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Knowledge management: how to make your team smarter

This is one of 13 chapters from our eBook, 'Legal operations: how to do it and why it matters'. Download the full eBook here or explore the other competencies below.

Foreword | Introduction | Financial management | Vendor management | Cross-functional alignment | Technology & process support | Service delivery & alternative support models | Organisational design, support & management | Communications | Data analytics | Litigation support | IP management | Information governance & records management | Strategic planning

Leif Frykman, Founder and Chairman, LegalWorks Nordic, explores how you can make your team smarter with effective knowledge management. The views in this article are the author's own, and do not represent the views of Juro nor those of CLOC.

Any large law firm worth its salt has a knowledge management function in 2018. The need to gather, and get a firm grip on, institutional knowledge was proven long ago: law firms need to know that their best practices won’t walk out of the door with a lateral hire. They need to collect common templates to speed up delivery times to clients. They need to integrate their knowledge base with document automation and contract management platforms. All this makes sense; but knowledge management (KM) functions inside corporate legal departments are much less common, despite such companies often having scores, if not hundreds, of lawyers.

The reasons for this are obvious and, in some ways, circular: there is often no KM function because there’s nobody in charge of setting one up. Law firms will assign this role, but in-house, lawyers don’t necessarily see it as a good use of their time - especially when there are usually legal fires to fight that seem much more pressing. While KM brings efficiency, it doesn’t deliver immediate results, and is thus likely to be deprioritised in favour of something that does.

The more-for-less environment changes this equation. In the drive for efficiency in-house, GCs no longer have the time or the money to reinvent the wheel with important documents every time. Similarly, knowledge can’t sit forever in silos, nor in the brains of employees who might leave any day - the best documents, policies, playbooks and templates need to be accessed and used by everyone who needs them.

The change you need

Creating knowledge management in-house is first and foremost an exercise in change management

So where do you get started? The first thing is to realise that unless your company is brand new, it’s unlikely that you’re starting with white space and can easily move the relevant pieces into place until you’re happy. Even without a KM system, the legal department and its internal customers will have some already existing practices in place, and these ways of doing things need to be identified and challenged. Therefore creating knowledge management in-house is first and foremost an exercise in change management.

Framed this way, the first steps become clearer. Find out what people are doing today and why. Present the benefits of changing those processes and behaviours, both to the individual and the company. Make sure you identify and persuade the stakeholders you need. The GC and the IT team are the obvious ones, but it’s also useful to have the management team in legal behind you. Senior champions will fight your corner and help get a system in place - with-out them, procurement will be a struggle and adoption will be even harder.

When you begin to set up your KM system, it’s important to address the structure before rushing into the content. If your department is big enough - and lucky enough - to get a dedicated technical resource, like a web manager, to manage your solution, then you need to think about structure before worrying about content. When I helped to put a KM system in place at a huge Silicon Valley company, we had a web manager in place to build our portal, which took the shape of a ‘legal wiki’ - but deciding whether to group content by legal area, or by expertise, or by team, or sub-team - these were tough questions to decide with senior stakeholders. Once the structure is agreed, then the focus shifts to content - and to ensuring adoption.

Carrots and sticks

Any in-house KM system is, of course, only as useful as the knowledge that lawyers feed to it. This means it needs to be attractive, easy to use, and above all, a place where lawyers will go looking for information. I integrated live streams and news tickers from the business newspapers into our KM platform, alongside live legislative updates, to give our teams a rolling feed of interesting content, which drove traffic to the platform. The hard part, however, is encouraging employees to take the time to contribute their specific knowledge to the KM system. Best practice documents, templates, playbooks, how-to guides, sample clauses, project plans, policies - the ability to iterate on previous versions of these, rather than reinventing the wheel each time, is a time saving that’s hard to understate. But finding time in-house to do anything new often feels impossible for time-crunched lawyers.

We went out of our way to call out and highlight valuable contributions in team meetings - not just to bolster morale, but also to show the team that KM mattered to senior management

To combat this, the first step was to make colleagues aware that the willingness to step up and take the lead in fostering institutional knowledge was a quality that would reflect well on them professionally. We didn’t go as far as tying it to promotions, but we did make it a part of how we evaluated performance. If this is somewhere closer to stick than carrot, we also made sure to offer the carrot too - by offering a prize each month to the employees responsible for the three best publications. The possibility of winning, for example, an iPod means more to some lawyers than you might think, and while not every document submitted to the KM hub was best-in-class, most were thoughtful, useful, and formed part of an ever-growing bank of institutional knowledge. We went out of our way to call out and highlight valuable contributions in team meetings - not just to bolster morale, but also to show the team that KM mattered to senior management, and staff commitment to it would be highly valued.

Start small - and get smarter

In a smaller legal department, it might feel like building a KM system is a nice-tohave - a luxury that you don’t need yet. The problem with this position is that by the time you do need it, the task of establishing it will be immeasurably harder. More broadly, the need to manage information efficiently, keep costs down and deliver more is only set to increase - particularly given that in the digital age, the breadth of knowledge that needs to be managed will only increase too. The upside of carefully preserved and shared knowledge is that your team gets smarter all the way around: junior lawyers can take their cues, and their clauses, from the senior lawyers who define best practice. By sharing their knowledge, team members can avoid being pigeon-holed as narrowly focused specialists, always relied upon for the same tasks. This makes personal development more likely, and more satisfying.

Without a good KM system - however rudimentary it is at first - departmental knowledge risks stagnation. Good lawyers might remain good, but they won’t get better. The same skillsets will sit with the same people, and walk out of the door with them if they leave - making the whole team less competitive, poorly developed, and ill equipped for challenges coming their way in the future. Getting a grip on KM in-house is crucial if legal is to keep its edge - both within the team, and for the business as a whole.

Explore the other legal ops competencies covered in our eBook, Legal operations: how to do it and why it matters:

Foreword | Introduction | Financial management | Vendor management | Cross-functional alignment | Technology & process support | Service delivery & alternative support models | Organisational design, support & management | Communications | Data analytics | Litigation support | IP management | Information governance & records management | Strategic planning

Download the full eBook here.

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Leif Frykman

Leif Frykman

Leif Frykman is Founder and Chairman of the Board at LegalWorks Nordic. He was formerly Vice President at Sun Microsystems and VMware in California.

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