Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The West Wing: institutional memory and swine flu. (What’s that to do with KM?)

I'm a huge West Wing fan. I have the entire series on DVD and every now and then I'll dip into it if I have the time.

At the weekend I happened to watch an episode called 'Institutional Memory'. In the final two weeks of office, CJ Cregg (White House Chief of Staff) asks all White House Staff and heads of Department to draw up transition memos. The purpose of these memos was to help the incoming staffers and members of the new administration with details of procedures, current work underway and any other nuggets of information to ensure that they know how to do their jobs. Increasingly frustrated, CJ doesn't get much co-operation. Everybody has an excuse not to complete their memo – they're all busy interviewing for new jobs and are firmly in holiday mode. Furious with the lack of co-operation CJ, at one point, yells at a reluctant staffer that this is the most important thing they will ever have to do and that it will be impossible for new staffers to do their jobs without it.

Later in the episode, CJ finds herself between a rock and a hard place when the President Elect asks her to stay on as a special adviser to him for the next two years. He tells her that the Oval Office will not be able to function without her as she has the institutional memory that he needs in order to govern the country – i.e. she has all the know-how, history and expertise that he needs to tap into in order to govern with continuity. Torn between her desire to take time off to learn how ski and serving her country, CJ replies that she'll be at the end of the phone to help out and provide information to the President Elect whenever necessary. Suffice it to say, that he wasn't wildly impressed!

A couple of things struck me about this episode as it raised some issues very relevant to my work in law firms. Firstly, I couldn't believe that the White House (of all places) had no knowledge management programme in place that would capture procedures for each staffer role, and one click access to commonly used forms, documents etc. Surely, they would have stringent procedures in place so that staffers wouldn't have to compile half-hearted and last minute transition memos?

Secondly, CJ herself, who albeit at the last minute was pleading for transition memos from staffers, was just as guilty as the others. She had worked in the West Wing for almost eight years, the last two of which were in the position of Chief of Staff (arguably the most important role, next to the President). The sum of her experience, learning and wisdom, would walk out the door with her. A mere transition memo from her fell far short of what was required.

If you remove the White House setting, it's easy enough to translate these issues to legal practices. People leave jobs, new people start but most of them do so without the benefit of having access to 'transition memos'. Part of the firm's institutional memory evaporates when people move on elsewhere. This is where a knowledge management programme can help.

The third thing that occurred to me while watching the episode was swine flu. Yes, think about it. Elements of a sound knowledge management programme can assist with business continuity planning. It is likely that this winter some of your employees will be absent with swine flu. The nature of the illness (like other flu) is that it's highly contagious. Apart from implementing practical sanitary and hygiene procedures to alleviate the risk, what else can you do?

Well, if you have seen the light and have a working knowledge management strategy in place, this is a really good start. You should have a good precedent bank (quality assured and approved and easy to access). If you have a know-how database with access to previous golden nuggets of research (which are annotated and tagged by other staff members), this will also come into play. Document management systems will allow other staff members to quickly identify the latest version of the document worked on by the staff member who is absent. Features such as the ability to search by date, client and matter and folder facilities will make it easy to track the latest emails from a client regarding a matter and identify other members of staff who have been working on the case. An Intranet page (or even an updated paper-based manual) for each area of your practice and support functions are all components of a sound knowledge management programme. If you have a Continuing Professional Development Programme, departmental information meetings and communities of practice (I'll talk more about those in a forthcoming blog) your staff will be updated on current legal developments and cases being undertaken by their colleagues (who may be out with swine flu). (Hopefully, the proceedings of these meetings will be minuted and available on your Intranet).

Consider taking your Continuing Professional Development Programme a bit further. By providing some rudimentary cross-training you can mitigate the risks posed by the swine flu to your firm. Have a member of your accounts team train two members of professional staff on entering new matters to your client/matter system. Make sure they know how to issue bills and receive payments! Train another member of your staff on the switchboard and reception, likewise with the post-room. The main thing to do is to carefully think about and then identify key functions and practice areas without which your practice would not be able to function - then develop a brief cross-training programme.

Oh… and 'don't forget the transition memos'!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sniffing out the story – creating your own legal news file

Information overload and email apathy are common symptoms experienced by today's lawyers. With the multitude of online sources of information now available (whether newspapers or free legal newsletters) it can be a full-time job to sift through your Inbox to extract the nuggets of relevance to you both personally and professionally.

Yet, within the growing silo of unchecked mails there could possibly lie something that is of vital importance to your practice and your clients.

Personal knowledge management ("PKM") is a term that's been around for a few years now in knowledge management circles. Essentially, it's micro knowledge management, or taking personal responsibility for managing the knowledge of relevance to you as an individual rather than the management of knowledge of relevance to your firm as a whole.

RSS feeds and alerting services are an important element of PKM. While the technology also has a useful role to play in practice-based knowledge management initiatives, individuals can harness this technology to manage and control the information they wish to receive on a personal basis. Effectively, the technology allows you to receive notifications from websites only of interest to you and also gives you the ability to sniff out stories from the web according to your areas of interest.

Firstly, let's have a look at RSS (Really Simple Syndication):

There are a number of free RSS readers on the web available for download eg Feed Demon, Google Reader, RSS Bandit. Readers allow you to suggest sites from which to receive feeds but bear in mind that the websites you have an interest in must have an RSS facility. Most of the readers allow you to enter search terms or keywords for the type of website of interest to you and will come back with a suggested list of feeds to which you can subscribe. Integration with Microsoft Outlook is a feature of many of these readers so you don't have to go to a separate website to check for new stories. Folders are created within Outlook for each of the feeds to which you subscribe.

I use an RSS reader to receive press releases from Government departments such as the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Environment to ensure that I'm up to date on legal developments when preparing website updates and compiling newsletters on behalf of my law firm clients.

This is a screen shot from Newsgator Inbox to give you an idea of how the feeds would appear to you in Outlook:


Web alerting and search agents crawl the web to find updated web pages containing keywords and search terms specified by you, regardless of whether those sites have an RSS facility e.g. I have set up Google alerts to monitor any new content on the web containing my name or those of my clients. Yotify is another agent which works in a similar way. While I use these services and do find them of use, I don't fully rely on them. With Google Alerts you will only be notified of news stories appearing in the top 10 or top 20 search results, depending on the type of content you have specified, so don't use the service as a replacement for a good old-fashioned Google search. You can also specify whether you want to receive alerting emails on a daily, weekly or 'as it happens' basis. Selection of appropriate search terms will also impact on the results you get, as it will with any search you execute in a search engine.

There are a number of fee-based news aggregation and media monitoring services out there, probably suitable for larger firms with dedicated business development and KM functions or for those firms who are regularly involved with large-scale litigation cases.

I also use Google Alerts for my personal use. As I'm a die-hard, red-blooded Munster Rugby supporter, I've set up an alert for all stories relating to Munster Rugby! This is a Google Alert I received today:

Getting back to the idea of PKM, it's up to you to carefully manage your feeds and alerts. Update and delete them according to your changing requirements, otherwise your Inbox will become clogged up, you'll become a victim of information fatigue and your competitors will be sniffing out the story!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Library management - is it part of your practice management strategy?

All legal practices subscribe to some journals, loose-leaf publications, and online services and keep their core legal texts up to date – that’s a basic tenet of legal practice and risk management strategy. It should be a given that a proportion of your practice budget is allocated to library materials to which your legal staff can refer when preparing legal advice and to keep them abreast of changes to the law. But do you have a handle on how much you spend and, more importantly, how you should be spending it?

Here are a few things you could do over the next month to ensure that you are managing your outlay in the most efficient way possible:

1. Contact your publishing company representatives and ask for a list of all the standing orders they have on your account i.e. journals, loose-leaf subscriptions, annual texts such as tax books. Ask your in-house accounts administrator to consolidate these payments with your in-house accounts system to ensure that no duplication or over-payment has occurred. Overpayment and duplication of payment is not uncommon, particularly in small practices where no librarian is employed. Librarians keep a very tight grip on spending and understand the often-confusing invoicing methods of publishing houses.

2. If you don't already have a separate ledger for expenditure on library materials put one in place. Putting your library spend under the general Office ledger will not give you a clear picture of your outlay on books, journals etc. In order to be more cost-efficient, you need to be in a position to see exactly where your money is going!

3. Distribute the list of subscriptions to your staff and ask them to indicate how useful these subscriptions are to their work. This will give you a clear indication as to what, if any, subscriptions, may be cancelled when they come up for renewal (usually at the end of each year). (This is a primitive form of an information audit – for a more detailed guide to conducting a comprehensive information and knowledge management audit for your practice email me on info@infoconsult.ie). Also consider whether online sources to which you subscribe are not used to their full potential simply because your staff are not adequately trained to use them. Consider running regular in-house training sessions on these sources and general legal research skills. An added incentive is that these sessions qualify for CPD points as part of the Law Society's training requirements.

4. Check that you are not paying for CDs (that accompany some loose-leaf subscriptions) which you do not want. Most of my smaller clients find CDs to be an administrative burden as they either need to be installed on their server or individual’s PCs. In many instances this rarely happens and the CDs wind up in the bin. Why pay extra for something that you’re not going to use? This ties in closely with item 5 below.

5. Examine on-line services which may be relevant to your practice. Many loose-leaf publications are now available in electronic format via web-based subscriptions. Commonly used precedents for conveyancing and commercial transactions might be easier for your staff to access electronically than those in paper-format. They also tend to be updated quicker than their paper-based equivalents.

6. And, while we’re on the topic of loose-leaf publications, do you have a particular individual in your practice appointed to update these publications as soon as they arrive? If not, you need to! What’s the point in paying handsomely for updates that never get filed and frequently get lost? While loose-leaf filing is, undoubtedly, one of the most mind-numbing tasks to be conducted in your office, you do need someone who is familiar with this kind of work to carry it out. Missing pages and mis-filed releases are a frequent source of frustration, particularly when you need to find something in a hurry - not to mention that out of date advice may get you into hot water!

7. What are you paying for that's on the web for free? While much high-quality legal material still needs to be paid for (either in paper format or via web-based subscriptions services such as Lexis, Westlaw, Justis etc) some legal material is available on the web for free e.g. BAILII, IRLII, CELEX and Government department websites. This ties in with the suggestion of running regular legal research training sessions.

8. Appoint one Partner or Associate to control library spending and manage library-based resources. Implement a policy of placing orders for books through this appointed individual only.

9. Maximise your investment in library and online materials by establishing a system to record all library orders and purchases. This should be accessible to all solicitors in your practice so that they can see what materials you have in stock and what is currently on order. Tracking orders and delivery of items, along with invoice numbers will also ensure that you are paying only for what you have received! Ideally, all practices with more than 4 or 5 solicitors should have a library management system in place. These are relatively inexpensive to buy and will allow your staff to search for materials by basic index fields such as author, publisher, subject and location. They also allow your staff to record the fact that they have borrowed a book, so that you will be able to find it in a hurry. If you have an Intranet, most systems can be placed there, and allow you to search for items in your library in a Google-style fashion. You will find that any spend on such systems will, in fact, maximise, your investment on library materials. At the most basic level, you should at least have a spreadsheet on your network drive, which records all items in your library.

10. Consider appointing a subscription agent. Subscription agents will handle all your book and journal ordering needs through a variety of publishers. Administratively, this means that you will not have to handle multiple invoices from a variety of publishers and therefore your administrative burden should be eased. However, there are pros and cons with this option.

These are just a few things that you should consider as part of your overall practice management. My experience of dealing with small to medium-sized practices, particularly those who cannot justify employing an in-house librarian, has shown that money is often wasted and resources are not deployed effectively. In leaner and quieter times, now is the time to tackle your library management. It might just save you a few euro, or more!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Knowledge Management - on a shoestring!

I was on a marketing course last week called Marketing on a Shoestring - How to Develop your Business in a Recession. It was one of the most useful courses I've attended in a long time - worth every cent, not so much for the marketing savvy and know-how it provided, but more importantly because it remotivated me and made me rethink the ways my business can provide assistance to my clients. What with every newspaper headline, TV and radio broadcast full of bad news about the economy, I now know the recession had become embedded in my psyche and was affecting my own business plans and goals. Now, I'm rationing my TV viewing and radio listening and instead thinking about ways I can help my clients to implement KM best practice without having to raid a bank (or at least, ask for a business loan to do so).

It's important for lawyers to think about KM in the recession; firstly,because they may have more time on their hands to tackle those projects that were put on the back-burner when the Celtic Tiger was in full roar e.g. drafting precedents, assembling precedent banks, finally implementing a uniform house style, developing an Intranet, and, secondly, because they may find themselves in the sad position of having to let some staff go.

The second reason should beg legal practices to ask the question: "Have we effectively managed the work product and expertise of those individuals we now have to make redundant?" Think about it for a moment. As a solicitor in a practice, would you be able to quickly put your hands on the advice given to a client in the last few years or the research undertaken by a colleague who has since left? Also, think about the specialist knowledge that colleague may have accumulated about your clients' business or industry sector in the years they were working for you. Has this knowledge and expertise been shared and transferred to other colleagues in your firm so that you can provide a seamless, continuous and high quality service?

The worst case scenario is that the person who has left did not, in fact ,create documents on the network (but has instead saved them to the computer's hard drive (yes, this does still happen!), has made copies of your valuable precedents and previous client work. Worse still, armed with this valuable information and knowledge could they be now be in a position to take your client with them?

So, with this in mind, over the next few months I will be posting ideas on how you can turn the downturn into an opportunity to finally tackle knowledge management and become a 'work smarter' legal practice. My suggestions will be cost-effective, cost-saving and hopefully inspire you to embrace knowledge management principles - on a shoestring!

About me

I am an Irish-based legal knowledge and information professional. I work with solicitors (and other professional service organizations) to improve the ways they manage their organization’s knowledge and information, so that they can maximize efficiency, reduce wasted costs and so provide the highest quality service to their clients.
Yes, it all sounds a touch vague and waffly! But, the reality is that the greatest asset that a law firm has is the knowledge and expertise of their staff - this valuable resource needs to be managed like any other. Think of the volume of research and documents generated by a professional throughout the course of their working lives - research and documents which could prove valuable to colleagues when advising clients with similar legal problems. And if you have procedures in place which enable your staff to quickly access those valuable research memos or letters of advice you will wind up reducing your costs, working smarter and hopefully have happier staff and satisfied clients.
Of course, this a somewhat simplistic view of knowledge management but when you strip the discipline down to bare bones, it is essentially about putting frameworks and procedures in place which makes it easier to share, access, search and publish and re-use information (documents and data) and knowledge (grey matter/ brain-power/expertise). IT plays a role in knowledge management but not exclusively. Anyone who tells you that knowledge management is only about IT is myopic! Some of the most valuable KM programmes involve a shift in the culture of an organization such as mentoring, reviews of client work or transactions and cross-department information sharing meetings, to name but a few. Of course, many of these initiatives can be supported by the use of technology and the Web but, it’s not all about IT.
I have been working in this area for over 20 years, the last 15 of which in my own capacity as a consultant under my company name, Infoconsult. I have developed an in depth knowledge of the inner workings of law firms and the value of leveraging knowledge as a means to improving efficiency, profitability, brand differentiation and as a key ingredient in attracting and retaining legal talent.