The Role of Law Firm Culture in Knowledge Management

My goal was to post this prior to Simon Fodden’s “Canada Day” Friday Filip below. Unfortunately, the screed that follows has nothing to do with colorful flags or the Maple Leaf Rag (however, to see colorful covers of ragtime sheet music, see my recent updates at Classic Ragtime Piano).

In a recent speech I gave in Toronto at an Ark Group presentation on Knowledge Management in Law Firms I spoke on how a firm’s culture affects knowledge management. I addressed 3 broad aspects of this topic:

1) The 8 “Settled Truths” About KM, Culture and Law Firms

2) How to Assess a Firm’s Culture

3) Ten Solutions for Encouraging a KM-Sharing Culture in a Law Firm

Set out below is a synopsis of that article (which does not include the many footnotes contained in the original article).

1) The 8 “Settled Truths” About KM, Culture and Law Firms

The importance of a knowledge-sharing culture to knowledge management (KM) is so obvious as to not warrant further research. Numerous studies and commonsense tell us that organizational “culture” plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of an organization’s KM program.

Since the literature was relatively clear on the importance of culture in KM, I synthesized 8 “settled” or uncontroversial truths about KM and culture in law firms:

Truth #1: The definition of “culture”: The definition of culture is relatively settled, even though it can be hard to explain. Most descriptions focus on the notion that culture represents the “norms, values, attitudes and beliefs” (Gurteen: 1999) shared by its members. Although hard to define, most of us have a good sense of what it is and how it can vary from firm to firm.

Truth #2: Having the right law firm culture is critical for KM success: If a firm has low levels of sharing or trust, KM initiatives – by definition – are less likely to succeed. As such, culture matters in knowledge management. For law firms, which operate in a relatively unique industry and environment compared to other organizations, culture is especially important.

Truth #3: The heart of a good KM culture is trust: Trust plays a critical role in knowledge-sharing. DeLong and Fahey (2000:115), for example, note the “level of trust that exists between the organization, its subunits, and its employees greatly influences the amount of knowledge that flows both between individuals and from individuals into the firm’s databases, best practices archives, and other records.”

Truth #4: Law firms have subcultures that can vary within the firm: Even within a single office law firm, there can be differing cultures among practice groups, administrative departments, and so on. For multi-jurisdictional law firms, there is even a greater likelihood that there will be cultural differences among the firm’s various offices. Although KM can play a role in setting “standards”, it is also relatively clear that KM initiatives must be flexible and strategic to take into account differences in subcultures.

Truth #5: It is difficult to change a law firm’s culture: It is extremely difficult for a single individual or department to change a law firm’s culture; at best, we can encourage or nudge. In the final section below, I mention of the steps that can be taken to cause shifts towards knowledge-sharing.

Truth #6: The move toward a client focus is forcing cultural change: Since most law firms place client service as their top goal, when those clients insist that their lawyers be more cost-effective and not re-invent the wheel, law firms are more likely to respond to KM initiatives that help their lawyers be more cost-effective. In addition, private extranets and deal rooms for clients are becoming standard for most large firms; and although KM departments may not always been involved in extranets (they usually are, though), this is one way to meet client expectations and encourage lawyers to adopt a team approach to sharing knowledge among themselves and with the client.

Truth #7: Throwing technology on a firm does not solve sharing problems: Clearly, technology plays an important role in KM. However, technological solutions alone will not instantly create knowledge-sharing, especially if the firm had low levels of sharing prior to the technological solution.

Truth #8: Contributions to KM can be a challenge for a variety of reasons: Set out below are some of the “myths” and “truths” about why knowledge-sharing can be difficult in law firms.

  • Lack of time (the “billable hour” problem): Fee-earning lawyers will priorize their non-billable time quite carefully. To the extent that (under the old, traditional model) lawyers are compensated on meeting their billable hours target, there traditionally was little or no incentive for the individual to make non-billable contributions to KM tools and projects. This even though many lawyers readily acknowledge the importance of KM.
  • Power struggles (the “herding cats” problem): Although I do not like the metaphor of equating the management of lawyers to the herding of cats, the stereotype exists. Part of the challenge may be the mentality of some lawyers who might hoard their knowledge in light of the belief that “knowledge is power”.
  • Practices are specialized (the “information silos” problem): Some practice groups within a law firm may have such specialized practices that their knowledge would be of interest primarily to only them. This creates a “information silos” problem to the extent that information is not being shared firmwide.
  • Management does not understand (the “dinosaur” problem): Fortunately, most law firms and their management teams do see the importance of KM and the leverage the building a firm’s collective knowledge can have on client service.
  • Technological barriers (the “IT” problem): Until the perfection of the Vulcan mind meld and software that can anticipate our information needs, there will always be technology issues whether in poor design or difficulty in use. Fortunately, improvements in search technologies are simplifying the process of searching and categorizing large repositories of information.
  • KM results are not always concrete or immediate (the “metrics” problem): Since it is sometimes difficult to measure traditional, concrete returns on KM investments, some firm management teams may not quite appreciate or understand what your KM team may be trying to do.
  • Knowledge is complex (the “content” problem): Another challenge is that law-related information and knowledge can be complex and difficult to capture, especially the tacit knowledge that lawyers have acquired through experience.
  • 2) How to Assess a Firm’s Knowledge-Sharing Culture

    Both of the KM texts by each of Parsons and Rusanow (set out at the end of this posting) include a number of questions or checklists you can consider in assessing your firm’s knowledge-sharing culture (highly recommended reading). Essentially, you are conducting an “audit” of the firm’s policies and procedures and the way in which lawyers and staff interact. Parsons (2004:98), for example, divides the process into three stages where you first look at the “artifacts” of the firm (e.g., what is the office layout? How do people interact?), and then the espoused values of the firm (from mission statements, brochures, websites, etc.), and then compare those espoused values to the the firm’s basic assumptions (by looking at what the firm says it does and what it actually does).

    Battersby (2006:6) identifies of a number of criteria by which to assess a law firm’s culture including:

  • An assessment of the firm’s mission statements;
  • Reviewing the firm’s business plan and aims;
  • Analyzing which activities are important to the firm;
  • Reviewing the firm’s commitments to professional development;
  • Seeing whether the firm uses work teams or whether lawyers work more by themselves;
  • Examining how lawyers and staff engage with each other, whether in formal or informal meetings;
  • Considering how people are rewarded and what they are rewarded for;
  • Listening to the firm’s stories and legends; and,
  • Analyzing the structure of firm.
  • A more formal method of gauging a firm’s culture is by using a questionnaire developed by Human Synergistics International. Their Organizational Culture Inventory (click here for a 10-page sample in PDF) is a survey given to the organization’s employees to gather data for 12 behavioral norms grouped by three clusters. Based on years of conducting these surveys, the company apparently can determine quite objectively which of three clusters your organization falls into when it comes to culture: a constructive culture (where sharing is high), an aggressive/defensive culture (where people approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security) and a passive/defensive culture (where people interact in ways that will not threaten their own security). Armed with this data, you can tailor solutions to specific departments within the organization.

    3) Ten Solutions for Encouraging a KM-Sharing Culture in a Law Firm:

    There were a number of solutions identified in the literature focusing on how to encourage a knowledge-sharing environment:

  • Strategy #1 – Communication: It is critical to explain the purposes of KM initiatives so that firm members can understand the collective goal and why it is better to think not of “knowledge is power” but instead “sharing knowledge is power” (Gurteen:1999). Lack of communication risks instilling a lack of trust.
  • Strategy #2 – Leadership: The literature is replete with the notion that management support for KM projects is essential. Support is shown through words and deeds. If firm members know that management is supporting an initiative, they are more likely to share their knowledge.
  • Strategy #3 – Knowledge Champions: To encourage sharing it can be useful to harness the power of knowledge champions within your firm (those people who regularly share their knowledge and use KM tools in their daily work). Ideally, some of these champions will be partners or other firm members who can influence the behaviour of their colleagues.
  • Strategy #4 – Quick Wins: Since some KM initiatives are long term, and since KM results are not always immediately tangible, it can be useful to conduct some smaller projects that show immediate effects. This will encourage a sharing attitude when firm members experience a quick win.
  • Strategy #5 – Flexibility/Experimentation: Forcing the sharing of information rarely works. Instead, you should adopt a flexible approach that encourages users to experiment and not feel as if they will be censured for trying different approaches to knowledge sharing.
  • Strategy #6 – Embed the process, assign specific roles: Since fee earners are busy, the extent to which you can “embed the process” by making document and knowledge capturing part of the regular workflow, the better your chances of ensuring an increasing body of content for your knowledge repositories. In addition, assigning specific persons specific roles increases accountability and ensures progress on KM initiatives.
  • Strategy #7 – Firm’s CLE/mentoring/Training: One of the most effective ways of using or redploying tacit knowledge is for junior lawyers to be mentoring with senior lawyers and for encouraging life-long continuing education and training for your firm members.
  • Strategy #8 – Develop meaningful incentives, reduce disincentives: The literature is quite clear that meaningful incentives are an important influence on knowledge-sharing. The work of Herzberg (1968:57-59) suggests that trivial rewards cannot motivate employees over the long term and that what is needed instead are rewards that encourage “job enrichment” such as recognizing job achievement, promoting employee responsibility and providing opportunities for growth and advancement. Having said that, a number of colleagues have been surprised at how effective $5 Starbucks coffee cards can be as gifts for rewarding KM contributions.
  • Strategy #9 – Consider a “worst practices databases”: We often speak of “best practices”. How often do we acknowledge the mistakes we make? Why not document your worst practices and encourage your employees to work on learning from the mistakes made. This can develop a trusting environment.
  • Strategy #10 – Ensure your technology supports your KM goals: Finally, technology can play an important role in the attitudes of firm members to knowledge sharing. How easy is it for firm members to make contributions to your KM systems? How easy is it for people to find information by browsing or searching? What technological barriers might be in place that inhibit knowledge sharing?

    With that, I stop. But I encourage comments or examples where readers have experienced issues relating to culture and KM.


    Selected bibliography:

    Battersby, Karen. Know How in the Legal Profession. Edited by Caroline Poynton. London: Ark Group, 2006.

    DeLong, D.W. and L. Fahey. “Diagnosing Cultural Barriers to Knowledge Management” (2000) 14(4) The Academy of Management Executive 113.

    Gurteen, David. “Creating a Knowledge Sharing Culture” (Feb. 1999) 2(5) Inside Knowledge.

    Herzberg, F. “One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees?” (1968) 46(1) Harvard Business Review 53.

    Parsons, M. Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Rusanow, G. Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer. New York: ALM Publishing, 2003.

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