KM in Law Firms: compare and contrast

(this is a slightly longer version of an article that I published in the Knoco March 2013 newsletter, one of 5 flavours of KM that were discussed)

In many law firms knowledge management starts in the IT department, and in a few cases, the library and like in many other organizations is focused on document management and technology. Also in common with other organizations law firms are dealing with pressure to reduce costs, be more efficient and effective for their clients, address issues of an aging workforce, and the technology demands of freshly minted lawyers who expect near instant access to knowledge.

There are also differences in KM inside a law firm. While in many organizations KM focuses on not just access to information/knowledge but on learning from mistakes, e.g. after action reviews and lessons learned processes and databases, this seems almost totally absent in law firms.

As I prepared to write this article, I wondered if I had just been missing something because of my limited exposure to KM in law firms. Maybe there really was a learning focus that I was missing out on; but in the research scan I did to supplement my experience, I didn’t find what I was looking for.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is KM being done in law firms, but it focuses on documented knowledge. A fine activity, and definitely about connecting people to the knowledge they need to do their jobs, but not specifically learning focused and not focused on innovation as is often the case in other organizations.

It seems lawyers see knowledge management as a way to:

  • Give the firm a competitive advantage since the firm’s know-how becomes more easily accessible
  • Increase productivity: lawyers don’t waste time searching for information
  • Improve practice support by fostering collaboration
  • Speed response time to client requests
  • Provide an on-ramp for junior lawyers to get up to (billable) speed more quickly
  • Help integrate the “practice of law” and the “business of law”[1]

Now, I have done work with Steven Lastres, the author of this work I’ve just cited, and have the highest regard for what he is doing in his firm, which is leading the way for KM in law firms, but by not including the learning aspect of KM it seems to me that law firms are missing something.

One of the presentations that I attended at KM World 2012 was Eric Hunter’s, “Innovation, Change Management, & Business Optimization.” Eric Hunter is another leader in the law firm KM sector. What they are doing at his firm is moving towards that learning objective through collaboration and social technologies[2].

If law firms are lagging behind other organizations, the question that comes to my mind is why? In my experience law firms are conservative and risk adverse. They believe that only a lawyer understands their business, which has resulted in people with a CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer) type title at law firms being lawyers, and the main people on their teams are other lawyers and librarians. This lack of diversity on their teams and lack KM specialists specifically, I believe, has led to the focus on documented knowledge.

There is a shift happening, however. Law firms are starting to look outside their industry to see what lessons they can learn from other industries and from KM specialists. I have been doing a series of workshops and webinars for law librarians. The participants in these sessions have been engaged and interested to learn the lessons that I have to share from my experience in other industries. And I have been glad to share my experience and let them know that they are not alone, that the challenges they face are the same challenges that any KM leader faces; somehow there’s comfort in that knowledge.

Note: Connie Crosby and I have also just launched a KM Strategy assessment service for law firms, feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in learning more.



[1] Lastres, Steven, “Knowledge Management in Law Libraries: The Role for Legal Information Professionals” presentation at CALL ACBD Conference, from https://www.callacbd.ca/en/webfm_send/1274, February 28, 2013.

[2] Hunter, Eric, “Law Firms of the Future: Driving Intranet Evolution with Google+”  from https://www.bradfordbarthel.com/Eric/LM-JulyAug2012-ForwardThinking.pdf on February 28, 2013.

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