Features – Knowledge Management : Can it Exist in a Law Office? Part 1

Nina Platt is a Librarian at the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General. She also worked as Manager of Technical Services at the Dorsey & Whitney Law Firm in Minneapolis. To date, she has spent 14 years in law libraries. Nina also compiled and maintains the Piper State Court Directory, a directory of state appellate court decisions on the Web.

(Archived January 1, 1998)

I attended Online World this fall where “knowledge management” and “intranets” were the buzzwords. Session after session one speaker after another described their involvement in knowledge management and intranet development. As I sat in the meetings I couldn’t help but wonder how knowledge management could be applied in law offices, how some librarians are already involved in the management of knowledge, and what needs to happen for knowledge management to occur.

What is knowledge management?

Upon returning from the conference, I was eager to solidify my understanding of knowledge management and to learn how such a concept could be (or is being) implemented in law offices. I quickly found out that there is no easy definition.

A recent article in Library Journal defines it as “accessing, evaluating, managing, organizing, filtering, and distributing information in a manner that is useful to end users …. knowledge management involves blending a company’s internal and external information and turning it into actionable knowledge via a technology platform”1. Another article, this time in Information Week, quotes Gordon Petrash of Dow Chemical Co. who says it is “getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time”2.

Other writers on the subject define it more broadly. Verna Allee in The Knowledge Evolution: Expanding Organizational Intelligence states “Real knowledge management is much more than managing the flow of information. It means nothing less than setting knowledge free to find its own paths. It means fueling the creative fire of self-questioning in organizations. This means thinking less about knowledge management and more about knowledge partnering.3” Her book describes how the organizational structure of a business can create a collaborative environment where knowledge is shared.

After listening to the speakers, reading several articles and browsing through a few books, I began to understand knowledge management as the creation of systems or processes in a learning environment that allow all employees to have access to the information resources they need to develop the knowledge necessary to do their jobs. Those resources may be data that has been collected and stored in a database or knowledge that a co-worker or manager have developed and stored in memory. The vital component in knowledge management is that the resources are shared.

This definition is based on the following bits of knowledge I picked up while reading:

  • Knowledge itself cannot be managed. Only the processes or systems through which we share knowledge can be managed.
  • A collaborative learning environment that promotes and rewards sharing of resources must exist in order for knowledge management to succeed.

Despite these two complex requirements, knowledge management is a thriving concept eing implemented in businesses throughout the world. Many companies are rushing to purchase and implement a variety of knowledge management tools (databases, groupware, web technologies, etc.) in an effort to reap the benefits of knowledge management.

A concept by any other name

Knowledge management, it is reported, had it’s start in the Big Six Consulting firms and is now being embraced by other industries because of “the explosive growth of information resources such as the Internet, and the accelerating pace of technological change”4 that is leaving workers “both overwhelmed by information and fearful that they’re missing important details”5.

It would seem that those of us in law offices must have been overwhelmed years ago since law librarians have been engaged in knowledge management for years. Examples of the work we have been doing are many. On the traditional end, law librarians have been working within their organizations to develop what the MBA types are now calling Best Practices collections. We have called them Brief Banks, Research Memo Collections, Attorney Work Product Systems, Pleadings/Forms Banks, etc.

Other examples that are less traditional include:

Conflict management Depending on the size of the firm, conflict management can be an integral part of the services the library provides. In smaller firms, the librarian may be called upon to run conflict checks and maintain a database of clients detailing corporate relationships between parents, subsidiaries, spin-offs, etc. In larger firms, a Conflict Management department will process these same checks. Some of the larger firms have this department reporting to the director of the library. Still some have the Conflict group as its own entity but have hired a librarian to manage the group. Becky Brass, a veteran librarian in special libraries, is the manager of the Conflict Management group at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. Her responsibilities include the management of a staff who maintains a conflicts database, runs searches through on-line services for corporate relationships, etc.

Records management Some law librarians have shunned the possibility of adding this responsibility to the services provided by their libraries because they think others view it as a thankless job. Others have viewed it as their responsibility to manage information from both external and internal sources. Those who work with records management are responsible for the creation and maintenance of a records management database that allows them to track documents and data from cases, transactions, etc.

Marketing information management Increasingly, law librarians are taking on the role of tracking and maintaining marketing information For Ann Roberts, Director of Client and Information Services at McQuire Woods Battle & Boothe, it means managing the entire marketing process. Roberts has led the office in technological innovations through her efforts to make information available via the firm s intranet. In addition to the legal information resources available through the intranet, Roberts has also made the intranet a resource for marketing information. Information available on the intranet include responses to RFPs, policies, forms and other documents needed by attorneys and staff in a marketing effort. It also includes access to an Expert s list, Calendar of Events, Firm Newsletters, links to client sites, links to marketing articles, and a membership list (list of memberships held by attorneys in the firm). In other firms, managing the information needed for the marketing process may also include creation of databases to track work referred in and out, tracking client contacts and the client relationship, maintaining competitive intelligence, tracking news about existing clients and/or prospective clients, etc. The information that could be maintained to support the marketing process seems endless. Moreover, it is not only necessary that this type of information be maintained–the right people have to be able to have access to it.

Document management While the document management process seems like a secretarial responsibility, setting up and maintaining such a system requires many of the skills possessed by librarians. With document management, we are making it easier to save and retrieve work in progress. The manager of a system like DOCS Open (one of the document management systems used by many law offices today) must be familiar with database management and full-text retrieval. Part of setting up the system is working with various parts of the organization to determine how they want to access the documents they are creating. A system like this (properly set up) allows departments, teams and individuals to maintain different information about a document depending on the type of document, the client and matter numbers, etc. Library Director, Deb Muntean of Briggs and Morgan in St. Paul Minnesota, took on the responsibility of implementing an upgrade of DOCS Open when the MIS director left at the onset of the project.

Contact management and other databases Prior to the use of office-wide contact managers that are being implemented in many offices, librarians in those same firms were developing databases that tracked contact information (and other bits of data) for expert witnesses, litigation support services, judges biographies, CLE conferences, etc. All of these databases have one thing in common–they provide lawyers and staff with information that makes their jobs easier.

Case management New to most law office, case management (also called practice management by some vendors) seems as difficult to define as knowledge management depending on who is defining the concept. At the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, where we are currently working on the selection of case management software and implementation of the same within the next year, we are looking for a system that will provide attorneys and staff with information on the cases on which they are working. The case management system will be integrated with our time and billing and calendar systems and will provide contact management, matter management, transaction management, docketing, access to documents generated, time and billing reports, and many other benefits.

Build it and they will come?

When I was first asked to participate in the case management project, I had a hard time seeing what skills I could bring to it. Since then, I discovered that I had a lot to contribute. Besides the usual skill of gathering information on case management and its vendors, I also contributed project management and database development skills. The other librarians described in the above examples are also using both traditional and non-traditional skills to manage information produced both internally and externally. But does this make us knowledge managers? Well, yes and no.

Yes, we are doing knowledge management work if we are working to create systems or processes that are intended to assist attorneys and staff in the creation or transfer of knowledge from one entity to another. No, we are not, if those systems are not being used or if the systems exist but the people who need the information do not have access.

Any of you who have worked on the creation of a Brief Bank or Attorney Work Product System have experienced the challenges that come about as the result of trying to manage knowledge. Thomas Davenport echoes what we know in his “Ten Principles of Knowledge Management.”

  1. Knowledge management is expensive (but so is stupidity!)
  2. Effective management of knowledge requires hybrid solutions of people & technology
  3. Knowledge management is highly political
  4. Knowledge management requires knowledge managers
  5. Knowledge management benefits more from maps than models, more from markets than from hierarchies
  6. Sharing and using knowledge are often unnatural acts
  7. Knowledge management means improving knowledge work processes
  8. Knowledge access is only the beginning
  9. Knowledge management never ends
  10. Knowledge management requires a knowledge contract6

While the creation and maintenance of a knowledge management system is an expensive endeavor, the advantages it gives by creating more knowledgeable attorneys and staff who in turn are able to provide better service to clients makes it worth developing. Because knowledge is intangible and therefore hard to measure, many managing committees of law offices will not allow the expenditures necessary to be successful.

Besides the failure that can happen because the necessary resources are not available, many Brief Banks, Work Product systems, etc. are not successful because the environment does not allow it. If knowledge is seen as power and sharing knowledge is not placed high among skills that all attorneys and staff must possess, it is very likely that the implementation of such a system will fail. A learning environment where knowledge is not a commodity but instead a shared resource is required for success.

Hmmm… that seems to pound the last nail in the coffin of knowledge management in law offices. After all, law is an adversarial sport (I mean profession). One question (that I don’t have the answer to at this time) must be answered before we can move ahead in knowledge management. “How can we create a collaborative learning environment in a law office?” The two, collaboration and the practice of law, seem mutually exclusive. The “Big Six” firms answer to this challenge is to tie the success of such a system to compensation. Collaboration and sharing is a requirement of each employee’s job and performance evaluations include a review of how well the employee is doing in participating in the knowledge management process. Can that begin to happen in law offices?

Let’s pretend we’ve solved the problem

So, we have a collaborative learning environment, what’s next? What does a knowledge management system look like in a law office? As is seen in many implementations it is probably web based. An intranet exists that provides access to the various systems that have been put in place to make the transfer of knowledge flow easily. Through the intranet, attorneys and staff (with security in place so only those who have a need to see the information) have access to:

  • Best Practices – An attorney work product system that includes briefs, research memos, pleadings, transactional documents, forms, etc.
  • Resumes – A system where resumes for attorneys and staff are maintained that allow others to identify expertise that would otherwise not be known. It could also be used to track memberships held by individuals attorneys and any other information that may be useful to know.
  • Office Directory – Staff telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.
  • Calendar of Events
  • Office Newsletters
  • Client Information – Access to articles/news about the client, information on cases/transactions (contacts, matters, docket, etc.), information on marketing efforts involving the client, time and billing information, etc.
  • Variety of systems depending on need – Expert witness database, litigation support services directory, judges biographies, and many other databases that are created and maintained in house or purchased from vendors and accessed via the Internet.
  • Conflict and records management information

The list of what could be included in such a system will depend on the law office’s needs and the policies in the office that permit the exchange of information. Looking at this short list, it is evident that the benefits of such a system are many. Now if we could only figure out how to share…

More on knowledge management

This article barely touches on what knowledge management is and how it is being used. To learn more visit the following sites:


  1. DiMattia, Susan & Norman Oder. “Knowledge Management: Hope, Hype, or Harbinger?” Library Journal, September 15, 1997 (33-35).
  2. Hibbard, Justin. “Knowing What We Know,” Information Week, October 20, 1997.
  3. Allee, Verna. The Knowledge Evolution : Expanding Organizational Intelligence. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997, p. 231.
  4. Hibbard
  5. Hibbard
  6. Davenport, Thomas H., PhD. Some Principles of Knowledge Management.


The second part of this article will focus on the skills needed for knowledge management, how to create a collaborative learning environment and more specific examples of knowledge management efforts in law firms.

Posted in: Features, Information Management