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May 2000

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Knowledge Management

How to Overcome the Cultural Barriers That Can Blockade Knowledge Management

Administrators can help lawyers embrace new systems by being sensitive to hidden agendas.

By Kevin O'Connor

REMEMBER THE movie Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner's character built a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa, because he was told, "If you build it, they will come?"

Unfortunately, this is the strategy most firms use when they implement knowledge management. They simply set out to build a KM system, without addressing the myriad cultural barriers ingrained in most firms.

In the movie, all worked out for the best. However, it is not likely that you can expect the same results in your firm without careful planning, hard work and an unswerving focus on the needs of your lawyers.

Carla Odell, co-author of If Only We Knew What We Know, says "If you build it they will come, but only for e-mail." That quote really speaks to the knowledge management challenge. It isn't about building stuff, it's about engendering a spirit of collaboration. It's about eradicating barriers to effective sharing of tacit and explicit knowledge. It's about institutionalizing processes to make it easy for lawyers and staff to work more effectively.


It might be helpful to revisit the semantics of "knowledge management." Odell's definition: "KM is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time, so that they can make better and more informed decisions than they would have otherwise." Simple and to the point. It's about helping people to do their jobs better.

It's not about the next cool technology product that will revolutionize the way lawyers work. "Technology is the easy aspect of knowledge management. Overcoming cultural issues is the real challenge," says Eugene Stein, chief knowledge officer and CIO at Shearman & Sterling in New York.

To effectively address knowledge management, you need to understand why law firms even care about it. The drivers for KM are centered around business issues -- increased competition, recruiting and retention issues, profitability concerns -- so the focus must be on changing the practice, not just implementing technology.

Cultural Barriers

What are some of the cultural barriers to knowledge management initiatives in today's firm?

* Compensation: Compensation models are one of the toughest hurdles. Although some firms have lock-step compensation models, where attorneys are not as adversely impacted for spending time on knowledge sharing activities, most don't. Even those that do typically place a premium on "billable hours," and lawyers not hitting billable targets feel the sting. The practical impact: It's a challenge to convince lawyers to contribute content into knowledge management systems.

* Individuality: Lawyers are lone wolves, moving to team collaboration can be a tough transition. Law is intensely competitive, from getting in to the right school, to making the school's law review, to clerking for the right justice, to getting a job at the right firm. Competitiveness is ingrained in the legal psyche. Most lawyers remain intensely competitive, even in their own firms. How do you reconcile this mindset with demands to share knowledge with your co-workers? Lawyers must transition from believing that by transferring knowledge they somehow become less important, to believing the old adage that "All boats rise with the tide."

* Billing: Most firms still bill principally on a time and materials basis. Although clients are demanding fixed price bids and not-to-exceed estimates; and competition ("beauty contests") are thriving; many firms have not fully embraced new billing models. Old school lawyers believe efficiency results in lower revenues. In their view, why spend lots of money to get more efficient, when it adversely impacts the business?

* Tradition: Attorneys are often skeptical about new ways of doing things. Tradition reigns, it can be difficult to accept radically different approaches.

Addressing Challenges

So, how can a firm address these challenges? First and foremost, management must "buy in" to the knowledge management program and provide tangible support. They must understand why the firm is investing in KM; commit the necessary funds; and throw their weight behind the team doing the work. Ideally, firm leaders should prepare a "30-second elevator speech" so that they can quickly and easily articulate the firm's KM strategy.

Involve second-tier management (i.e., practice and department heads also are informed, active supporters. Discuss KM plans at partnership meetings and retreats; spread the message about why it is important.

The first step is to conduct a "knowledge audit." This involves spending time with the right people in the practice areas, and identifying how knowledge is created and transferred, with an eye for areas for improvement. Focus on the practice, and spend time with lawyers in the practice areas. Understand what they do, and ascertain how you can improve the practice.

Consider a broad-based knowledge management team, comprised of attorneys and staff, representative of the firm's practice areas and locations. For example, Shearman & Sterling has created a "Knowledge Advisory Board" composed of just such a collection of lawyers and staff. They meet regularly to direct the strategy and overall plan for the firm's knowledge management initiative, with a real focus on best practices.

The next step is to develop a plan to address the needs which have been distilled from this effort. It should focus on how the firm can capture and reuse important knowledge assets. Content is king. If you don't have a method and process for easily capturing and accessing helpful information, then you will not be successful.

One of the key elements of your plan must be how you will create processes that facilitate knowledge sharing. They must be unobtrusive or they will not be followed, the content will provide marginal value, and the utility and benefits of the system will suffer. This may be the most important consideration of all. Sherman & Sterling created a role of "Knowledge Coordinator" in each practice group. These people not only help to determine what processes make sense, but are directly responsible for ensuring that their respective practice areas participate.

Finally, try a little marketing and shameless self-promotion. How you pitch KM in your firm may be a great determinant of its success. When you consider KM, it all sounds too dramatic and complicated for lawyers to really embrace.

Bonnie Speer-McGrath, of Speer Software Training, suggests that the same tactics used to sell new technology innovations to lawyers as part of the training process can also be used to get lawyers excited about KM.

"Finding ways to tangibly demonstrate how lawyers perform tasks today, coupled with how they could accomplish the same tasks faster and with better results is key." Given the structural impediments to implementing KM in law firms, firms must embrace a broad strategy for introducing it to their firms. "Promotion and education can take many forms, from formal briefings, to hands-on training, to the use of success stories, where specific examples of the effective use of such tools and processes are highlighted," says Speer-McGrath. "Lawyers want to know, 'What's in it for me?'"

Focus on the needs of your lawyers. Create a team to lead the effort that includes them. Spend time with them; ascertain needs, and focus your efforts on building processes that will facilitate the incorporation of new content. If you've done a good job of understanding their needs and in providing useful content for them, then you can be sure that "If you build it, they will come."

Kevin O'Connor is managing vice president, legal systems and consulting business unit, of SRA International Inc., based in Fairfax, Va.

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