-wide needs — for example, by identifying areas in which lawyers needed help, and the tools that best satisfied their needs; for developing and maintaining these assets; and for training junior lawyers in the substantive area. The groups were "communities of practice," but also became real communities of otherwise disparate lawyers, linked by a common purpose, frequent communication and shared interest. MultiCo's "silo" mentality began to erode.

To serve as a repository for knowledge assets, Wyatt designed a Web-based collaboration space called the LawHub. Accessible using a standard Web browser, and with a simple user-interface, the LawHub became the department's central repository for knowledge assets, department news, bulletin boards, training & development tools, as well as department management activities.

The LawHub was designed to satisfy several operational criteria:
  • Content hostingEach practice group had its own area in the LawHub, and was responsible for the content there. Word, PowerPoint, PDF and Excel documents were easily uploaded by the group chairs, who served as content gatekeepers responsible for the selection, preparation and continued quality and relevance of knowledge assets. Chairs were encouraged to restrict the number of documents — with fewer, higher-value documents acting as LawHub knowledge assets, visitors had an easier (and more rewarding) experience using the LawHub.
  • Content presentation and visualization — Using a Yahoo!-like display of subject categories, navigated by point-and-click, LawHub content was presented in a visually useful manner.
  • Search — A sophisticated search engine was made available from every page of the LawHub, supplementing point-and-click navigation. The search- results page permitted users to view other LawHub assets that were contextually related.
  • Voting — Borrowing an idea from Amazon.com, the LawHub encouraged users to rate the quality and usefulness of knowledge assets. The visual display of ratings (and rating activity) encouraged others to use valuable assets, and motivated authors to refine or remove their less-valuable contributions. Highly rated authors earned the respect of their peers (and were rewarded at year-end bonus time).
  • Threaded discussion — Rather than permitting substantive e-mail exchanges to evaporate (for example, regarding competent outside counsel in Germany, or anti-indemnity legislation in Louisiana), the LawHub captured these exchanges and made them available to later users. This provided a resource for frequently asked questions, but also required pruning of nonsubstantive or out-of-date exchanges. Each practice group had its own discussion area and ad hoc threads were easily created. Department-wide discussion threads carried messages from the general counsel, job postings and personal announcements.
  • News — A newspaper-like column on the LawHub home page carried frequently updated headlines of selected stories relevant to MultiCo. This made the LawHub's front page dynamic and drew regular visits from company lawyers. Topic-specific news columns were also created in each practice group's LawHub pages, reporting recent news (from the company and elsewhere) about relevant law.
  • Yellow pages — Formal "knowledge assets" (like annotated Word documents) brought together only so much of MultiCo's collective wisdom, and were ineffective for answering "Who-knows-a-lawyer-at- the AG's-office?" or "Who's-worked-on-this-kind-of- thing-before?" The LawHub included personal profiles of each lawyer, easily updated and maintained by the lawyer. These contained as much professional and personal information as the lawyer cared to provide, and search- engine inquiries ("Does anyone have a good relationship with a Microsoft IP lawyer?") helped connect lawyers who could help each other.
  • Traffic analysis — The LawHub was a dynamic space but some parts of it were used more than others, and some users were more active than their colleagues. KM required the practice group leaders to know which areas generated the heaviest traffic, and which users had the greatest needs or were the best sources of ideas.
While the LawHub satisfied MultiCo's technology requirements, and the practice groups addressed some of the "process" needs, Sims and Wyatt still needed to tackle the cultural barriers to knowledge sharing.

Historically, MultiCo's lawyers had been attracted to the company by their autonomy and independence. Geographically dispersed and operating as part of a local management team, lawyers were unaccustomed to asking for help and often ignored work product from other parts of the department. They were concerned that asking for help demonstrated weakness. Lawyers who might have been contributors of knowledge assets feared that others might find errors in their work or criticize their decisions. Some jealously guarded their expertise to protect their jobs.

The lawyers needed to be reassured and encouraged. The key to unlocking their cooperation lay in creating an environment of respect for knowledge sharing.

Recognizing that it was hard to trust people you didn't know, Sims and Wyatt began looking at the legal department as a community, seeking ways to enhance lawyers' sense of membership in a larger group. MultiCo's full law department traditionally met only every three or four years, but lawyers had left each meeting with a gratifying sense of being part of a larger organization.

Sims determined to build on this feeling at the next worldwide meeting, and to keep it alive. After the 2000 worldwide department meeting, Sims initiated and encouraged four departmental initiatives:
  • a series of regional department meetings (each with 20 to 40 lawyers and paralegals), addressing particular company operations;
  • training meetings for MultiCo lawyers (by other department lawyers) on substantive law and other skills;
  • ad hoc social events, including dinners at senior lawyers' homes for all local department members; and
  • in-person meetings of practice groups (which typically consisted of eight to 12 geographically dispersed lawyers).
Wyatt supported virtualdepartment meetings as well. Practice groups were encouraged to meet regularly by phone, and to work together by e-mail between meetings. Groups of lawyers from all levels used NetMeeting to discuss career development programs, legal department structural changes, new-lawyer mentoring programs, and other initiatives. A part of the LawHub was set aside as a photo gallery for lawyers to upload their own favorite picture or chronicle the arrival of a new family member, a recent vacation or other personal event.

Encouraged to work and spend time together, the lawyers began to know one another as individuals. MultiCo's legal department was laying the foundation for trust — a critical predicate to knowledge sharing.

But more than trust was required. Sims and her senior staff were also modeling knowledge sharing behaviors: visible, consistent and frequent demonstrations that knowledge sharing was valued behavior. For example, Sims began posting all departmental announcements on the LawHub threaded discussion pages, and abandoned the e-mail announcement system. Lawyers could only learn of important department news by using the LawHub.

Wyatt began to single out for praise lawyers who made noteworthy contributions to the LawHub, or who successfully used a LawHub knowledge asset, and accompanied his praise with a monthly reward of a Palm Pilot or digital camera. "Knowledge sharing" became an explicit component of the company's annual performance review, and lawyers' compensation formulas were changed to reward knowledge sharing. Sims and Wyatt dropped in on practice group meetings, hosted social events, chimed in on threaded discussions, and otherwise made themselves as supportive and available as possible.

MultiCo's KM experiment systematically addressed the three key elements — technology, process and culture. How did it all work out? Were Sims and Wyatt successful? Was the department more cost-effective? Did lawyers really change the way they worked?

Three years' later, the law department is still moving toward a complete integration of KM into its operations. Knowledge management requires change management, and change comes slowly. MultiCo has some clear examples of success, and of failure. On the negative side, MultiCo overestimated the technical ability of its lawyers — especially the senior lawyers. Some had trouble uploading LawHub content or using the threaded- discussion systems. Online help files and better training would have helped. New lawyers, who were trained in the LawHub at the beginning of their employment, found it a more natural and valuable resource.

MultiCo also found that many lawyers were unhappy with their practice group assignments, and were more interested in the subject-matter of other practice groups. Recognizing that lawyers would participate more in areas where they had significant personal interest, MultiCo began to take into account lawyers' preferences.

There were successes as well. Many practice groups thrived, and created widely used knowledge assets. Users of knowledge assets provided important feedback, and department buzz about these practice groups helped stimulate similar activity in other practice groups. MultiCo also recognized that practice groups could provide valuable training. Using these groups for training helped make new employees more effective more quickly — with important implications for employee recruiting and retention.

However, a couple of practice groups became too focused on training activities, and lost their primary focus on knowledge-asset development.

MultiCo is still pursuing the vision of a fully effective KM system. It has learned to balance technology, process and culture. Encouraged by its successes, the legal department feels like an integrated community, and is developing a clearer, shared understanding of collaboration. MultiCo still supports its KM program and has begun to share its KM experience with other companies.

Defining materials and concepts

* Change management — a rigorous process for altering a system. It involves thorough analysis of current conditions, specification of the hoped-for outcome, identification of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and implementation of a systematic plan.

* Communities of practice — ad hoc teams working in a common substantive area (like law firms' practice areas). In this article, "practice groups" are communities of practice.

* Knowledge asset — a tangible record of expertise. It can be an annotated document (or PowerPoint presentation) that describes the author's thinking. Interviews (audio, videotape, etc.) also can be knowledge assets.

* Knowledge capture — the process of distilling the important lessons from recent experience into a form that can be easily used by colleagues.

* LawHub — a secure intranet site for creating, storing and retrieving knowledge assets. Interested readers can see screenshots of a 'LawHub' at Schlumberger by visiting the author's Web site (www.vip-law.com) and clicking on "Knowledge Connections." The Section's Cyberspace Law Committee is beginning its own LawHub experiment (available to registered committee members) at http://lawplace.metadot.com.

* Threaded discussion — a type of e-mail (and e-mail archive), that carries sequential messages ("postings") from various authors, all relating to the same topic (or "thread").

— Vincent I. Polley


Polley is deputy general counsel of Schlumberger Limited, in Houston. His e-mail is vpolley@slb.com. He is also chair of the Business Law Section's Cyberspace Law Committee.

Back to Top