posted 26 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
Case study: Setterwalls
Learning to share
KM manager Joakim Edoff talks about understanding, establishing and nurturing a knowledge-sharing culture at Swedish law firm Setterwalls.
By Kate Clifton
Establishing an effective knowledge-management (KM) culture in the law-firm environment can be a challenging, but imperative, task for even the savviest of KM professionals.
In a climate where lawyers still see their knowledge as ‘power’, it isn’t always easy to encourage fee earners and partners to adapt to the more open, collaborative way of working that forms the backbone of textbook KM practice. Setterwalls is a full-service commercial practice, established in 1878, with three offices in Sweden – Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. It employs 200 staff, with 140 lawyers and 47 partners.
Joakim Edoff took on the role of KM manager in 2005; the firm currently has no professional-support lawyers.
The starting point
When Edoff first joined the firm he encountered three different offices with diverse cultures and histories. There was a relatively low level of cross-office interaction – lawyers from the different offices did not work with each other often – and there was no firm-wide access to ‘matter’ or knowledge documents. The firm’s search capabilities were fairly limited and much of its knowledge was to be found in documents of various quality stored in lawyers’ personal files, most of which were in paper forms.
Although the firm had fairly negative experiences from previous KM initiatives, a more positive and proactive attitude was being encouraged among staff, which was encompassed in the ‘Setterwalls spirit’. This was a shift in atmosphere and values, which promoted the idea of being a team player, encouraging an ‘open door’ policy throughout the firm and highlighting the responsibility of individuals in contributing to KM and building the firm as a business. This enhanced focus and ambition saw the development of a new business plan for 2004-2007, which included the appointment of a KM manager.
Culture can be defined in many ways. For Edoff, it was, and is, commonly-held beliefs, attitudes and values – put more simply, ‘what we do and why we do these things.’
He placed significant focus on examining the existing culture at the firm and what needed to be changed, in the belief that culture can have a massive impact on the success of any KM initiative – and that in the wrong environment, time spent on KM strategy and programmes is usually spent in vain.
As many knowledge managers in the legal profession will be aware, lawyers can sometimes be prickly and persuading them to cooperate with a KM programme and knowledge-sharing activities can be time consuming.
In his 2006 article, ‘The Trouble with Lawyers’1, management consultant David Maister included an anonymous quote from a managing partner that sums up the frequent challenges: “Their focus tends to be selfish and self-serving, even narcissistic. The result is the firm's resources are squandered and poorly used, clients don’t get the best lawyers assigned to their files and firms are less profitable.”
With a more optimistic view of the value of lawyers’ abilities and what they could achieve in KM, Edoff set about exploring and communicating the characteristics of a culture that values KM throughout the firm. These were:
- Focusing on the interests of the firm’s clients. This was a top priority and meant that the individual interests of lawyers had to take a back seat;
- Building competitive advantage for the firm. This would be achieved through increased creativity, innovation, efficiency, professional quality and added-value activities;
- Generating value from the collective-knowledge experience – the skills and ideas-based assets of the firm;
- Everybody must be willing and able to collaborate and share knowledge as part of their day-to-day activities.
In addition, Edoff stated that all of these activities should be standard practice and not just performed within individual KM initiatives. He held the strong belief that the firm should always operate as a team: using and developing all its resources to continuously improve the way in which that team functioned. He felt that in the smaller firm environment, excellent teamwork could make a real difference.
Common barriers and objections A KM culture is not born; it is created and needs to be nurtured, so requires a lot of time and effort to keep it alive once it has been established. Edoff knew that he needed to take lots of action. He was aware that much of Setterwalls’ culture – like the culture in any organisation – was subconscious.
That is to say, staff did not always recognise why they did what they did and the way they did it. In order to drive change, he first needed to address the entrenched attitudes, knowledge, insight, skills and motivation of the firm’s people, and work on changing them accordingly.
The natural inclination of many people is to resist cultural change, rather than embrace it. This is because, says Edoff, people have to accept first that they are doing things wrong before they can accept that there is a need to change – which can be a difficult thing to face up to.
Second, it is often difficult to get partners to pay more than lip service to a KM initiative. It’s all very well to get them to agree to a project, but you need their full, and public, support every step of the way for success.
A different side of the same coin is individualism and the ‘knowledge is power’ mentality, covered by the David Maister quote earlier in this article. What Edoff and many others refer to as the ‘Not invented here’ syndrome (see Inside Knowledge, May 2006) can add to the difficulties.
Aside from simply not wanting to share their ‘prized’ knowledge, lawyers may be lacking in trust, thinking that their peers will not apply their knowledge in the correct context, may steal their ideas and take credit for them, or misuse the knowledge in some way or another. Similarly, some are put off by a fear of peer review, where everything is scrutinised. In some cases, lawyers regard KM as a task for junior associates, or, quite simply, as a ‘soft option’.
Lack of time, compounded by the pressure of the billable hour also has an effect, whereby lawyers are so busy with their chargeable client work, they simply do not feel that they have enough time to allocate to non-chargeable activity. If there is no recognition and rewards scheme, or other incentives to encourage participation, the billable hour will always win.
Spreading the message
The key to persuading lawyers and partners to buy-in to, and support, KM was getting them to understand exactly why it was so important - by giving them reasons that they couldn’t dispute.
Edoff argued that the main objective of KM – and an effective KM culture – was to build sustainable competitive advantage, benefit clients and generate value. He felt that no partner could oppose the idea of this objective and its subsequent effect on the firm as a whole.
He highlighted, also, that collaboration and knowledge sharing were not objectives, but rather the means to achieving the main goal of competitive advantage, and so on. It’s very easy for lawyers to simply say that they don’t want to collaborate, which would cancel out the initial objective.
In attempting to use KM as a change agent, alignment of KM strategy with the firm’s business idea, vision and core values/business principles is always good, but it’s not the end of the world if that doesn’t happen. Knowledge management itself can build much more than can be achieved by a policy document.
To bring people on board Edoff highlights, first and foremost, that an effective and productive KM culture is not a one-man show. Management is key at this stage in spreading a clear message that KM is part of the job and that everyone is a knowledge worker.
Edoff uses role-models and champions, assigning individual ownership of documents, rather than associating them with groups or practice areas. The thinking behind this is that a designated owner is more alert and aware of the knowledge which they are responsible for than a team. The role models are selected for having the right way of thinking and being happy to stand up and support KM within the firm.
He also tries to spread the message that people cannot just be knowledge ‘users’, only accessing the KM resources put in place, attending seminars or listening to others’ lessons learnt. Instead, they must be knowledge workers, people who collaborate regularly and develop new knowledge.
The difference between being a knowledge user and a knowledge worker is huge.
It is also vital to demonstrate the positive impact that KM can make to the way the firm works. The most important thing to do is to help people to see the bigger picture and the benefits for themselves. Demonstrating the impact KM can have on day-today activities is the most effective way of getting people on side. Edoff identifies and addresses areas that KM can improve – for example, templates/precedents and sample documents, law- firm rankings, deal negotiations (understanding trends in the marketplace, and so on), managing litigation cases and more.
He tries to put a KM twist on every big question or issue at the firm and takes time to walk the floors and speak to people – find out what they’re doing and what concerns they may have. He actually confesses to being over-enthusiastic as, during a recent leadership and training seminar, an external consultant asked what a winning team’s primary focus should be. Lawyers responded with ‘KM’ – the correct answer was clients.
Changing the way of working Setterwalls continually stresses the importance of always questioning the way it works, and that this is a task for everyone to consider – whether the firm should be doing things in this manner, or if current best practice should be reconsidered and developed.
It is changing its way of working in a number of ways:
- Emphasis on creativity and value-adding – question, reconsider, develop and innovate;
- Emphasis on knowledge, experience, skills and ideas – not titles and positions;
- Teamwork and the ‘four-eyes’ principle – no documents should leave the firm without being checked first by another lawyer, to ensure it is good advice, helpful to the client and so on;
- Introducing cross-office teams where reasonable – getting to know other offices and encouraging better collaboration;
- Internal and external debriefings – getting clients involved more;
- Re-activating and refocusing practice groups and specialist teams – assigning tasks and ownership;
- Research and development/think-tank initiatives – the firm has kicked off a number of these with lawyers from different groups looking at, for example, new legislation. An opportunity for brainstorming.
From a technical point of view, there is now firm-wide access to matter documents, e-mails and knowledge documents. The firm has implemented a document-management system and portal, which enables search of all matter documents, e-mails, knowledge documents and certain external internet sources.
KM is now at the heart of the practice groups and specialist teams. For example, lessons learned from matter debriefs are now discussed at practice-group meetings.In addition, output from the research and development work and think tanks is often explored more and initiatives based on ideas discussed are being launched.
Storytelling and KM alerts are being used to spread the message around the firm and KM is now firmly on Setterwalls’ agenda going forwards, with the board of directors beginning to request KM reports from heads of practice groups and specialist teams.
All in all, the KM culture has been nurtured from scratch and is continuing to grow, which is a positive move for Setterwalls as is it looks to differentiate itself and provide exceptional client service.
Kate Clifton can be contacted by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. ‘The Trouble with Lawyers’, David Maister, The American Lawyer, April 2006.
Handling the hooligans
- Identify and deal with those who challenge you or the knowledge management (KM) function;
- Identify and deal with the sole practitioners – Edoff uses junior associates to find out what sole practitioners are doing and how they could contribute to KM, as well as to pass on the KM message;
- Identify and deal with the ‘feudal lords’ – those that run a small department or group, and may be doing all the right things among themselves, but not contributing to firm-wide KM. Listen to them and involve them in different projects;
- Do not start all your ‘wars’ at the same time – concentrate on and resolve one problem area at a time.
If people aren’t motivated, they will not get involved in knowledge management (KM). Everyone has different needs, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to take. Before any initiative, sit down with everyone and find out how they work, what can be done to help them in their work, what resources they need and who they work closely with. Aim to:
- Listen, involve and communicate – this can be difficult, but it is imperative that you are aware of everyone’s concerns and objectives;
- Win hearts and minds – if you can help people, they will participate more readily;
- Identify and remove disincentives to contribute to KM;
- Consider appropriate rewards – be careful not to implement rewards that can only lead to an ‘artificial’ climate of knowledge exchange.
Incentives and rewards
- Lead by example.
This is extremely important at Setterwalls, and the knowledge champions and role models play a key role.
- Stand up for the apostles
Setterwalls looks after those that actively support KM. Edoff maintains that it is his responsibility to take the blame if things go wrong, while letting others take the credit when initiatives are successful.
- Feedback and recognition
Setterwalls recognises that receiving positive feedback and recognition is popular with lawyers. It also convinces partners and other lawyers to recognise each others’ work.
- Expert status
Setterwalls has quite an informal approach to ‘expert status’, enabling lawyers to write guides to share with others, for example.
The firm launched and subsequently terminated a wine bottle scheme, because some people were being over-rewarded, while others were not being rewarded enough.
- Salary and bonus
All three offices consider also other factors than billable hours, such as KM investment hours, when determining pay rises and bonus.
What’s in the compensation formula?
Sustaining a culture that values KM (the ability to build sustainable competitive advantage) requires KM investment hours to be considered as valuable to the firm as billable activities. This requires:
- A clear message and leadership;
- Personal objectives/targets and follow-up;
- Impact on appraisals, pay rises, bonus assessments and on promotions.
For long-term success, KM investment hours must be regarded as key – as important as research and development is to corporates. Setterwalls is starting to include KM assessment in its appraisals, but this is a huge challenge.