Knowledge Management, Geometry and Frieda Riley

This essay is the Preface to Jerry Lawson’s new book Knowledge Management for Lawyers: Building a Culture of Success, scheduled for publication in April 2022.

I first learned about the joy of efficiency from my high school Geometry teacher, Miss Freida Riley. On submitting a proof for her approval, her usual reaction would be: “It’s OK. Can you do better?” What she meant was make it simpler, more streamlined, more efficient.

If more work resulted in better insights, I might hear words like: “That’s good, Jerry. That’s what we are looking for.” 

Miss Riley prized efficiency, what mathematicians call “elegance.” She showed me what poet Edna St. Vincent had in mind when she wrote “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”

Valedictorian of her high school and college classes, Frieda Riley could have been a star teacher at virtually any school in the country. She chose to teach in McDowell County, the heart of the West Virginia coal fields. It was the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation, subject of a New York Times article portraying it as the poster child of poverty in the United States.

Miss Riley blessed her students with better ways of thinking and approaching problems. She opened the door to new worlds, new possibilities.

Frieda Riley died of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 31. Today she is honored in the National Museum of Education, but her most important legacy is the countless students she inspired–and equipped–to meet challenges.

October Sky Movie

Homer Hickam was one of these students. He escaped the coal fields to become a NASA engineer. Miss Riley played a prominent role in his memoir, “Rocket Boys” which, among other awards, was selected by the New York Times as one of its Great Books of 1998.

Rocket Boys was later made into the 1999 movie named “October Sky” Academy Award Winner Laura Dern played the Miss Riley role. Dern did a great job, but the real Miss Riley was oh so much better.

My Miss Riley-inspired yearning for efficiency accompanied me to many places, including law school, where Frieda Riley’s gifts gave me an edge. Her life lessons served me well when I went on to work in a private law firm and later several federal agencies. I observed many attempts at knowledge management, good and bad.

I learned that efficiency was a rare commodity in most lawyer knowledge management efforts, effectiveness even more so. The main feature most KM projects had in common was a failure to meet expectations. Many were complete failures.

Relevance to Lawyers

By this point the more impatient reader will be asking, “What does one man’s idiosyncratic fetish for efficient knowledge management have to do with me and my law firm?” The answer is simple:

Improved, more efficient knowledge management is probably the most promising way for most law firms to become more effective, to improve their bottom line.

The grail of knowledge management is elusive. It’s not easy to know what you know. There are more potential pitfalls than easy shortcuts. In this book I do my best to provide tools that can help you find the best approaches, the ones most adaptable to you and your law firm.

We hope you enjoy the adventure and find it rewarding. Our challenge to you is: Can you do better?

Copyright 2021 Jerry Lawson
Posted in: Education, KM, Legal Education