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KM Legal – evolution, not revolution

Joanna GoodmanLegal IT Today editor Joanna Goodman attended KM Legal, Ark Group’s annual two-day knowledge management event

This is the fourteenth year of KM Legal and it is still going strong. Chaired by Simone Pearlman Head of Legal Knowledge, UK, EMEA & Asia, Herbert Smith Freehills, it attracted a strong UK and international contingent and included presentations and discussions from law firms, clients, consultants and vendors covering a wide range of topics.

No destination?

The keynote, by Paul Corney, managing partner of Knowledge et. al. was depressingly headed ‘A KM journey with no destination’. Less depressingly, it focused on space, stories, and structure. Corney used storytelling to illustrate the importance of context – describing radio messages between a US aircraft carrier and what it perceives to be a smaller Canadian vessel requesting it to divert its course, where the US captain argues that the smaller vessel should divert first – unaware that what it sees on its radar is a lighthouse! Top KM consultant David Gurteen read out the second story, which was about a new joiner finding that everything she needed to know on her first day with the company was available immediately on the right platform, or from the right person.

Or Darwinian disruption?

Corney’s keynote was followed by Eric Hunter, director of knowledge at Bradford & Barthel in San Diego, explaining how he has applied big data analytics to case and client information to develop ‘spherical models’ which have transformed Bradford & Barthel’s pricing model and service offering, driving productivity and financial performance. His presentation covered a broad range of issues, notably the role of artificial intelligence in search and the power of gamification. Food for thought, and a point I agree with, is his comment about how law firms and professional services measure differently from other organisations. We define law firms by lawyer numbers rather than by what they have done. We never ask how many engineers work at Google. Hunter’s spherical models are about bringing together multiple data/collaboration points to forecast outcomes and guide pricing, which is in effect applying the Google model to legal services. The potential fly in the ointment is of course data quality. The model only works if the data is good – basically big data is more than maths. 

Scope creep? KM, technology and project management

There was some discussion on Twitter about KM Legal’s content – basically whether it had fallen victim to scope creep by broadening its focus. Corney and others were disappointed by presentations on providing information rather than applying knowledge. Mark Gould, head of knowledge management at Addleshaw Goddard published a blog post in which he expressed concern ‘that there is too little talk about actual knowledge management and how it can help a firm perform better’. 

This was covered by several practical case studies, notably Alicia Hardy and Oz Benamram (via video) from White & Case whose matter pathways provide practical support to the firm’s transactional teams, Jane Bradbury from Slaughter & May on her experience of leading KM in three very different law firms, and of course Gould, whose own presentation about linking knowledge and quality to break silos and drive process improvement explained how Addleshaw Goddard’s quality team developed quality and risk management protocols and used checklists and after-action reviews to prevent repeat errors and produce continuous improvements to the firm’s claims service. We also heard about the client perspective from Neil Hodges, UK General Counsel at Zurich and Helen Barker who leads BAE Systems’ knowledge management and training team


Gould has a point as the presentations generally covered a broad range of business functions. For example, two excellent sessions on SharePoint implementation from Bird & Bird and Linklaters could have been categorised as IT project management rather than KM.  There were also sessions on change management and business development. 

What has happened to KM?

The longevity of KM Legal was the focus of some discussion, reflected first by KM consultancy Janders Dean who did not attend.

‘Just been asked why we’re not at KM Legal in London “because we went to the one in 2004” was the answer,’ they tweeted.

Although this struck me as an unusual sentiment for someone involved in KM, and the high attendance and the calibre of the speakers, delegates and sponsors indicate KM Legal’s popularity among its target market, Janders Dean had a point: it has returned to many of the same topics over the years. Claire Andrews, director of knowledge management, Europe and Asia, at Cleary Gottlieb addressed exactly this in her presentation on ‘What has happened to KM?’ ‘

Andrews looked back at the programme for the very first KM Legal in 2002 and found many of the same topics on the 2014 agenda: aligning KM with other support services; intranet development; integrating internal and external resources and of course ‘embracing technology’, where Andrews highlighted the 2002 presentation on the ‘impact of the world wide web’. A series of questions about when particular topics got us all involved in the discussion as we guessed when enterprise search, document assembly and mobile/apps first appeared on the KM Legal programme.

Andrews turned to the relationship between conference topics and KM implementation. Portals have been discussed for years, but have only recently become reality. Extranets are occasionally used, but have never really taken off. And mobile, which has been a hot topic for law firms for some time, only appeared on the KM Legal agenda in 2011! Email management was last discussed at KM Legal in 2008, but remains an ongoing issue. Although there was general agreement that collaboration is at the core of KM, opinion was split about project management which first appeared on the KM Legal agenda in 2009. 

Have we delivered KM or redefined it?

‘Have we delivered KM and/or have we redefined it?’ asked Andrews. Hardy from White & Case observed that ‘What is KM?’ is no longer on the conference agenda, agreeing with Duncan Ogilvie of 3Kites that KM has matured into a well-defined and growing function. Technology is an enabler, but it can also be a barrier. A lot of KM involves talking to people and working out how to deliver on their expectations. Lawyers expect templates and precedents and clients expect project management. The good news is that professional support lawyers are recognised as an essential part of content creation and delivery. The growing volume of data that firms handle and the complexity of the systems used to manage it has accelerated this progression and produced more career opportunities for PSLs to get involved in different parts of the KM process.

Looking ahead: evolution not revolution 

Corney’s blog post headline is ‘A revolution is about to happen’. I’m not sure about that. It was interesting to get the client perspective from Neil Hodges, UK General Counsel at Zurich and Helen Barker who leads BAE Systems’ knowledge management and training team.  So, on the one hand, while technology means that the knowledge function necessary touches other business support areas, fortunately for everyone working in and around KM, it provides indispensable support to lawyers and other business support functions beyond documents and precedents. As Andrews observed, if KM was just about documents we would have delivered it by now. KM has not been left behind or subsumed into another business support function. However, it needs constantly to evolve in order to leverage changes in the way people work – which include technology, mobility risk, and so on – and support excellent service delivery.

I have picked out a few highlights from an interesting two-day conference. My impression from KM Legal 2014 is that although there could well be (more) revolution in the legal sector, KM is essentially about evolution – evolving working practices and behaviours across the firm to meet and exceed changing expectations of lawyers and their clients rather than looking for innovation in order to redefine the future of the KM function itself. KM Legal’s sponsors include mainstream vendors LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters as well as more unusual providers such as Manzama, which uses big data analytics to provide real-time current awareness. The calibre of speakers, sponsors and delegates at KM Legal reflect what’s happening to KM in law firms. There are core elements which don’t change, as KM is an established and ongoing function, but it also needs to evolve to incorporate new developments and find new ways of applying knowledge to boost the business.

Thanks are due to Leah Darbyshire and her team at Ark Group for an interesting and enjoyable event. 

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