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Knowledge Management for Lawyers - Book Review

1 November 2015

Israel Fischer

An interesting opening to this summary might be its appendix: "How Some Knowledge Management Professionals Got Started."

The appendix presents firsthand career stories of knowledge managers in various law firms. Reading it is remarkably enlightening, not only because of the psychological and professional insights it provides or the literary quality of the stories but also due to the broader insights into the professional persona of a knowledge manager in a law firm and the inherent nature of their work that can be gleaned from these narratives.

Typically, a knowledge manager is characterized by a profound passion for their work. You could argue that such a trait isn't exclusive to knowledge managers, particularly those willing to share their career journeys. That's true, but when this passion frequently pairs with another trait, a distinctive feature of legal knowledge managers emerges. This specific trait revolves around their sheer enjoyment and fulfillment in their work. You might think this still isn't unique, considering that all the stories describe an alternative career path, often diverging from the field of law, where knowledge managers found contentment. However, consider another trait accompanying the previously mentioned ones – their generosity in sharing knowledge, as evident from these stories. This eagerness to share knowledge is a noteworthy characteristic deserving further examination.

The level of generosity and willingness to share knowledge operates on multiple levels. Initially, knowledge management's primary aim is to facilitate access to knowledge when needed, making it an inherently collaborative endeavor. However, it's crucial to note that "collaborative" doesn't merely describe managing knowledge; it also characterizes the individuals engaged in knowledge management. Knowledge managers are depicted as catalysts for cooperation among their clients - lawyers and professional bodies within law firms - and individuals whose fundamental disposition is a propensity for active participation. It's as if we were to suggest that, unlike a mathematician who doesn't need to be a triangle to solve geometric problems, a knowledge manager must possess a collaborative disposition to excel in their role. This becomes evident from the career stories presented in the book.

Knowledge managers derive genuine satisfaction from the collaborations they foster, finding joy in the outcomes and the process itself. The evidence lies in the degree of collaboration among knowledge managers and their willingness to share personal knowledge, which should not be taken for granted. From these stories and the book as a whole, a remarkable level of cooperation emerges that transcends firms with differing and sometimes conflicting interests. To an external observer, knowledge managers may resemble a scientific research group, closely collaborating, with a central value guiding their work - the pursuit of expanding knowledge for its intrinsic value. While this may be an exaggeration, the level of cooperation among various knowledge managers is undeniably more intimate and extensive than one might anticipate.

Indeed, collaboration isn't solely a goal knowledge managers aspire to attain; it's a characteristic pattern that defines them and, perhaps, even a prevailing mindset. In this sense, knowledge managers can be categorized as part of the technological culture, whose role is to harness the ever-growing reservoir of knowledge and the enhanced capacities for interpersonal connectivity facilitated by technology. If they were app developers, they would likely choose to create apps for a sharing economy similar to Airbnb.

Another shared characteristic that emerges from the personal stories can be viewed from a dual perspective. On one hand, knowledge managers describe a process of discovering the nature of their work, a sort of enlightenment. For most, if not all, understanding their role as knowledge managers initially needed to be clarified. Their self-concept as knowledge managers evolved as they worked and aligned with the development of the knowledge management discipline, which gained prominence in the 1990s and even more so in the early 2000s. However, when their self-concept crystallized and the nature of their profession became apparent, they embraced it with the zeal and enthusiasm reminiscent of a religious conversion. Indeed, phrases such as "revelation," "illumination," and "passion" resurface in their narratives. This constitutes one aspect.

The second aspect pertains to the degree of acceptance of the knowledge management principles among the clients of knowledge managers. Here, knowledge managers describe an often challenging and not consistently successful struggle for recognition. Like devout believers spreading the gospel, knowledge managers work diligently to convince their clients that they possess redemptive solutions. They assert that clients can only discover what knowledge managers already know by opening their minds and hearts to the gospel. The inherent tension between the unwavering belief of knowledge managers and the skepticism, or to put it less metaphorically, the lack of recognition of the discipline's significance among lawyers, is a central theme in the book. One of its chapters, Chapter 8: "KM Tactics," exclusively addresses the tactics required to develop knowledge management practice within a law firm. The primary tenet in this context is that it involves change management. Just as any organizational change is challenging, so is the change associated with knowledge management. This challenge is more than merely intuitive; shockingly, it finds scientific support. The author cites a study conducted among lawyers, which is enlightening, although not entirely surprising when one reflects on them: lawyers tend to score higher than average in skepticism and autonomy on personality tests while scoring lower than average in sociality and flexibility. Now, considering that the central concern of knowledge management is collaboration, recognizing that change must be managed to establish it within a firm, and taking into account that lawyers' characteristics tend to be less adaptable when it comes to sharing and change, the inherent tension between knowledge managers and lawyers becomes evident. It also becomes clear why special conditions and considerable efforts are necessary for knowledge management to succeed within a law firm.

As highlighted in the preceding statements, the professional-personality profile of a knowledge manager in law firms still needs to be completed. However, it emphasizes two crucial characteristics: a collaborative nature (paired with the essential knowledge required for fostering sharing) and an enthusiastic willingness to embrace innovative work methods, indicating rapid adaptability to change. Isolating these qualities is undeniably essential when selecting a knowledge manager, but their significance extends beyond that scope.

These traits align well with the broad definition of knowledge management that the book seeks to cultivate and illuminate. The attempt to formulate and support this comprehensive definition constitutes the book's most significant theoretical contribution. A narrow and conventional definition of legal knowledge management typically involves organizing and making legal knowledge accessible and reusable. This includes tasks such as creating precedent libraries, maintaining databases of verified documents (e.g., legal opinions), establishing methods for leveraging knowledge from documents in other cases, developing office intranets, and many other familiar knowledge management activities within a law firm.

However, the concept the author aims to promote is more expansive. To illustrate this, consider the penultimate chapter (Chapter 10), which discusses a relatively new role in law firms known as Legal Project Management. This role focuses on ensuring the efficient and profitable execution of legal cases from inception to completion - encompassing everything from the initial price quote to various stages of execution. The underlying idea is that a legal "case" can also be managed as a "project" and that a case's structured, controllable, and predictable aspects are more extensive than initially apparent. The author describes this as "the hottest topic in law firms, legal departments, and on conference circuits" (p. 246). While this topic is intriguing in its own right, its connection to traditional knowledge management may seem somewhat distant. However, this perspective does not align with the author's view. He advocates for a broader concept of knowledge management. He aims to draw the reader's attention to the close relationship between the traditional functions of knowledge management and roles such as legal project management.

How? Well, knowledge management, according to the author's expansive conception, is concerned with connecting people with people, connecting people with knowledge and information, and the processes, procedures, and technologies necessary to facilitate those connections (p. 23). While this may not be explicitly evident from the definition above, knowledge management, in the author's broader concept, is undoubtedly related to the management of legal projects.

In this broader context, knowledge management encompasses information pertaining to the client's needs and the firm's capabilities for effectively delivering legal services. This knowledge plays a pivotal role in the management of legal projects. Knowledge management indirectly supports legal projects by ensuring efficiency in legal work and facilitating improved communication with clients through its collaborative features and inherent flexibility. Furthermore, knowledge management can directly aid specific projects by leveraging its accumulated wisdom regarding effectively utilizing office resources for project planning and implementation.

The author refrains from equating knowledge management with legal project management, regarding them as functions that are only loosely connected. Nonetheless, this represents an advanced and somewhat unexpected application of knowledge management.

One can envision a broader concept of knowledge management in law firms, extending beyond the author's formulation, although it is implicitly encompassed within it. The author does not confine himself to formal definitions; his practical, purpose-driven approach as a legal knowledge manager at a large firm is evident. While he doesn't explicitly endorse an expansive concept of knowledge management, his words implicitly suggest such a perspective.

This broader concept becomes more evident when considering that knowledge and legal project management can be seen as two facets of the same subject. What they have in common is the capacity to identify and structure information within the firm's information resources, turning it into valuable knowledge. From a knowledge manager's perspective, there should be no essential differentiation among various types of knowledge. Whether it's a legal opinion or details about hours worked on a specific matter, both represent knowledge entities that should be readily accessible to those who require them. The knowledge manager's expertise should encompass conceptualizing, extracting, organizing, and providing access to these knowledge entities as needed.

This expanded view of knowledge management suggests that the knowledge manager's role extends beyond traditional legal activities to encompass the knowledge surrounding and supporting those activities. This knowledge is diverse and encompasses various knowledge entities, extending beyond legal documents. The knowledge manager should possess the expertise to comprehensively manage this broad spectrum, as they are well-positioned within law firms to do so. Legal work inherently involves collaboration, action, and a division of labor. In this context, a division of labor exists between the core legal activities and the supportive components that contribute to efficient execution. The management of these supportive components can be entrusted to the knowledge manager, reflecting a very expansive concept of legal knowledge management.

This division of labor within the broader realm of legal activities aligns with the psychological division of labor between two distinct types of individuals: the skeptical, individualistic, analytical, and task-oriented lawyers and the social, flexible, and synthetically capable knowledge managers. Combining these qualities is essential to achieve optimal results in practical legal work. Consequently, a division of labor between lawyers and knowledge managers and close collaboration is imperative. From this perspective, the knowledge manager emerges as a strategic partner for lawyers, although this perspective differs from the author's viewpoint. According to the author, the knowledge manager plays more of a "combat supporter" role. Still, we are approaching a situation where the distinction between "combatant" and "combat support" roles becomes less clear-cut.

The book is quite extensive and contains numerous generic clichés that could apply to any position or activity within any organization. While nothing inherently wrong with emphasizing the need for a structured knowledge management strategy, which includes prior planning, initiation, initial contact, and formalization, these concepts fall under the broader umbrella of strategic planning and are not unique to knowledge management. The book is replete with many details that, while individually valuable, lack a specific connection to knowledge management. For instance, everyone desires an enterprising knowledge manager who can align management with departmental needs to support initiatives. However, this aspiration is not exclusive to knowledge management but extends to various management roles within a firm.

The book's structure, where each chapter commences with an overview of its content and concludes with a summary, can be somewhat monotonous. While this approach may be practical for presentations, it might not be ideal for a book. Nevertheless, this aspect is subjective and may vary based on personal preference. I prefer a shorter, more refined, and analytically focused book. For instance, a book highlighting the unique aspects of change management within the context of knowledge management, rather than reiterating general principles found in introductory books on the subject, would be more appealing. Similarly, a book that delves into the pros and cons of using specific user experience (UX) approaches would be more valuable than listing five essential UX steps (Discuss, Discover, Design, Develop, Deliver). While elaborating on these steps is crucial, their immediate application to legal knowledge management needs to be more readily evident.

Despite its flaws, some of which can be attributed to the relative novelty of the field, the book offers several advantages. The author brings a wealth of practical experience from the heart of the legal industry, having been deeply involved in knowledge management within large firms for over a decade. He comprehensively understands the field, its various practitioners, and its current developments. The author's expertise shines throughout the book, and he generously imparts his knowledge.

As you read the book, especially in sections that describe working methods across different firms, it feels like you are embarking on a journey through various knowledge management departments. For example, Chapter 4 provides insights into how different firms' knowledge management departments are structured. One of the book's significant strengths lies in its ability to accurately depict the state of knowledge management in diverse legal firms. It achieves this with a clear and accessible writing style, a strong practical focus, and numerous references to articles and information sources, enabling readers to delve deeper into the subject.

The book's value is substantial, particularly for those seeking a comprehensive overview of legal knowledge management in various legal firms. However, further effort and customization may be necessary for Israeli readers aiming to adapt knowledge management principles to the Israeli context.

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