posted 22 Aug 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 1
Case study: Stikeman Elliott
By Andrea Alliston
Just before I started to write this case study, I was putting the final touches on an advertisement we are placing for another lawyer to join our knowledge management (KM) team. KM lawyers (more often known as professional support lawyers or PSLs) are common in UK law firms and have been for years, whereas in North America, the KM lawyer role is a more recent development.
Employing specialised knowledge workers who create, collect, manage and distribute information and knowledge within the organisation may not be appropriate for all organisations but we have found them to be one of the more powerful resources in our efforts to enhance knowledge sharing within the firm.
So why and how did we decide to invest in KM and take the approach that we did? The first question is easy – because knowledge management is essentially about giving lawyers quick and efficient access to essential legal resources and information, the effectiveness of an organisation’s knowledge management processes directly impact upon the efficiency and productivity of fee earning, which ultimately translates to the bottom line.
As for the approach we decided to adopt, that evolved from a number of factors: aspects of lawyers and the way they typically work, the law-firm business model, our compensation and career progression path, our organisational culture and our own past experience. We were also fortunate to have had the benefit of good advice from an external advisor and we drew from the experience of law firms in the UK, Australia and the US, too.
KM at Stikeman Elliott
With more than 450 lawyers, Stikeman Elliott is one of Canada’s largest law firms providing service to its Canadian and international clients in all areas of business law from offices in Canada and around the world.
Stikeman Elliott had been a relatively early adopter of portal technology and with great success, too. When the portal, STELLA, was launched law firm consulting group Hildebrandt characterised it as among the very best of North American law firm intranets, while Hummingbird, which supplied the underlying portal technology, awarded the firm with its Customer Innovation Award for Legal Intranet Solutions.
At the same time, we knew that the portal was only the starting point, so we engaged law firm KM consultant Sally Gonzales of Baker Robbins to assist with the development of a more comprehensive strategy to take us through the next five years.
As part of our knowledge management strategy, we allocated resources to increasing the number of KM lawyers – or PSLs – we already had. At that stage, their primary focus had been on precedent development. Precedents were a key component of our initial KM strategy, primarily because they are a tangible product that all lawyers identify with and use in their day-to-day activities.
Based on prior experience, the partnership knew that in order to make progress with precedent development, we needed lawyers who could work on them full time: enter the KM lawyer. But moving beyond that, Gonzales was also able to demonstrate that most law firms with successful KM programs had lawyers dedicated to knowledge management activities. Our approach was also greatly influenced by looking at the experience of Australian, UK and US firms with the use of – or lack of use of – KM lawyers.
Our KM strategy exists at a very high level and although we had identified the need for additional KM lawyers and had allocated resources to them as part of the strategy, we had not worked out the details of implementation such as how many were needed, for which practice areas, what their responsibilities would be and whether we would use a centralised or decentralised structure.
Some firms have been successful in engaging a large number of KM lawyers at once; however, we knew from an organisational perspective, that we would be more successful if we took a gradual approach to building our team. Accordingly, we have hired one KM lawyer at a time once a clear business case has been identified and once we were confident that they would be integrated into the firm.
This gradual approach has worked well for us, and as we have increased the number of lawyers in the KM team, we have been able to see how this resource has had a direct impact on facilitating knowledge sharing at the firm.
So what is it that has made the knowledge management processes and tools we adopted successful in our organisation? In tailoring our approach, we focused on several key factors: how lawyers work and their particular needs, our business model, career progression and compensation issues, our organisational structure and, not least, previous experience.
The knowledge worker
Understanding the type of knowledge worker in your organisation is key to determining what approaches will work when it comes to knowledge sharing. Ask yourself, what are their characteristics? What will motivate them to share or not to share? In Thomas Davenport’s latest book, ‘Thinking for a Living’, he provides an excellent framework for understanding and supporting different types of knowledge workers, providing different strategies for each.
Having been a practising lawyer at our firm, I felt that I had an inside track on what makes a Stikeman Elliott lawyer tick. Still, I found Matthew Parson’s list of common cultural traits in his book, “Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms”, to be very useful in providing some insight on which lawyer traits may have an influence on our approach to knowledge sharing. A number stood out in particular:
· “Lawyers like to be able to understand the rules and the source of authority for a proposition;”
· “Lawyers, as professionals, need to feel consulted in relation to change processes – to feel that their input is considered and may make a difference;”
· “Lawyers look to their peers to determine codes of behaviour and acceptable standards of conduct;”
· “Lawyers have a hierarchy, and younger lawyers may be less disposed to participate… or say something that may be considered ignorant.”
We have been able to address some of these traits by using KM lawyers who consult practising lawyers during the contribution process, provide the context required on contributions to understand their purpose, and make junior lawyers feel more at ease about sharing their knowledge and information.
The business model
An organisation’s business model also has an impact on its approach to knowledge sharing. In a law firm context, the nature of our business model means it is difficult to persuade practising lawyers to spend enough time on knowledge sharing and contribution activities in a way that would make a meaningful difference. By relying on KM lawyers to facilitate the bulk of formal knowledge creation, collection, management and distribution within the firm, this challenge is acknowledged and addressed.
Although the business models of law firms may be changing gradually, it is still dominated by the billable hour. Lawyers understand that non-billable activities support the firm in its efforts to provide better client service overall; however, it is difficult for them to see how these activities contribute to the profitability of the firm in the direct way that client billings do.
As a result, it is a challenge to convince a lawyer that he or she should give up some billable time to spend on knowledge sharing and contribution. Yes, there are studies, articles and books making the case that spending time on knowledge contribution and sharing ultimately benefits the bottom line of the firm; but translating that into actual practice and getting lawyers to change their behaviour can be a challenge in itself.
Law is, in essence, about client service and this also has an impact on where knowledge sharing falls in the long ‘to-do’ list faced by most lawyers – near the bottom. Meeting client needs and spending time on client work takes priority over everything else. When lawyers are challenged to manage their time in order to provide the level of service expected by their clients, it is difficult for them to find the time to spend on knowledge sharing or contribution (in addition to all of their other non-billable activities), even if they have the best intentions of doing so. A KM lawyer can assist with the contribution process and motivate practising lawyers to dedicate some time to knowledge sharing and contribution.
Finally, the cost effectiveness of practising lawyers being responsible for directly contributing knowledge and information to a KM system needs to be considered. Arguably, it costs the firm less to employ a KM lawyer to create, collect, manage and distribute information than it does for our practising lawyers to do it themselves. KM lawyers are experts at contributing information to available systems and giving appropriate context to information – practising lawyers are not. As a result, KM lawyers are more efficient at the contribution process and the quality of the information contributed by them is often better.
The expertise and knowledge of the practising lawyer is more cost effectively captured for the organisation if the KM lawyer can minimise the time required of the practising lawyer during the contribution process – especially if the practising lawyer does not need to fuss with aspects of systems and technology that he or she rarely uses. KM lawyers generally tend to have a different pay scale than practising lawyers which also makes it less expensive for the firm if the bulk of the time spent on performing and managing contribution activities is done by KM lawyers.
Career progression and compensation
Closely tied to an organisation’s business model are the ways in which employees are compensated and progress through the organisation. In comparison to our long-established criteria for compensation and progression to partnership, our KM strategy is relatively recent. For a number of reasons, we have chosen not to modify our performance criteria to specifically incorporate knowledge creation, sharing or contribution into our evaluation criteria.
First, we believe that they are already encompassed by the existing criteria even though they are not explicitly specified. Knowledge creation, sharing and contribution activities are all recognised as important non-billable activities that lawyers should engage in, and participation in these activities is commended as part of overall performance evaluation.
Second, we believe that measuring the amount that someone contributes to a KM system is an artificial way to measure knowledge creation, sharing and contribution. If someone has not contributed to a KM system it does not necessarily mean that they are not sharing their knowledge within the organisation in a different way.
Conversely, the fact that someone has made a contribution to a KM system does not necessarily mean that the contribution is valuable or useful. It would be difficult for us to meaningfully assess the true value of all of the contribution and sharing activities that our practising lawyers engage in.
Finally, when it comes to non-billable activities, knowledge sharing is only one of many. Developing a profile and a practice, participating in continuing legal education, enhancing client relationships, working on marketing activities and participating in the management of the firm are all non-billable activities that compete for the time and attention of our lawyers.
In addition, all of these activities contribute to the overall success of a lawyer at the firm so it seems inappropriate to single-out knowledge sharing above all others without an assessment of whether this is the right thing to do.
The voluntary aspect of knowledge sharing and contribution at the firm is supported with the infrastructure provided by KM lawyers by making sharing and contribution as easy as possible. Involving KM lawyers in the contribution process also means that the quality of contributions can be assessed as part of the overall performance evaluation of practising lawyers.
Although other factors, such as the business model, may be similar across several organisations, organisational culture is the one defining factor that always varies.
One of the driving cultural factors of Stikeman Elliott is that it is – and has always been – entrepreneurial in its approach to client service and its own business. As a result, there is a cultural bias away from processes and procedures. Any formal process or procedure intended to capture knowledge from practising lawyers is therefore likely to be met with resistance, especially if it interferes with getting the job done or is perceived to slow things down.
The firm also prides itself on being non-hierarchical, and our corporate structure and corporate formalities tend to be kept in check as a result. Changes are made collaboratively and through consensus building as opposed to being dictated from senior levels of the organisation. In this way, behavioural changes by practising lawyers only happen after extensive consultation and when there is clearly some benefit for the individual lawyer.
Simply telling lawyers that they should be contributing and sharing knowledge is probably not going to result in any quantum changes in behaviour, which tend to happen only gradually. The way in which our organisation is structured means that it would be difficult to expect rapid changes in knowledge sharing and contribution on the part of practising lawyers.
At the same time, we are incredibly fortunate to have an open and sharing culture, one which recognises that knowledge sharing is important. Our practising lawyers are more than happy to take time out of their day to help a colleague and, if asked, they will share with each other all the materials and resources that they have available.
So, getting these lawyers to contribute to a KM collection or system should be easy? Not quite. Although they are happy to give a colleague assistance and materials, they often don’t feel they have the time to contribute to a KM system. They are also concerned about adding all the context that they feel is necessary to ensure that their document or contribution is going to be used properly.
The time, process and procedure concerns described above are addressed as KM lawyers facilitate knowledge sharing by practising lawyers. Concerns regarding context for contributions are also met as KM lawyers speak with practising lawyers to ensure that the appropriate context is provided.
As mentioned above, prior to implementing our KM strategy, the firm had, for a number of years, one or two lawyers dedicated to precedents. We knew from our experience that these lawyers were a key factor in making progress with developing model forms and that employing the right people in the role was critical.
In addition to strong legal skills, a KM lawyer also has to have strong people skills. As part of their role, our KM lawyers are a resource for practising lawyers who have questions about the law or practice. This means that KM lawyers must have a high degree of expertise and be able to work with lawyers at all levels.
From a social-network perspective, the KM lawyers are like a hub through which people can connect to resources, experts or other people dealing with the same issues. Again, this is most effectively done by someone with strong people skills. The benefits of hiring the right people for the role of KM lawyer have made a great difference in the level of assistance and support that they are able to provide.
Although I have focussed on KM lawyers in particular, they are not the only tool that we have employed to foster knowledge sharing and contribution in the firm; however, they are the one resource that has clearly made a difference in the day-to-day practice of our lawyers.
Employing dedicated knowledge workers to create, collect, manage and distribute knowledge may not be the answer for every organisation. But for us, the four factors of our particular knowledge workers, our business model, our compensation and career progression approach, and our culture means it makes sense for us to take this approach to knowledge sharing.
Andrea Alliston is director of knowledge management and senior KM lawyer at law firm Stikeman Elliott. She can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Inside Knowledge publisher Ark Group has launched KM Legal, a specialist knowledge management publication exclusively for practitioners in the legal profession. For subscription details, please contact Howard James by e-mail, email@example.com