Are We Trying to Close the Barn Door After the Ship Has Sailed?

The concept of knowledge management can expand to encompass many things. Theoretically it includes influence over the social aspects of the organization, such as ways people relate to each other, as well as managing explicit information in the form of written information. Practically it is often carried out by staff in a particular department with varying degrees of influence, who may not be involved in the wider workings of the organization. This means that some of the most important ways people in an organization communicate and transfer knowledge are difficult for knowledge management staff to change.

Many knowledge management programs focus on improved control and access to written work product such as research memos and document templates. This is a logical place to start: written work represents an expensive asset that should be reused in the cause of efficiency and competitive advantage. It is also mainly static and lends itself to scalable management using information technology. There are however limits on what it will achieve.

Though there is no question a well designed and managed document management system is better than closets full of binders of precedents in lawyers’ offices that may be shared on request (or not), it will not improve the frequently observed organizational culture where people don’t want to share. This comes from people’s personalities, perceptions of their community, and incentive structures. Organizations’ communities are defined by many factors such as existing cultures, which are often the result of decades of operation, current hiring practices, the process of integrating new people, and incentives. I would also argue that the hiring process and people selected are hugely influential in what the organization will be like.

I wonder about the discussions on diversity in recruiting for law schools, articling, hire-backs, etc., and notice that they mainly revolve around attributes like race, gender, and class, but don’t spend much time on attributes relating to personality. I certainly don’t want to diminish the discussion about demographic attributes that are unjust criteria for inclusion and success, but we should remember that expanding the pool of potential applicants beyond a subset of the population has the side effect of making available opportunities more competitive.

If the criteria being evaluated on are not carefully considered, this has the potential to restrict inclusion to a certain kind of person with particular attributes and accomplishments.

I wonder if the hiring process evaluates the best things to encourage a healthy organization. I have heard many senior lawyers say that they would not be competitive among the current hires, and I am always impressed by the accomplishments and work ethics of the cohorts of students I see hired each year. Overall, along with excellent academic and professional accomplishments they also all had other positive personal attributes like pleasing manners, and there is no question in my mind that they would be successful in life. I just wonder about the unseen attributes of people who are so accomplished at so young an age, and how healthy an organization is likely to be that uniformly selects for them over many years.

There is more than one career path within a law firm and often the decisions of which to follow are made when associates are several years past their call dates. At that point the individuals can choose to stay or leave based on what they see as their likely paths, their own goals, and personal motivations. I believe this is a cause of attrition among early career legal professionals from law firms, which builds inefficiency into the investment made in student training and hiring.

If law firms made an effort to hire a more diverse cohort of students with differing goals and provide more diverse career paths, it might make it easier to have a healthy workplace where competitiveness is not as dominant. It is already known that every student hired by a firm will not end up on the partnership track—there simply aren’t enough spots for that. So why not hire some people who may never be partnership material? A brief consideration of possible roles to consider in recruiting lawyers in a large firm gives me this list: rainmaker, research lawyer, knowledge management lawyer, support lawyer, and technical subject specialist. If hiring isn’t well considered, firms may have to headhunt to fill roles like these, but leave a large number of the students who have been expensively trained underutilized or preparing to leave.

Because the same skills that make a person excel scholastically are not necessarily the same as those that make someone a successful driver of new business, it might also improve the bottom line for the firm over time. In fact I know many senior members of the bar who have had very successful careers and, from what I can tell, somewhat spotty academic records. Hiring more people who are collaborative and socially active, may increase the value of the firm to clients by increasing the ability to pull experts from across the firm into matters as required as well as improving the collegiality of the firm as a whole by improving the balance of personalities.

This brings me back to what this has to do with knowledge management: I would argue that theoretically this all has to do with knowledge management, but I realize it would be difficult to implement in practice. Hiring selection decisions are perhaps rightly beyond the purview of knowledge management staff, but developing metrics of what makes a new hire effective is not. There is room to explore what kind of organization a firm wants to be and start assessing what kinds of traits to look for and what interventions to try to develop it. I suspect it would end up having the side effect of creating a more demographically diverse workforce too.

I would like to thank Euan Sinclair who helped me develop my thoughts on this subject over lunch.

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