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December 1999

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Systems Management

Knowledge Services: Not Just a Buzz Word

Knowledge management is more than just setting up servers.

By John Hokkanen

LAW FIRM technology has moved beyond its back-office origins, squarely into personal productivity and thinking tools.

The Internet has taken technology beyond one's own office, and made it the mechanism of information sharing and publication to an organization's long-term partners and clients. Combined, these two forces have created what has been coined "knowledge management."

Thought of in this manner, knowledge management seeks to accomplish two different goals:

  1. Productivity enhancement internally through information sharing and knowledge leveraged across time and geography; and

  2. Productivity enhancement and product redefinition by changing the relationships between attorneys and their clients.

On the surface, because these new goals involve technology, the change may be viewed as a technology issue. But it isn't.

Legal knowledge management is about people and processes, not technology. Technology simply becomes the grease to connect people and quicken processes.

Because these goals are not the traditional tech department's goals (i.e., build a network, connect it to the outside, manage the PC desktop), they require a new breed of individuals. Knowledge management is about understanding what lawyers do, how they work, and the kind of information they need to do their jobs. An ability to use technology helps, and certainly one needs to be able to talk intelligently to programmers and tech types. But this is more about understanding the knowledge domain of the lawyer's world and being able to define what needs to be done, not how to do it.


Most IT departments are unprepared to deal with the knowledge needs of the next millennium. Often, they want to focus on their domain expertise, which is how to set up a server, what networking protocol will work, or how to administer a database. Digging into a human process (as opposed to a technology) may not interest them. Going through multiple design and redesign cycles to get the user interaction and flow set up so that human beings, not tech-savvy folks, can use the application may simply not be what they had in mind when they took a "tech job."

As a result, the need for "Knowledge Services" has driven the creation of new positions in firms. Some corporations have had Chief Knowledge Officers for three or four years, and the big consulting firms are reportedly spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their internal knowledge management initiatives.

Atlanta-based Alston & Bird has set up an independent Knowledge Services department to deliver these services; many other law firms have either been aggressively pursuing the same goal within the library or IT departments. For example, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Winston & Strawn; Sidley & Austin; Goodwin, Procter & Hoar; Davis Polk & Wardell; Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz are just a few of the firms that have individuals with "new age" titles or responsibilities.

The graphic helps show why this is so important for law offices of the next millennium. (The original figure was introduced to me by Kingsley Martin who credits Richard Susskind for its origin.) As it demonstrates, law firms, for the most part, have been stuck in the lower left corner: the realm of the MIS Director, someone who is largely concerned with infrastructure. Many firms have begun to expose their lower left capabilities to their outside clients, thus moving into the upper left area. In large part, the left side of the figure is the realm of the technology personnel.

Some firms have made forays into the lower right side portion of the figure with deployment of knowledge and practice systems. This has taken a lot of effort and has proven to be fraught with many issues because the focus is on people and processes, not the relatively simplistic problems of purchasing infrastructural components.

The new Internet companies have gone wild with the upper right portion of the diagram, and this is the area of the new business model. Using the Internet as the delivery vehicle, new processes join buyers and sellers in new and interesting ways. The real innovators are recognized as such not because they put into place massive infrastructure but because of this process innovation. The diagram shows why "Knowledge Services" as a distinct entity makes sense. The focus is on understanding the business side of the firm or office, not on implementing infrastructure. This calls for new people with new skills, particularly for those organizations that are trying to move into the upper right part of the figure by redesigning their value proposition.

The right side of the diagram has been why Chief Information Officers were introduced and why we now see Chief Knowledge Officers. If your firm has not developed its strategy of assessing how it is going to move into the right side of the figure, it is probably time to start. Your competitors already are working on it.

John Hokkanen based in Austin, Texas, is the chief knowledge consultant for Alston & Bird LLP. Obtain his free "Law Offices and the Internet" online.

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