KM the guide to success

12 June 2006

Andrew White, Catherine Flutsch

Most UK-based law firms have well developed knowledge management functions, providing know-how resources to the firms’ lawyers and promoting a knowledge-sharing culture.

It is clear, however, that many firms are rethinking their approach to knowledge management. This trend was highlighted at the 2006 conference on knowledge management for the legal profession, held by the Ark Group at the end of April. More than 80 law firms, small and large, UK and international, attended the conference.

The driver for change can be summarised in one word: clients. This article will highlight some of the key client-driven trends discussed at the conference.

Sharing know-how with clients
Clients increasingly expect their law firms to proactively share know-how in ways appropriate to the client’s business. For every success story in this regard, there is a litany of unfulfilled expectations.

Although many law firms have the know-how their clients say they really want, fulfilling client expectations in relation to sharing has remained a major challenge. To fulfil client demands requires new types of collaboration between panel firms, third-party legal information providers and the client itself, as well as sound business and pricing models.

As far as technology is concerned, the overriding message of the conference was that know-how facilities must be kept simple. Clients increasingly want one generic password to be able to access any online know-how offerings. Clients are also asking for knowledge portals to serve as a one-stop shop, maintained by law firms, that contain the documents created for the client by all panel firms, firms’ relevant internal know-how and relevant content from third-party sources.

Impressive branding, credentials lists and league table rankings have become the baseline from which law firms must now offer other, more strategic knowledge-based extras in order to differentiate themselves, deliver meaningful value and enhance the client relationship.

It is clear that law firms need to approach sharing know-how strategically, rather than simply responding to demands in an ad hoc way.

Increased collaboration
Increasingly sophisticated client demands are prompting increased internal collaboration between support departments, a theme that recurred throughout the conference.

Ensuring clients know about and have access to a firm’s library, knowhow and sector resources (and ensuring that those resources meet client expectations), genuinely bespoke training, setting up a client’s own knowledge functions, after action reviews and debriefs require law firm support departments to collaborate.

Almost all of the attending law firms indicated that they are forging much closer bonds between the support departments and, in some cases, completely integrating their library and information services, learning and development and knowledge management departments.

The relationship manager
As far as clients are concerned, what ultimately matters is ease of dealing with the law firm.

This has prompted the development of a new role — the relationship and value-added services manager. The manager’s role is to coordinate and oversee service delivery (both core and value added) to ensure that all of the firm’s services are delivered to the client in a seamless and consistent way.

At the conference, we heard that clients are requesting that the manager should be the sole client contact and that the manager should not be a fee earner on the client’s matters.

Professional support lawyers
Another area of change is in the role of the professional support lawyer (PSL). As a result of a recent major review of the PSL role at two magic circle firms, PSLs have been presented with a new career structure, mirroring the fee earning associate structure.

To advance professionally, this new structure requires PSLs to demonstrate business development and entrepreneurial skill, in addition to technical excellence. The new structure in these two firms has also severed the link between post-qualified experience and salary.

This new PSL ‘profile’ mirrors the skills required by senior associates with partnership aspirations. This development is set to blur the traditional fee earner/non-fee earner distinction and has been prompted by a shift in emphasis towards knowledge management directly contributing to the achievement of the firm’s business goals.

Third-party providers
A further consequence of the growing client emphasis is that law firms are increasingly turning to third-party providers, notably PLC, for the provision of current awareness, guidance and, to a lesser extent, model precedents.

The prevailing reason given for this trend by many law firms was that the outsourcing of these traditionally core PSL functions frees up highly qualified and experienced PSLs to work on high quality, value adding work — i.e. how to adapt a law firm’s expertise for the client’s business situation.

Increasingly sophisticated client demands for new types of knowledge offerings and new uses of technology to support those offerings are driving some of legal knowledge manage-ment’s emerging trends. As a result, law firms are evaluating how they can ensure that knowledge management is contributing to the delivery of the firm’s business goals.

Discussions at the 2006 conference show that law firms believe that their knowledge management functions can contribute to the delivery of the firm’s business goals by becoming sleeker and more efficient, and by making client-facing knowledge services into a genuine, competitive differentiator.

Catherine Flutsch is head of knowledge development operations and Andrew White is knowledge development partner at Bird & Bird.

This article was published in Legal Week (8 June 2006)