Knowledge Management – Tips for Small Law Firms

I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat on Monday about knowledge management with Canada’s reigning Information Diva, Connie Crosby.

The video of our discussion is embedded below:

The focus of our conversation was how Canada’s smaller law firms can utilize current knowledge management approaches to better identify, organize and access their own, valuable knowledge inventories – their precedents, checklists, document templates, research memos, and other key data.

Connie is principal of Crosby Group Consulting, a Toronto-based firm, specializing in knowledge management, information management, social media and library management. She is a law librarian, Slaw contributor, law blogging pioneer and leader in the knowledge management field in Canada’s legal community.

While we had a good discussion about the nuts and bolts of developing and using knowledge management infrastructure, I think the key takeaways from my talk with Connie were about the importance of developing a simple system, in consultation with all users, to ensure maximum functionality, comprehensiveness, and of the utmost importance, buy-in by all.

Here is my summary of Connie Crosby’s tips for small law firms on getting started with knowledge management:

  1. Start out with a “knowledge audit.” Canvas all lawyers and staff in your firm for the precedents, legal research, templates and other documents they use that should be in the firm’s digital knowledge library. Also seek their input on the kind of system you should be developing and the features they would like your new knowledge infrastructure to have.
  2. Ask firm members about the workarounds they have developed, in the absence of a formalized system. Those workarounds could give you excellent clues about the kind of system that would best suit your firm.
  3. Keep the communications going with your end-users throughout the process of collection, compiling and organizing your firm’s key documents. Consult with users at key milestones in developing and implementing your new system to make sure you are headed in the right direction for them.
  4. After collecting your key templates and documents, review them to see if they can be improved upon, with a goal that only your best and most reliable documents will ultimately be found in your knowledge library. Discard duplicates and outdated precedents, and enjoy a digital spring cleaning of all those old and unnecessary documents that clutter up your current templates and precedent folders.
  5. Protect client confidentiality by removing client names and identifying information from all templates, research memos and other documents that will reside in your knowledge library.
  6. While database-based knowledge management systems are currently the state of the art and provide numerous benefits, there is no need to envision implementing  a system that is beyond your firm’s means or technical ability to to create. Instead, when getting started, consider a Windows folder-based system for organizing and accessing the documents in your knowledge library. Get there faster by leveraging the existing technologies and skill sets that are already abundantly available in your firm.
  7. Organize documents into easily understood main folders and sub-folders. Consider grouping by practice area, office function, or other obvious categorization, so that your system structure will be easy to follow and require minimal training.
  8. Keep it simple. If you will be using a folder-based system for organizing and storing your knowledge, don’t overdo it with overly-complex sub-folder structures that may ultimately complicate and impede user access to needed documents – and potentially undermine users’ willingness to work within your new system.
  9. Develop a standardized naming convention for documents that will be in your knowledge library. Use plain-English in your naming conventions. If abbreviations are to be used, ensure they are easily understood. For example, if you are collecting templates for your employment law practice, create a main Employment Law folder, a pleadings sub-folder, and name your documents by type and point of difference, eg “Statement of Claim-harassment,” or “StatemtClaim-harass.”
  10. Ensure that updating your documents library regularly with all new and revised documents becomes part of your firm’s ordinary workflow. It should become standard practice that when a new template or research memorandum is completed in your office, it is added to your documents library upon completion.
  11. Save all templates in read-only format, so that they cannot be accidentally overwritten.
  12. Consider change management strategies, particularly for those who may be resisting or having difficulty adapting to your new knowledge management system. Users who do not wish to buy-in will develop their own, parallel knowledge management systems. That is probably not a good thing. Find a way to adapt your system to your real users’ preferences.
  13. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Knowledge management is a rapidly-emerging discipline, and the “gold standard” has not yet been achieved, anywhere. Rather than waiting for knowledge nirvana before acting, develop a system that meets your needs, improves your firm’s nimbleness in managing documents, and establishes best practices, simply by ensuring your staff and lawyers will always have ready access to your firm’s most current, complete and accurate templates and documents.

Many thanks to Connie for taking the time to provide us all with so much of her valuable expertise about knowledge management, today and in the future.  These are great insights for law firms, both small and not-so-small.

So let’s start managing our knowledge.

 – Garry J. Wise, Toronto (@wiselaw on Twitter)

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