Features – Knowledge Management: Part II

Nina Platt , who has worked in public, academic and special libraries, spending the last 10+ years as technical services/systems librarian in law libraries, is currently working as an information management/library automation consultant. Nina also compiled and maintains the Piper State Court Directory , a directory of state appellate court decisions on the Web.

(Archived March 16, 1998)

In the two months since I submitted Part 1 of this article for publication by LLRX, I have had the opportunity to talk to a number of individuals about knowledge management, intranets and developing a collaborative learning environment in the law office. Part 2 reflects those discussions while looking at more specific examples of knowledge management efforts in law offices, how to create a collaborative learning environment and what skills are needed for knowledge management.

In the Beginning (Or At Least a Few Years Ago)

In 1986, Ann Carter, Library Director at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis Minnesota, with the support of then managing partner Robert Johnson, developed a plan to improve how the firm managed its work product. Four information specialists (I was lucky to be one of them) were hired to take on the responsibility of developing a system to collect, maintain and make available any and all work product that the office decided was examples of best practices. We were each given responsibility for different practice groups divided up between transaction and litigation. Each practice group assigned an attorney as liaison to work with us in determining what the group needed and wanted in the way of work product retrieval.

Using a database management software called SEEK (originally developed for the U.S. government for defense purposes), we created intricate indices to paper files of research memos, opinion letters, briefs, pleadings, forms, etc. We were intermediaries, collecting, indexing, abstracting and retrieving the documents whenever they were needed. While the technology used may seem a bit archaic now, it was pretty forward thinking for a time when word processing was still being done on Wang dumb terminals. Even though the system itself was not full text, the indexed records with abstracts could be queried and documents retrieved in ways not possible with paper index systems.

A couple years later, across town at Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, attorney LaVern Pritchard was working on determining how to “implement a system that would more reflect how lawyers actually would want to manipulate information in an adversary setting”. In 1989, he discovered Maxthink (a software company owned by “hypertext visionary” Neil Larson) and went on to develop what may very well have been one of the first hypertext knowledge management systems in the legal community. The hypertext system was built primarily on a suite of DOS hypertext products from Maxthink, using Hyplus, later Hynet_LAN (the hypertext engine), Transtext (hypertext word processor), and Houdini (the matrix outliner). In a 1990 Minnesota Lawyer article he referred to the system as an “integrated litigation knowledge system.”

Oppenheimer librarian, Barb Minor worked with Pritchard to develop a variety of uses for the system including witness information, document information, pleadings, research, discovery, etc. MIS director Mark Thuston was also supportive in the duo’s efforts to network the system. Their work served as a prototype for other applications including multiple case management system, legal research browsing system, and general legal intranet. Pritchard’s description of the system follows:

The system was hypertext delivered and ASCII text based but structures were built with a combination of handcrafted ASCII menu files, outliner generated hierarchical structures, database generated structures and occasional hybrid structures like experimenting with flow charting that required proof over a series of hyperlinked pages..…It held witness information for about 100 witnesses, 16000 pages of deposition testimony, about 4500 “executive level” analytical document abstracts, 6000 pages of trial transcript, 14750 files in total, 58,000+ total links, average file size 5K, greatest “depth” in links from opening screen to the most remote buried file: 8 levels. The magic of the system was the ability to deliver browsing capability to litigation case-specific knowledge.

Fast Forwarding to Today

Today there appears to be new opportunities in managing shared knowledge. Many of the individuals I talked to as I prepared this article are very optimistic about the near future. They are quick to point out that the technologies needed to create systems that work are becoming commonplace. At the same time, the economic atmosphere in which law is practiced is such that law firm and law office administrators are looking for ways to improve the cost effectiveness of the product their organizations deliver to their clients. Many clients are looking to their lawyers to provide them with new fee structures that don’t rely as heavily on hourly billing and are shopping around for law firms that are willing to be creative. This means developing systems that reduce the time spent reinventing the wheel. It also means making the best use of the knowledge held (and hopefully shared) by the partners, associates, librarians, legal assistants, secretaries, and other administrative staff.

Jones, Day, Reavis, & Pogue know what it means to create an environment that makes knowledge sharing a reality. Kingsley Martin, Director of Legal Technology Planning at Jones, Day, points to his firm’s use of Lotus Notes in making information accessible throughout the firm. The firm’s office intranet provides access to 300+ Lotus Notes databases that include forms files, directories, office bulletins, information feeds, work product, discussion groups, etc. Besides specific subject areas and resources, users can also navigate information that is organized by practice group, individual offices, administrative and legal work groups. When asked about skills needed to effectively manage knowledge, Martin places high value on the skills possessed by librarians including “understanding the practice of law” and “knowing how to organize information.” It’s not enough to know how to put technology in place, you need to know how to put people together with technology and make that technology work to produce the desired results.

John Hokkanen, Legal Technologist at Alston & Bird, has played a central role in developing the knowledge-based systems/intranet at his firm. A&B made a large commitment to technology evidenced by the slogan on the firm’s web site “Maximizing Technology To Serve Our Clients Better. Better Tools. Better Job. Better Representation. ” Hokkanen’s development platform has been a combination of application development tools including Cold Fusion, Access, Fulcrum, and Verity.

Using these tools Hokkanen developed a “core Intranet backbone application” called Pure Oxygen that has been deployed within his organization to provide access to work product, case tracking, subject databases, and other resources. Go to The Law Practice Technology Center to see Pure Oxygen in use in a collaborative environment (The Law Practice Technology Center is a web site dedicated to sharing of information in law practice technology).

Gail F. Schultz at Mobil Business Resources Corp. also played a part in developing her companies knowledge system (The Mobil Intellectual Capital Bank) that makes legal documents including “precedent documents, model forms and clauses, legal memorandums, litigation materials and checklists” available. Her account of the development and use of this worldwide system was published in the November 1997 issue of Law Technology Product News.

Intranets and knowledge management systems aren’t just for the large firm or corporate law office. Richard Granat, Director of the Center for Law Practice Technology, is involved with research and development for the virtual law office, multi-office law firms, and other complex legal organizations like the 15 legal service office in Maryland, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. He is currently investigating the possibility of deploying an all-java based knowledge management system called the Chakra Knowledge System developed by a company called HuskyLabs at this site and others.

Developed for large law firms and legal organizations, the Chakra application is “a complete software system for providing privileged, perpetual access to a wide range of information stores located throughout corporate networks and the Internet.” Chakra For Law “allows legal teams to manage cases in secure collaborative workspaces.” Using such an application in an extranet deployment will allow pro bono attorneys and other legal service providers to access document archives that include forms, pleadings, legal memos, appellate briefs and other shared work product that will make the job of bringing legal services to low income families in Maryland more efficient and effective.

The Equal Justice Network is another project Granat is working on that will use the same technology. Sponsored by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Center for Law and Social Policy, The Network, which will be operational later this year, is a web site developed for lawyers serving low-income clients. It allows them to participate in discussion groups, access libraries of work product, conduct private conferences with clients and colleagues, and communicate with their peers. It will also provide training on using the Internet for legal research.

Challenging Sacred Cows

Creating a learning environment (where none exists) is a complex task that involves changes in corporate culture and changes in individual behavior, and is perhaps too large a topic for this article. Instead, I would like to discuss the processes that need to be in place in order to make a learning environment a reality (should the human factors be resolved). Verna Allee in her book, The Knowledge Evolution, Expanding Organizational Intelligence, assists knowledge managers in assessing their own organizations through a series of Assessment Questions that deal with a number of areas. They are too numerous to be listed in complete form in this article and will make more sense to you when read in context with the rest of the book (at $17.95 the book is a great buy). Here’s a subset of the questions that have been extracted from various chapters and thrown together to illustrate the resource:

  1. Do people have ready access to databases, trade journals, and library resources relevant to their work?
  2. Do you have processes and technologies to distribute and access data throughout the organization?
  3. Do people get basic skill training in using equipment, software, and work tools?
  4. For new employees, is there a formal orientation to policies, procedures, and standards?
  5. Is there an open, collaborative, ongoing process for creating, updating, and retiring procedures, regulations, policies, and standards?
  6. Are databases and information interfaces organized in a way that is consistent with how the organization actually functions?
  7. Do people understand the key performance and productivity measures for their work?
  8. Do people work together as teams to seek improvements and redesign their work as needed?
  9. Do you experiment with knowledge building technologies, such as groupware and internal web sites?
  10. Are there company-wide processes for openly questioning assumptions and challenging “sacred cows”?

The last one is my favorite, but then, it would be, wouldn’t it?

CKO : Help Wanted : Who Should Apply

So, how do we move forward in answering the questions listed above and making the necessary changes to develop a learning environment? The trend in many corporations throughout the country is to employ a Chief Knowledge Officer whose job it is to work with the corporations to develop the processes and systems that will support knowledge management. An article by Mary Corcoran and Rebecca Jones in the June 1997 issue of Information Outlook entitled “Chief Knowledge Officers? Perceptions, Pitfall, and Potential” discusses the competencies needed by knowledge managers. They include:

  • Knowledge and understanding of the business rules and processes of the organization
  • Entrepreneurial skills (communication, salesmanship, product development)
  • Information technology skills (ability to understand current and envision tomorrow’s technology)
  • Leadership skills (inspire people, create alliances)
  • Financial management skills

To this list, I would like to add:

  • A thorough understanding of how people learn and how knowledge is developed, shared, renewed, etc.


Being a bit of a pessimist myself, I hope that the optimists amongst us are right. If they are, we are heading into a very interesting time where the early adopters of the idea of knowledge management will see their dream of storing and retrieving their firm’s collective knowledge (to improve the delivery of legal services) realized. The technology is there for us to move forward with the implementation of such systems. Now the challenge is left to the partners and administrators to implement fee structures and compensation plans that make sharing and reusing knowledge effective. Once that barrier has been removed (or at least lowered), they will need to take the next step towards creating an environment where shared knowledge is valued by supporting the creation of the types of systems mentioned above. Is it a huge task? Yes. Let’s hope we’re up to it.

Posted in: Features, Information Management