Unlocking Knowledge Management & Tech Innovation for the Global Law Firm: a Conversation with Norton Rose Fulbright’s Saskia Mehlhorn (Part 1)

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As the one-time somber role of the law firm librarian continues to evolve into a cutting-edge, tech-savvy centerpiece in law firms’ technology and client engagement strategies, the individuals holding these positions are now grappling with such weighty issues such as knowledge management, information resources, business process improvement, and even the most crucial innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

We recently spoke with Saskia Mehlhorn, Director of Knowledge Management & Library Services in the US for global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, about how her office is changing the way the firm approaches clients, choosing the right — and usable! — technology for the firm, and the challenge of gathering and harnessing the vast knowledge of a global law firm.

Legal Executive Institute: Before we start, if we could get just a bit of background about you. How long have you been in the role you’re at now at the firm?

Saskia Mehlhorn: I have been with Norton Rose Fulbright for seven years, and I moved into my current position as Director of Knowledge Management & Library Services two years ago. In this role, I am responsible for the delivery of library and research services as well as the enhancement and continued development of our knowledge management systems and solutions.

Knowledge Management

Saskia Mehlhorn, Director of Knowledge Management & Library Services in the US for global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright

Legal Executive Institute: From your point of view, has the role of knowledge management at US law firms changed, and if yes, how?

Saskia Mehlhorn: In the past five years, knowledge management has taken on a larger role within US law firms. At its core, knowledge management is content management, but in a different form. Previously, it was often positioned as a library function, which was the case for us at Norton Rose Fulbright. Knowledge originates from a law firm’s internal experience and work. Also, you have what’s contained in documents, what’s been written about in presentations and other similar products. Those things will always be a part of any law firm, because lawyers – and the legal profession in general – are based upon the written word. In the last few years, US law firms have reevaluated knowledge management and realized the opportunities it presents.

Legal Executive Institute: As you said, the knowledge management function used to just part of the legal library back in the day, but now it’s changed and become so much more impactful and technology-oriented. Would you agree with that?

Saskia Mehlhorn: Yes, especially with regard to technology. The opportunities for a firm to benefit the most from its knowledge is much higher than it was previously because of the advanced technology. This is largely due to our systems’ ability to harvest large quantities of data, analyze it accurately and apply it to a new situation or project.

Legal Executive Institute: A lot of what’s driving the legal industry, especially larger law firms, is the push towards efficiency, the desire to be competitive, and to differentiate themselves from other law firms, especially in the eyes of clients. Do you think that’s what’s going on? And how does knowledge management help with that?

Saskia Mehlhorn: Yes, I do think that is what’s happening. Ideally, knowledge management is in a position to enhance a firm’s efficiency. Developing forward-thinking strategies is crucial, because we need to make sure that any technology we adopt is aligned with our business objectives. If we didn’t integrate knowledge management with other functions throughout a firm, we would end up positioning ourselves as a standalone department, and that would, in my opinion, be rather counterproductive.

Legal Executive Institute: Let’s expand a little bit on that. Can you give some examples of what collaboration goes on in Norton Rose, and how the other parts of the firm work with your team on knowledge management?

Saskia Mehlhorn: As a global law firm, we work closely across all key industries and regions to ensure available knowledge and products can be shared with anyone across our firm. About three years ago, we created a global platform that allows anyone in our firm to access knowledge documents, as well as the experience, across all of our regions. Since its launch, we’ve expanded the platform to include training materials, business development content and similar resources. We continue to improve this platform and its technology.

Legal Executive Institute: I would assume that it’s a much bigger job at a global firm than it would be at a domestic firm.

Saskia Mehlhorn: Yes, I believe you’re right; however, knowledge management always starts from the same point – the main objective is to ensure that all of his information can be shared internally. For us, this is true within each office both across the US and globally. Of course, larger firms have more information to gather, more databases to search and, in turn, more data to harvest depending upon what is needed. In any case, it always starts with an individual who produces a firm’s knowledge and ensures that others in the firm have access to that knowledge. That is the same for law firms of every size and scope.

In the second part of this blog series, Mehlhorn discussed the important task of choosing the right knowledge management technology for her firm and what she sees for the knowledge management field in the future.