We hope you enjoy this blog co-authored by Nikki Shaver, Global Director of Knowledge Management, Paul Hastings, LLP and Adam Dedynski, KM-Project Manager, Reed Smith, LLP.
This post is the first in a series ILTA will run over the course of the year, entitled “Foundations of Knowledge Management”. Upcoming posts will discuss the pillars of KM, evolving roles in KM, and how to measure the value of KM. First, though, we start at the beginning, for those new to the field.
What is Knowledge Management (“KM”)?
Defining KM has always been challenging, and it’s only become more so as the legal industry has evolved. Generally, however, most traditional definitions of KM revolve around knowledge as content – collecting and creating useful content, curating it, organizing it, and surfacing it in a way that makes it accessible to lawyers as and when they need it. Knowledge managers have always been stewards of critical content.
Over the past years, the KM department in many law firms has expanded to include functions that no longer sit quite so neatly within conventional definitions of KM. The development of precedent forms and collection of good sample documents was once core to KM, and though it still is, this activity may now sit with just one of the many functions that fall under the KM umbrella. While knowledge managers generally deal with the internal knowledge and content of a firm or organization, it is now common for library or research functions dealing with third party content to similarly report in to KM. Although the capturing of key information about a firm’s matters can rightfully sit within a business development function, the organization skills of knowledge managers and their familiarity with taxonomies and metadata means that such a project is often ideally administered by the KM department. Over time, it has also become increasingly common for KM departments to include functions responsible for: the selection and administration of legal technology that is directly related to legal practice; process optimization; legal project management; alternative timekeepers; litigation support; practice management; and even pricing. In some firms, KM has become a client-facing function, carrying out AI projects and generating secondary revenue streams around subscription products and the commoditization of legal knowledge.
It is now perhaps less accurate to define KM purely in terms of knowledge or content, and more accurate to talk of it as a field dedicated to streamlining legal practice, enhancing firm-wide efficiencies, improving realization and increasing client value. In addition, because knowledge managers are often more directly related to practicing lawyers than other business professionals at a law firm (either because they were once lawyers themselves, or because they have to deeply understand practice in order to work with the content and associated processes), they are ideally situated to gather user-requirements from lawyers for major technology projects, and are often tasked with staying abreast of developments in the legal technology world so that they can match the right solution to a particular use case or practice pain-point. In short, firms and organizations that have a strong KM function are more likely to operate effectively, with greater productivity and better profit margins that those without one.
KM in Context
The core work of a KM department will differ depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, and what kind of firm or organization you work for.
In the United Kingdom and Australia, the traditional definitions of KM set out above might still accurately reflect much of what that department does within a firm. The new functions that often sit within a KM department in the United States might be gathered together in a new area that is called “legal innovation”, or they may be dispersed across the firm’s business units. A PSL or KML (practice support lawyer, knowledge management lawyer) in the United Kingdom is generally more content focused and more likely to be embedded in a practice group than the equivalent KMA (knowledge management attorney) in the United States. KMA roles are less likely to be assigned to a single practice group, and instead one KMA might support multiple practices. A PSL/KML is often tasked with drafting precedent documents, delivering legal training, or answering queries on specific areas of law and must, therefore, retain significant subject matter expertise in their practice area. In contrast, a KMA might coordinate the drafting of precedents by associates, and will spend as much time promoting new tools and processes as they will on content-related tasks.
Context also comes into play in relation to the size of the firm or organization in which a knowledge manager works. For example, the tools that are useful to practicing lawyers in a large firm are quite different to those that are useful in a small firm. In a large firm that is well resourced, knowledge managers are more likely to be tasked with finding discrete tools that improve efficiency for particular practice areas – for example, AI-enabled contract review tools that allow for faster and more precise due diligence review in the context of a large-scale corporate transaction. In a small firm, practice management tools that can perform multiple functions and are applicable across all of the practice areas of the firm will be more useful.
How to Get Started
If you are new to KM and you are hired by a firm or an organization that has an existing knowledge function, it won’t take long before you get a sense of what your department’s priorities are. Indeed, during the interview process it should already have been clear whether the function is one that is more clearly aligned with conventional definitions of KM or a modern, expanded one.
If you are new to KM and seeking a role, it would behoove you to sit down ahead of time and map out the kind of function you would prefer to join. This will likely depend on your desired career trajectory. Spending some time before applying for jobs to determine what you want your KM career to look like will help you decide which roles to apply for, and which firms or organizations to target.
If, however, you are new to the field and you have been tasked with establishing a KM function, that is a different situation entirely. Whether you moved into KM from another position at the same firm, or have been hired new to the firm for the purpose, you will want to spend some initial time understanding the way the organization works at a broader level. For a KM initiative to be effective, it must be supported by senior leaders and partners at the firm. Further, it is essential that the KM function be genuinely collaborative, not just across the firm’s practices but also across its business departments. Many KM projects rely on close working relationships with IT, Business Development, Learning and Development, and so on. KM will succeed best when it is in the process of breaking down silos; it will fail when it becomes territorial. Spending time understanding the way the business departments interact with one another, and building key relationships, will prove invaluable. Once you understand the network of power and influence across your firm or organization, and after receiving guidance from senior management and heads of practice groups about what kind of KM function they want to establish, it’s time to perform a KM audit. The notion of an audit and the priority building blocks that go into setting up a KM function will be explored in more detail in the next post in this series.
The organic evolution and diversity of the KM field makes it a highly rewarding and intellectual endeavor. Whether you are considering a career in KM, have taken the first steps in that career, or are an established KM practitioner looking for a refresher and renewed inspiration, we hope you will stay tuned for the rest of our series on the foundations of knowledge management.
 Ten years ago, Richard Susskind described it as a system of “organizing and exploiting the collective knowledge of a business.” Patrick DiDomenico, in his seminal text Knowledge Management for Lawyers (recommended reading for anyone starting out), lists many definitions of KM from different sources, each one valid and no two the same. The ISO Knowledge Management Standard (ISO30401) also set out definitions (and provides guidelines for establishing, implementing, maintaining, reviewing and improving a knowledge management system in organizations).