Knowledge Management in Law Firms: What Will Define Future Success?

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Data Analytics, Efficiency, knowledge management, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Managed Services

knowledge management

“The success of a law firm in the 1990s will depend on its ability to solve complex legal issues, as well as its mastery of the technology that helps lawyers practice law. To find a competitive advantage, firms need to learn to practice law economically. This means getting answers to the firm’s clients more quickly and efficiently.”

— “Internal Research Databases: Creating Firm-Wide Systems to Share Information”; New York Law Journal, April 16, 1990

While recently looking at the statistics we put together at Skadden Arps to review our knowledge management efforts for the past year, I thought of the article quoted above, which appeared 29 years ago in the New York Law Journal. Like many law firms, Skadden has embraced the concept that to be efficient and remain competitive we must master the content we produce by collecting it and leveraging it for the benefit of our clients and the firm.

Indeed, successful knowledge management (KM) is one of the things all law firms need to do to provide excellent service — it’s also something our clients expect of us.

Skadden has more than 30 practice-related knowledge sites, all of which are accessible from TheSlate, our firm intranet. The sites, which get hundreds of thousands of hits annually, contain curated precedent, reference topics, deal information, “what’s current” offerings, and a broad variety of other information. The sites are cared for and nurtured by “knowledge lawyers” whose sole job it is to work with the practice area to facilitate access to their information. Some of the sites are (dare I say it), innovative. They’re very actively updated with content unique to us and are used often by attorneys.

I am guessing that most firms will agree, no matter how sophisticated they might be, that their practice sites have their flaws; almost everything surrounding the process — collection, curation, editing, redaction (if needed), awareness, training, retrieval, and usage — can be dramatically improved. Or can it be? Should it be? Or does it all work “well enough?” Here are just three questions which firms should be asking as they try to get to the next level of knowledge management. (There are many more questions; and some I will be raising in future posts.)

Is there enough value to justify devoting more time and resources to further developing KM systems?

Value in KM has many components; but not surprisingly, obtaining value starts with content.


I am guessing that most firms will agree, no matter how sophisticated they might be, that their practice sites have their flaws…


What does it take to gather enough useful content so that lawyers will view the system as a “go to” resource either for research or training? Is the effort needed to keep the information current sustainable? Without currency, people will quickly abandon the site. Can you make the information easy to access when it’s needed?

My friend, Jeff Rovner, the Managing Director for Information at O’Melveny, would say that today the goal should be feeding the lawyers the content they need before they need it, based on the type of work they are doing (think of recommendation engines such as those in Amazon or Netflix).

Not spending enough (time and money) on any of these areas can result in wasting all of your efforts entirely. But with the right content successfully driving a significant level of usage, it seems likely that there is value in ongoing investment.

Will technology change how information is collected, curated, and, perhaps most importantly, retrieved and used?

Law firms are vast repositories of information. The widespread implementation of document management systems (DMS) beginning in the mid-90s, made collecting documents less problematic. Relying on lawyers to actively contribute their precedent documents became a thing of the past.

This problem, however, was replaced with determining what information should be extracted from the DMS and how each practice area could best organize that material for reuse. Meta data could now be extracted from the DMS, which lessened the need to manually index each document. Artificial intelligence tools will facilitate data extraction of clauses allowing even better indexing and facilitating more accurate retrieval. Document assembly and expert systems utilizing some of this compiled knowledge will eventually allow the development of “Smart” documents.

Skadden began experimenting with clause banks in expert systems in 1987 using MDBS III’s KnowledgeMan/Guru product, but the manual effort required to extract information for reuse became too burdensome. Thirty years later, expert systems and documents assembly tools have been successfully implemented in many firms for many types of projects, though they are not yet commonplace.

Technology has come a long way and has had significant impact in the KM systems we use. Not surprisingly, however, it still has a way to go.

Are ethical issues, confidentiality rules, outside counsel guidelines, and data privacy regulations beginning to effectively pushback against the heretofore accepted notion that a large law firm trades not only on the skills of its practitioners, but also on the past work it has done for its clients and its ability to access that work?

As noted above, the DMS is a firm’s main repository of documents and contains the material most likely to be included in KM systems. Most law firm DMS are open, meaning documents can be seen by all and are subject to security and ethical wall restrictions. Those responsible for building KM systems have been able to easily locate, retrieve, and repurpose material from the DMS.


Technology has come a long way and has had significant impact in the KM systems we use. Not surprisingly, however, it still has a way to go.


Yet there are those who advocate for completely locking down the DMS, making material available only to those working on the matters for which documents were created. Searching the DMS might, therefore, no longer yield useful results. Will this turn back the clock and force people to volunteer their documents? Indeed, documents retrieved might need to be purged of information deemed confidential. Will the time it takes to redact documents make developing databases too costly? Will the resulting redacted documents be useful without information about people and parties? Will even more information have to be deleted to comply with data privacy guidelines? And can any technology be developed to somehow automate these compliance efforts and, at the same time, preserve the value that the information has currently?

It is too soon to answer many of these questions, but the issues raised here present a potential minefield of problems which could disrupt the success that many firms have had in collecting and presenting knowledge. The path dictated by those responsible in firms for weighing risk issues against efficiencies and by clients concerned about confidentiality, for example, may answer how these questions are resolved.

These are but three 21st century questions about knowledge management in law firms. Suffice it to say, the need for the kind of document retrieval systems outlined in 1990 are still valid. Tools are vastly improved (though perhaps, not as much as one would expect). But new regulations and new technology have introduced other problems and created still more obstacles to overcome on the path to a useful, valuable, KM system.


The opinions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Firm or any one or more of its clients.