Formation of a Knowledge Management Department in a Law Firm

The following extract of my article (for Ark Group’s publication – The Evolution of the Law Firm Library Function: Transformation and integration into the business of law) was published on July 24, 2018 by Daniel Smallwood on LinkedIn.  

It supplies an exclusive insight into the absorption of my firm’s library functions into the knowledge management department, addressing the impetus for the change, its execution, what went well, and what went wrong. 

As Daniel notes in his post,  I will also be co-chairing, with Joshua Fireman, Ark Group’s 14th annual Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession conference taking place October 23rd & 24th in New York.

Formation of the knowledge management department

Although the firm had been engaging in what could be considered knowledge management activities for several years, it was not until December of 2011, when I joined as director of KM, that Ogletree Deakins formally started a knowledge management program. Here is a brief overview of how we formed the KM department.

By early 2012, we quickly formed the first iteration of our KM department by combining some existing groups, people and roles, and bringing on new people to fill the gaps. We looked across the administrative departments at the firm and identified those people who were engaging in knowledge management activities, even if those activities were by another name.

First was a senior-manager-level team member who, 25 years earlier, had been responsible for establishing and running the library. Her activities in 2012 focused on building out the firm’s first SharePoint-based intranet platform and attempting to organize the firm’s administrative information in a way that was easily accessible. Within a few months– by mid-2012 – we brought on others (including a former colleague of mine at my prior firm) to help these efforts, and together that group formed what we currently call the KM firm solutions group.

Next was a long-standing practice support group. This team was originally charged with responsibilities related to managing and supporting large client engagements. This included custom reporting and making client information accessible via an extranet platform. This group, which consisted of about four members, went on to be reorganized and renamed what we currently call the KM client solutions group.

A new role for the firm was practice support lawyer, otherwise known as knowledge management attorney. With the impending formation of the KM department, a shareholder in the firm indicated interest in transitioning from practicing lawyer to practice support lawyer. He joined the KM department immediately in December 2011 as our first KM counsel, focusing on identifying and organizing substantive legal documents and helping the practicing lawyers understand and apply knowledge management to their practices. By mid-2012, we had brought on a second KM counsel.

The final group that made up our nascent KM department, which is the focus of this chapter, is the library services group (LSG). Because of the natural fit with knowledge management, the LSG became a part of the KM department immediately upon its formation. This was the largest and most well-established group in the KM department, as the firm had had a library (in one form or another) since around the time of its founding in 1977. Up until joining the KM department, the library staff had grown with the firm since and, by the end of 2011, totaled approximately 15 members, including a senior manager who had been in the role for several years.

Since library services was the most well-established group, and had been operating well for several years, the main focus of the new KM department during the first few years of its existence was building out the fundamental components of a modern KM program. Without dwelling on the details, this meant spending the majority of our time on five areas: rounding out the KM department with additional staff; establishing and improving processes and procedures; implementing an enterprise search platform; creating a modern (and ultimately award-winning) SharePoint-based intranet platform; and implementing a robust, modern extranet collaboration platform.

Evolution of the library – an objective look

A few years after establishing the primary KM functions of the knowledge management department, in 2015 we shifted our focus to the library group and took a fresh, objective look at it. While the library had been performing well for many years, the question was whether we could improve performance and reduce the cost of providing top-notch service.

By way of additional background, the following is a closer look at the structure of the library group at the time. At a high level, the library was divided in two subgroups: technical services and reference librarians. The technical services group consisted of eight members with the titles “technical services librarian” or “technical services assistant,” depending on roles and functions. The reference librarian subgroup consisted of five reference librarians who reported to a reference manager. Both subgroups reported to the senior manager of library services, who reported to myself as director of knowledge management. Most members of the library group were located in our Greenville administrative office in South Carolina, but some members of the group were based in one of our various offices around the country.

When I decided to focus on the library to assess whether changes were appropriate, I started to question all aspects of the library and librarianship, in general. For several years, reports from the legal industry press indicated that libraries and library budgets were shrinking. I had had first-hand experience with that at other firms at which I served in KM roles. Some progressive library and information professional thinkers called for the end of “the L words,” suggesting that “library” and “librarian” conjured up images of dusty old rooms filled with books and curmudgeonly, bespectacled “shooshers.” I knew that these stereotypes (at least the latter) were inaccurate. Librarians – by any name – provide an incredibly valuable service that should not be marginalized. On the contrary, it should be lauded. However, I also knew that perception is incredibly important when it comes to promoting a team and the services it provides.

As with all such inquiries, I tried to be as empathetic as possible. I reminded myself of a mantra I try to observe when considering options: we are not them. More specifically, we (KM and library professionals) are not them (the attorneys we serve). We needed to be careful to not assume that that which we value and desire is the same as that of our lawyers.

My gut feeling – which was likely a remnant of my days as practicing as a litigation attorney a decade earlier – was that libraries and librarians did, in some instances, have a bad reputation among lawyers. It’s unfair and inaccurate, but reputations are not a matter of fact; they are a matter of opinion. We needed to do what we could to improve the perception and reputation of the people who provided the excellent and valuable services that our library group did.

I challenged my team to look at things with the goal of improving the services we deliver to our lawyers and clients without regard to structure, position, job titles, or other historical constraints. What if we could do anything? What if money was not a concern? What if we could make any changes we wanted to make? What if we could make an entirely new thing? What would it look like? Who would do what, and how? “Nothing is sacred,” I told my team. This is another mantra that I have valued for many years. When you hold something sacred, you never think beyond it. You never challenge it. You never question it. Holding something sacred limits your possibilities. It automatically excludes certain options. Declaring that “nothing is sacred” breaks down those limits and eliminates barriers that you once thought were insurmountable. When you eliminate the artificial restrictions that – for whatever reason – you believe are impossible to challenge, your mind will open to vast possibilities.

This exercise was useful because it did, in fact, generate new and exciting ideas. In reality, we knew that we couldn’t really do anything. We knew that money was, in fact, a concern. However, the exercise alone broadened our thinking. Even with the constraints of budget and firm structure, we arrived at a place in our thinking that might not have otherwise been possible… [read the rest, and other great chapters, in Ark Group’s publication – The Evolution of the Law Firm Library Function: Transformation and integration into the business of law]

For more information on Ark Group’s publication – The Evolution of the Law Firm Library Function: Transformation and integration into the business of law visit

Ark Group’s 14th annual Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession conference takes place October 23rd & 24th, at the New York Law School in NYC. Early bird registration is open – confirm your place today.  

For a broader view of KM in law firms and the legal profession, check out my book, Knowledge Management for Lawyers, published by the American Bar Association.

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