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Has Knowledge Management’s Moment Finally Arrived?

After more than 100 meetings over the last six months with law firms of all sizes in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, I noticed a pattern. When leaders talked about their biggest worries — whether competitive threats from the Big Four or elsewhere, the relentless battle for talent or an uncertain economic future — I found what consistently worried them was more fundamental: unleveraged knowledge.

Guy Adams

Most don’t have firmwide holistic knowledge about their clients and the industries in which they compete. As a result, they don’t know what opportunities they’re missing. They also either don’t capture enough data about the work they’ve done for clients that can help them win future business, or fail to unlock the true value of that data. The same kinds of knowledge gaps appear around their talent. What experiences do their lawyers have? What experiences should they have? Ditto for business processes. How do they share best practices in areas like business pitches, so they’re not constantly reinventing the wheel?

Knowledge management is hardly new, but the conditions are now optimal for its rapid ascension in strategic prioritization. Many firms have spent the last few decades pulling the major competitive levers available, whether it’s mergers, offshoring, outsourcing, new fee modeling or resource allocation. Until recently, most have ignored perhaps the most powerful key to profitability: knowledge management.


Knowledge — information that can be captured and shared about markets, clients, business processes, previous work and talent — is the fuel for any firm. But historically, that knowledge has been hard to capture and share. It has lived in dusty file cabinets, in the heads of individuals or, more recently, in siloed technology systems. The result has been inefficient processes, frustrated lawyers and often ill-served clients.

Knowledge management can make firms efficient and smarter by putting valuable information into the hands of the right people who can better leverage it. One of the most common reasons lawyers leave their firms is the frustration that comes with inefficient processes. For firms that get knowledge management right, there is an opportunity to not just avoid alienating their talent, but to delight them.

“One of the most common reasons lawyers leave their firms is the frustration that comes with inefficient processes. For firms that get knowledge management right, there is an opportunity to not just avoid alienating their talent, but to delight them.”

It’s been over five decades since management theorist Peter Drucker popularized the phrase “knowledge economy.” But ironically, law firms, among the first organizations to sell applied knowledge and experience, have taken a long time to even consider fully exploiting the efficiencies that come with knowledge management. With the healthy profits firms have enjoyed over that time, they can be forgiven for not deeming it a priority.

But a tight knowledge strategy is more crucial in today’s hyper-competitive landscape. Other professional services firms — for example, private equity shops — have led the way. A select group of innovative law firms is not far behind. Some have board-level chief knowledge or data officers, positions that didn’t widely exist a decade ago.

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Conceived properly, efficient knowledge management can improve just about anything a law firm does. A few of the major areas include:  

Business development: Imagine a firm pitching a client on a mergers and acquisitions deal. What if that firm could tell the client the exact number of transactions it had done in the same industry, requiring negotiation of the same clauses and involving the same legal issues that could arise in a Delaware court? As a general counsel once told me, a firm that brings that level of data to a pitch is nearly impossible to pass over.

Talent development: Thanks to the billable hour and constant use of tools like Microsoft 365, law firms sit on mountains of data about their lawyers. But few do much with it. If they did, law firms could learn a lot about how their lawyers work and with whom they interact. Based on that knowledge, law firms could then establish a set of metrics to spot potential areas where lawyers are missing the experiences they need. Firms could also use the data, for example, to help assess the effectiveness of a lawyer’s time spent on business development based on the number of new business relationships they established over a certain period.  

Operational efficiency: Law firms are filled with intelligent people who can handle just about any client request. But that doesn’t mean they can do it efficiently. An effective knowledge management system that allows each person to tap into the vast depth of a firm’s collective relevant experience and work product can help a firm deliver better and faster service.  


The good news is that law firms gather more data than ever. And that information is now digitized, making it easier to share. In addition, technology today can seamlessly integrate into easily accessible tools to better facilitate that collaboration. 

But building a knowledge management infrastructure isn’t easy. It’s hard and messy work. It’s one thing to collect data; it’s quite another to organize it into useful solutions and approaches. Even establishing a common taxonomy and consistent data governance protocols is complex.

Another challenge: the psychological weight of making any change. Many firm leaders will say such an enormous undertaking is impossible, and firms who have tried to tackle this in one go would probably tend to agree. My advice is to start small. Focus on collecting, cleansing and better visualizing data from a small group of key clients. Experiment with the results. Iterate. Then expand the scope as the firm sees the results and starts to understand the potential.

Knowledge management is a journey. Digitizing data was just the preparation. It’s time for many law firms to take their first real steps.