From Big Stacks of Paper to Shelves of Knowledge
How a 21-office, London-based international firm transformed Knowledge Management theory into reality.
By Hugh Crisp
IN THE MAY issue of Law Technology News, Kevin O'Connor wrote of the risks of a "knowledge management" strategy based on the theory, "If you build it, they will come."
If you get over the cultural barriers which O'Connor identified -- compensation systems, individuality, time and materials billing and tradition -- you can get people to accept the principle of sharing know-how. The tough part is converting the theory to reality, and getting lawyers to remain committed to a KM system, and not go back to their old ways.
Freshfields has more than 1,500 lawyers in 21 countries, in Europe, Asia and the U.S. We are a single firm. Our aim is to provide a seamless service to clients in their own country and internationally, with a consistently excellent level of quality. That all means that the challenge of sharing knowledge throughout the firm is particularly difficult, but that the reward for getting it right can be dramatic.
We are fortunate in that our development and culture have helped us get over the cultural barriers to acceptance of the principle of knowledge sharing. We have a lock-step system of partner compensation throughout all of our offices, which is central to our culture.
There are no billable hour targets, although you wouldn't think so when you see how hard people work. We don't lack individuality (indeed we revel in it!), but teamworking is valued far above any system of star lawyers. We have always concentrated on value billing, which puts a premium on efficiency. We enjoy a rich diversity of tradition, but we prefer to look forward.
We have always taken knowledge management seriously. In our London office, we have been working with it for some 10 years (although we didn't know that was what it was called!).
We have more than 50 "Professional Support Lawyers" around our network of offices. These are lawyers who concentrate on improving our knowledge and efficiency, rather than on working directly with clients. One of our Professional Support Lawyers became a partner.
We also are helped by being substantially consistent in the IT systems used in our offices. All offices are linked by a wide area network. We run Windows 95/98, MS Windows NT 4.0, MS Exchange 5.5, MS Office 2000, MS Site Server 3 and MS IIS 4.0. Almost all our lawyers have Hewlett Packard laptops.
Even with all those advantages, it is not easy to start and maintain the momentum of knowledge sharing around the firm internationally
In one of our offices, we had succeeded in transferring piles of good know-how material from the corner of people's desks to the corner of the library, but there was a real risk that that was where it was going to stay. Everyone wanted to sort the material and index it in our knowledge management databases, but the task was so daunting that it seemed that we would never start it. The piles simply got bigger, and the risk was that people would soon stop offering material, because they saw that nothing was being done to it.
Something had to be done. After a weekend in which a deal worth £825 million sterling was done in our offices in 36 hours, we figured that, if we could do miracles like that for our clients, we should be able to do them for ourselves. So we decided to treat the creation of international knowledge management systems like a client assignment, with the same level of priority.
The key point was to work towards a "closing" with a difference, when we would effectively close the relevant office for a day to carry out the exercise of gathering, sorting, weeding and filing all the know-how that was in the lawyer's cupboards (or on the library floor!).
It was, of course, an illusion that all this could be done in one day, but that was to be the culmination of the exercise. With high-profile partner sponsorship, we used one of the regular all-office meetings to announce the project and to set a timetable.
We had a project name (for example, Project Arrancar in Spain and Project Spinta in Italy, both of which are rough translations of Project Kickstart). We had already done a lot of work on setting the categories into which we would sort the know-how, ensuring that they were consistent with the categories we use internationally, so that people searching across other offices' databases would not get lost.
We then gradually built up the pressure towards the "closing", encouraging everyone to get their know-how ready to bring to the closing.
Lawyers are nothing if not competitive, so the message was that they would look a little foolish if they turned up to "show and tell" without anything. We had to keep reinforcing the message that the partners really cared about this and lawyers could no more not turn up for the "closing" than they could miss a clientclosing.
On the day itself, everyone dressed down. We divided people into teams according to their practice groups. Anybody who did not have a substantial bundle of information in their arms soon went away to gather some material.
The practice groups installed themselves in separate conference rooms and set about going through the know-how material. They had to assess whether each piece was up-to-date, its importance, and whether it duplicated something they had already found. They then had to prepare a brief description of the relevant document which would serve as the basis for the electronic index entry for that document, and would contain key words which would enable us to find that document with subsequent database searches. The document was then copied and inserted in a physical file.
Throughout the day, we heard remarks like: "I've been looking for this document for ages," "If only I had had this note when I was researching the same point last week," "Wouldn't it be a good idea if I sent useful notes for inclusion in the databases in the future?"
Everybody was making a journey towards appreciation of the importance of sharing know-how in a way which made it easily retrievable. As teachers tell us, "If you tell someone something, they hear it; if they discover it, they learn it".
We gave everybody a good lunch, and pushed on through the afternoon. People were getting tired, but competitiveness and encouragement drove them on, just like a real closing. We set a deadline in the early evening, and told people about the deadline with about two hours to go. Things then evolved just like a real time-limited closing; it got fairly frantic towards the end and everything got done.
Meanwhile, workers had been preparing shelves to hold all the files which were rapidly filling with know-how. As the deadline approached, the practice groups started loading their completed files onto the shelves. You get great satisfaction from looking at a wall full of organized know-how at the end of a day, when it had been a blank wall that morning!
As the deadline passed, we broke out the champagne (or the local equivalent). Everybody signed a giant "tombstone," and we handed out individual "tombstones." It was just like a real case or transaction well done. Post closing celebrations also followed, according to local tradition (vodka in Moscow, tapas in Madrid).
Of course the work was not complete at that stage. We brought in paralegals to deal with the data entry of all of the reviewed items onto the database. Inevitably, there were all sorts of questions which had to be cleared up with the lawyers. The key thing was that the back of the task had been broken, and people felt able to cope with maintaining the system from that point on.
We have done this in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome and Moscow. Tokyo, Brussels and Amsterdam are planned, with other offices to follow.
We are still learning from our mistakes. It is too easy to be complacent about what has been achieved, and to lose the momentum of continuing contribution of know-how. The stimulus that provided the initial collection needs to be replaced by different incentives. We are experimenting with on-screen reminders of the need to contribute know-how, and the ability to contribute a document with just one click. Contribution to know-how has been added as a topic to be discussed in a lawyer's appraisals.
It is vital to provide enough continuing resource to maintain and develop a database once it has been launched; this involves a lot of work from the Professional Support function. Lawyers need local training on how to access the databases, and regular visits to deal with problems. Expectations have to be managed; you may have introduced a system which is infinitely better than the previous vacuum, but people expect continuous improvement (and they are right to do so).
Returning to baseball, "It's not over until it's over" and even then it's not over.
Hugh Crisp, based in London, is an English solicitor and French avocat partner, with Freshfields.