Why Knowledge Management in Law Firms?

When I was in law school, some students used razor blades to cut pages out of case reporters so that others couldn’t prepare for class. Yes, this was before Lexis and Westlaw were widely used. As an attorney, I learned that practicing law is a business. Some law firms have abandoned the “take-care-of-each-other” attitude and subscribe to the “eat-what-you-kill” view. Lawyers are competitive. So how do you convince them to share their knowledge?

Why KM? The Diamond Appraiser Explains

A few years ago, on a flight from Chicago to New York, returning from a KM conference, the man next to me was nervous and hated flying. So, he had a few drinks. That got him talking–maybe a little too much.

Joe was a diamond appraiser; the best in the business, he said. He was the best because he knew some things that only he (and his mentor) knew. After convincing him that I was in knowledge management and not a corporate spy (and after another drink), he spilled his guts.

“The secret” he said, “to appraising a diamond, is clarity. The more the inclusions–those black carbon spots–there are in a diamond, the worse the clarity, and the lower it’s value. And the best way to judge clarity–better than any microscope–is to use tissue paper.” Joe went on to tell me how when you wet a piece of tissue paper and hold it over the stone, the inclusions appear right through the tissue paper, as plain as day. “Nobody knows about this trick, and why I’m telling you, I don’t know,” he said, as he poured his third airline-sized bottle of whiskey into what was left of his cola. In vino veritas, I thought to myself.

“The problem with what you do for a living,” he said, “is that all that ‘knowledge sharing’ makes for competition. When I tell someone my techniques, I no longer have the edge. People don’t need me. They can go to the next guy.”

I’ll spare you the internal dialogue, (including contemplating switching careers to become a diamond appraiser, after having learned my new secret) but suffice it to say that it made me question the foundation of KM. It also made me wonder how to defend KM from those naturally-competitive lawyers who would argue that sharing their knowledge would put them at a competitive disadvantage – even among their partners.

So, why should a lawyer–whose knowledge and experience are her capital and competitive advantage–compromise that edge and embrace knowledge management?

It’s because there’s a difference between trade secrets and knowledge. We’re not talking about disclosing the secret formula for Coca-Cola. And there’s a difference between publishing your firm’s intellectual capital (i.e. its work product) on the Internet and making it available to your colleagues within your firm. Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. You didn’t join a firm to compete with your colleagues and partners. You joined for some degree of mutual benefit. Sharing a brief or merger agreement with a colleague so that he doesn’t have to start from scratch helps the firm as a whole. It is more efficient and it allows your colleague to deliver work product to the client faster. Clients like good, fast service. Happy clients mean more business. More business means more money in your pocket. And by the way, your corporate clients know all about KM, and they expect that your firm does, too. So, think more about how to compete with the firm across town rather than with your partner across the hall.

LawyerKM :: Knowledge Management & Technology for Lawyers and Law Firms

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3 thoughts on “Why Knowledge Management in Law Firms?

  • February 12, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Exactly right. One reason clients come to big law firms is that they expect to be getting the collective knowledge of the enterprise to serve them.

    Also, as the diamond broker pointed out, he learned his secrets from his mentor. Unless you are a sole practitioner, you will need to share some of what you know with your associates. Otherwise, how will they learn and you with your practice.

  • February 12, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Disclaimer: due to a lack of diamonds in my home, I have never tried the wet-tissue-paper technique, so I don’t know if it works.

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