Opportunity Knocks: Balancing Knowledge-Sharing Needs with Security Requirements

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practice Innovations

When a client hires a law firm, there is an expectation that the firm will leverage its collective knowledge for the benefit of the client. Indeed, the goal of a Knowledge Management (KM) program is to enable an organization to tap into that collective knowledge.

Historically, a key strategy has been to connect lawyers with the firm’s past work product, particularly the millions of documents in the document management system (DMS). For most firms, access rights to content in the DMS have been broad in order to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration. However, with increasing attention focused on data protection and information governance, many firms are shifting (or considering shifting)* to a “need to know” access model.

KM professionals must rethink how their program can achieve its goals in light of increasingly restricted access to past client work.

Evolve Your KM Program

Some worry that increased security will be the death of law firm KM, but optimists know that a changing world simply presents new opportunities. KM has been growing and adapting within law firms for years, with new technologies and thinking adding to the approach. Early law firm KM focused on creating extensive template and precedent libraries. However, these efforts were labor-intensive and could not possibly fulfill aspirations for comprehensive collections. This led to an increased reliance on technology to help lawyers self-service their knowledge needs from the resources of the firm.

Enterprise search tools and firm portals were touted as connecting information silos, enriched with context. While some goals were met, these technologies also exacerbated information overload.

The next phase of KM has incorporated artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to streamline workflows and review of information, with a focus on leveraging KM tools and techniques in a client-facing manner. Firms have seen some success with this approach, but it requires significant investments in both technology and specialized expertise.

Given that the discipline of KM has been undergoing constant evolution, managing increased security requirements can be viewed as simply the next phase of that journey. Each firm will use a different mix of these KM techniques, depending on its goals and level of investment.

Anticipate that Lawyers Will Still Need Sample Documents

The practice of law is document-intensive. Many lawyers, especially those who use the DMS as essentially a research resource to inform their work, will find restricted access to be burdensome. You must have a strategy to fill the gap and communicate the change before you implement it.

Curated Document Collections

To mitigate the loss of broad access to the firm’s documents, revisit curated document collections but address lessons learned from past efforts. Because this work is labor-intensive and requires specialized expertise, anticipate the need to increase your investments in this area. One way is by adding professional support lawyers (PSLs) who are dedicated to this task. In the past, firms often relied on practice groups to manage their own collections, but day-to-day client business too often diverts their attention and momentum for this to be consistently successful. A dedicated resource with the appropriate expertise can be invaluable in this and other KM efforts. You should develop a prioritized strategy to stay focused on the highest-value work for the practice, thereby avoiding the temptation to create a form for everything.

External sources for high-quality templates — such as those from a subscription service, bar association, or industry organization — are another way to augment your document collections. Your PSL can determine suitability for the practice and whether to customize further. Look also for sources of public documents that your firm filed, such as with a court or an agency, to bring back into the firm’s systems or to index into search results. These documents are valuable precedents that may not have the same security concerns.

Lastly, supplement your curated document collections with clause libraries. These are less onerous to develop than complete documents and, because of their interchangeability, may be more heavily used. Creating a Wiki of annotated clauses with a range of options can be a powerful knowledge-sharing and training resource. To increase their impact, look for tools that allow drafters to easily insert clauses from the database directly into documents.

Well-managed, curated collections are highly regarded by lawyers. They appreciate having quick access to the best resources without the need for sifting through dozens of examples. However, because of the work involved to create and maintain these resources, you must be targeted in your approach.

Research Passes

Consider assigning certain people, such as KM staff and librarians, a “research pass.” The research pass grants broad access to the DMS, enabling pass holders to research the firm’s past matter history and help determine if there are documents relevant to a new matter.

Armed with this information and depending on the security considerations, you can either grant a lawyer access to a specific matter to review or point them to people who worked on that matter to help. Bear in mind, though, that this approach could significantly increase the workload for those assigned the research pass.

Limited Search

Because technology is constantly evolving, it might be wise to explore new DMS and search technologies that can surface the existence of potentially relevant documents without revealing the confidential content. Searchers can request access, if appropriate, thereby limiting disclosure to a specific purpose with less risk than maintaining broad access rights.

Configuring this type of technology for your information governance and security policies could be complicated, however.

Use the Full Toolkit

Knowledge is not always reduced to a document. Shift your focus to ways to help lawyers collaborate and share knowledge that are not impacted by reduced access to your prime document repository.

Matter Profiling and Experience

Matter profiles and firm experience records are enormously valuable for tapping into the firm’s know-how. Experience data can encompass anything from information used in pitches and proposals (often by Marketing), to more nuanced aspects of a matter that are useful to practitioners. Data tracked could include matter types and subtypes, area of law, courts and jurisdictions, opposing parties, industry, and more. Knowing relevant matters allows lawyers to seek additional information in a targeted way.

Expertise Location

Often, lawyers want to know who within the firm they should talk to about a wide range of topics — anything from their experience with a particular judge to how they approached a complex legal matter.

Robust search engines can integrate data from different sources — including documents, emails, timekeeping narratives, and experience databases — to better infer expertise. With this technology, search leverages the valuable information in the DMS, but it is aggregated and presented in a manner that does not expose the documents themselves.

As with the limited search approach, configuration to integrate your firm’s data sources and respect your security policies can be challenging, so expect to make investments in not only acquiring the software but implementing it as well.

Workflows and Processes

Another way to capture and transfer the knowledge of the firm is by working with practice groups on developing, documenting, and communicating standardized processes. These processes can be contained in Wikis and playbooks, for a low-tech option, or incorporated into automated workflows, which encourages adoption of the process.

While this approach requires more work upfront, standardizing processes can be a time-saver for practice groups in the long run, as well as an important training tool.

The Time for Action Is Now

If you are not already involved in your firm’s response to tightening access to its work product, you should be. Learn about the requirements that are driving this, from regulations to client demands, and how your firm intends to address those requirements.

Use KM tools and techniques — such as AI-enabled contract extraction and analysis software, tagging, and data management — to better understand and track the specific requirements, allowing you to craft mutually agreeable solutions. For instance, there may be a range of ways to interpret the new restrictions and how to implement them, and KM can bring light to the practical impact of those options. Similarly, you want to know the degree to which you are permitted to index and aggregate certain information, which can be used to provide insight into the firm’s work, even if not providing access to past work product. Ultimately, your goal should be to ensure that your firm is responding in a thoughtful manner and not simply gravitating toward the most restrictive model.

The move to a more locked-down DMS and reduced access to client-matter data is inevitable. Wherever your firm is in the process, you should be considering the strategies described above to ensure that your KM program uses this change as an opportunity for evolution.


* While the move to a pessimistic DMS security model has been discussed for several years, survey data from the 2019 International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) Technology Survey, the 2019 ILTA Information Governance Survey, and an iManage Customer Survey (described in a 2018 presentation at the ILTA annual conference) suggests that there has been more talk than action. The percentage of firms reporting an open security model has held steady. However, the level (and intensity!) of discussion about this topic in the community suggests the pendulum is swinging the other way.