posted 24 Nov 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 3
Case study: Davies Arnold Cooper
Starting from scratch
Mark Collins charts his first 200 days as the first knowledge management partner at international law firm Davies Arnold Cooper.
By Mark Collins
Davies Arnold Cooper is an international law firm best known for its dispute-resolution and real-estate expertise. It specialises in a number of particular niche markets, including commercial and residential property development, construction and insurance. It has 30 equity partners and more than 150 lawyers.
When I joined the firm as knowledge management (KM) partner in January 2006, I found little coordinated KM activity. It was difficult to tell whether this was a greenfield site or whether someone had been building up the organisation’s knowledge-management capacity in secret. This case study will detail what I found when I arrived, the work I have done since joining and how the firm has responded in my first 200 days.
Why was I hired?
David Hertzell, the firm’s managing partner, knew what he wanted: someone to make KM happen, who had done it before and knew the pitfalls. He needed an individual to act as a consultant to the firm – at less than it might cost to outsource the process. Ruth Elliot, the human-resources (HR) director, wanted someone who could make it happen by working with the firm’s people; someone who could enhance the consistency and quality of our lawyers’ work and smooth the process of change.
The job specification just about covered everything. All the right buzzwords were there: KM, training, cultural change, information, marketing, creating and recycling knowledge. Yet it was still something of an unknown as to how all this might be applied at Davies Arnold Cooper.
What to do next?
Having worked in many law firms as a fee earner, a professional support lawyer (PSL) and as a head of KM, I suspected what the main issues were and where the solutions might lie, but it was not for me to pronounce the answer in advance. That would have been my solution, not that of the partners. It needed to be their solution. The firm was not a KM desert.
There was one PSL in the real-estate department, Andrew Cooper, doing an admirable job juggling the many conflicting demands of professional support. A small library team worked hard, but seemed disconnected from the PSL and other support functions.
There was a wealth of knowledge among the partners, but there appeared to be work to do in organising, sharing and leveraging it. To some extent it appeared to be a question of coordinating and developing what was already in place. Perhaps my greenfield site wasn’t so green after all.
I remembered when I worked with management consultant George Kalorkoti at another law firm, Herbert Smith. He advised to always identify the problem before you considered solutions. But, in reality, he confided, you always knew the answer. You simply had to find the evidence to back it up.
It was clear that I had to spend some time talking to partners, listening to their issues and gathering evidence and ideas that might underpin a knowledge strategy. I knew what had been required in other law firms, but I had to see how it might apply to the issues and culture of Davies Arnold Cooper.
I found Matthew Parsons’ book, ‘Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms’, extremely useful, as well as the work of David Maister, one of Parsons’ sources. Reading their theories again helped crystallise in my mind what I wanted to achieve and also provided me with some practical ideas and strategies for how to do it.
However, both these writers tend to work in the milieu of the large firm, one with budgets and structures in place. I needed to sense the culture and attitudes of this firm, and come up with a practical approach that would not only stack up as a strategy, but which would be achievable with the resources available.
So, I booked an hour with every equity partner and every support head. I set up group sessions with the secretaries (usually the ‘doers’ and processors in a law firm), the associates (the financial powerhouse) and the trainees (the future). Most of the time, these appointments were kept and were extremely fruitful.
Each interview had a structure. I asked people what they did, how they did it and where they wanted to be in one year’s time. If they were given £1m to spend – not that I had it to offer – how would they improve the profitability of the firm? I asked them if they could change or instigate one procedure in the firm, one that might improve effectiveness, what they would do?
These questions prompted both discussion and ideas, but also revealed to me those partners who knew where they wanted the business to go. I listened to their issues and gathered anecdotes and gripes. It was important to ensure that I did not make promises I could not keep, but had a sympathetic ear and a watchful eye for a quick win that might make a difference to the firm.
I could have gone on forever, listening and talking. The list of issues continued to grow, but the quick wins were thin on the ground and there was no established budget or team to speak of. There were some partners who were sceptical and some who were supportive. It was time for action.
I distilled my consultation notes into a report, which focused on key issues that had emerged as recurring themes throughout the consultation. I then canvassed a draft of the report around all the support directors and members of the firm’s executive committee. I wanted explicit feedback both on its format (for example, short, punchy executive summary, clear numbered issues and associated recommendations, a list of ordered priorities, and a timeline for action with supporting evidence separated out in appendices) – as well as on its message.
I needed key, influential people to support these conclusions for my ideas to have any chance of success, so I met with each one individually and took them through the report’s conclusions and recommendations. They helped me pull out issues and sensitivities that I might be able to smooth over before I presented the finished article to the executive committee. The support (and, more importantly, the involvement and leadership) of top-level management was crucial.
My report highlighted several crucial issues that emerged as recurring themes in the consultation. While these issues are particularly pertinent to Davies Arnold Cooper, I sense that they may well be applicable at other law firms, too.
As ever, people were motivated to record chargeable time for themselves. Non-chargeable or investment time (training, marketing, knowledge sharing) was less of a priority.
Precedents and know-how
While some practice areas had a set of standard document templates and collected know-how, some did not.
Training in law was organised on an ad hoc basis without an assessment of training needs, learning styles and value for money in purchasing.
Library and information
A paper library duplicated many of the electronic resources available online, which were not easily accessible. The library team spent a large proportion of its time on administrative tasks, such as purchasing and processing materials or coding information, rather than adding value to the work undertaken by lawyers advising on the law.
There was no process by which business-oriented IT systems were considered from a business perspective, prioritised, user requirements gathered and solutions purchased to meet these explicit needs.
In July, six months after my arrival, I presented my preliminary report to the firm’s executive committee. My aims were to:
- Explain what KM was and how it could make a real difference to the firm. I was selling the notion of KM as, quite simply, good financial sense. The drivers of profitability (margin, leverage, hourly rate and utilisation) were fundamental in this selling process. All the recommendations were designed to hit one of these drivers. I outlined a business case for each proposal, as to how it might improve the competitiveness of the firm, which brought me a powerful ally in the form of our finance director;
- Include and involve others, ensuring that the programme was co-owned by partners and support heads who understood what was required;
- Build a budget and grow a team. Build the library and the one PSL into a coordinated team, then integrate legal training into this mix;
- Prioritise. Refrain from trying to solve all problems all at once.
Budget and PSLs
I was aware of the KM model advocated by Andrew White at law firm Bird & Bird, where knowledge creation and sharing was done without professional support lawyers and fee earners were encouraged to take on that responsibility instead.
While I admired the model for its simplicity and its successful implementation at Bird & Bird, I didn’t think it would work at Davies Arnold Cooper. Here, the chargeable-hour culture was too engrained and there were too many silos and sole practitioners. To break out of this culture we needed a kick start; we had to have PSLs to make things happen. The executive committee accepted my recommendations and gave me a budget to recruit three PSLs – one each for litigation and construction, and another for real estate, which had clearly bought into the idea.
A LEG to stand on
Through my consultation I had discovered those people who would be champions for KM and who would help take the initiative forward. I set up a steering group made up of these champions representing all practice areas, support teams, secretaries and trainees and called it the Legal Excellence Group, or LEG. This branded it and gave us lots of opportunity for fun advertising and branding with ‘LEG Ups’, ‘Long LEGs’, ‘Short LEGs’, ‘LEG Spin’ and ‘LEGends’, for example. So far, the LEG has met three times and has considered the following:
- What KM is and why it matters;
- IT – recommending five projects to focus on this year, including a new intranet, document assembly and search tools;
- What a learning culture is and how to create one. The LEG is now a recognised forum to which management can bring proposals and expect sensible, pragmatic consultation and feedback.
Negotiations are underway with several suppliers to design and deliver a three-year rolling programme of professional development. This would be delivered in-house and partners would work with suppliers to tailor courses to our specific needs. We will also make the most of economies of scale, and consolidate overlapping requirements across practice areas and levels of qualification. There is money to save and value to add.
Work is underway, led by LEG reps and HR, to consider improvements to appraisal schemes, rewards, recognition, coaching and mentoring. The aim is a more open, learning and sharing culture.
After a period of internal review, the library and information-services team has started an information audit, meeting with LEG reps and creating an information profile for each practice area. Each of these outlines the information that lawyers in that particular practice area need to do their work, who their clients are, their targets, industry sectors, search terms, topics, favourite resources and commonly-used legislation and regulation.
This profile will be the basis of a tailored resource bank for each practice area to access via their intranet page, with regular, tailored updates pushed to lawyers in that interest group. As a result, more than £40,000 has already been saved simply by cancelling our subscription to certain hard-copy materials that are available online.
While progress has been good and a tangible impact on profitability has already been noticed, areas in which we can improve include:
- Listening – being seen to be good listeners;
- Communicating – keeping everyone informed with regular updates;
- Force-field analysis – working out who are our allies, who is powerful, who might be able to stand in our way and how to influence them;
- Flexibility – bending to the demands of the situation and choosing which ‘battles’ to lose and which ‘wars’ to fight;
- Being practical – theory and concepts are not as compelling as real-life examples. Using stories and anecdotes to back-up our ideas;
- Being realistic – reducing our ambitions if it means we can deliver something significant;
- Focus on the drivers of profitability – keep returning to why you are there. KM without payback in profitability or competitiveness is a waste of time.
My first nine months at the firm have gone well and have been a fascinating challenge. I believe the department has already made a real difference to a firm that has not had a coordinated approach to knowledge before. The greenfield site is being developed – knowledge is growing and an infrastructure is in place – so we can now look to build upon this in the future.
Mark Collins is knowledge management partner at international firm Davies Arnold Cooper. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Ark Group, the publisher of Inside Knowledge, has launched KM Legal, a new bi-monthly subscription-only magazine focusing solely on knowledge management in the legal sector. To find out more about the magazine, please e-mail Tom Richardson, firstname.lastname@example.org.