General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 3
April/May 2000

Knowledge Management 101


Unlike traditional businesses, law firms do not have much in the way of capital assets. Besides some office furniture, books, and computer equipment that has outlived its useful life, the law business is mostly accounts receivable and billed fees. However, smart firms are starting to understand that they also have intellectual capital-the combined knowledge, expertise, and judgment of the attorneys in the firm. The value of this intellectual capital is hard to measure in dollars, but is equally hard to acquire except through long years of experience. So how can a firm leverage this intellectual capital? The key is knowledge management.

Knowledge management has been around for a few years, though most in the legal profession have only considered it consulting buzzspeak. You do not necessarily need a high-priced consultant to bring knowledge management to your firm particularly if you are in a small firm. All you need is time and commitment to the endeavor.

The first step is self-assessment. Determine what intellectual capital you have within the firm. This includes the knowledge in each person's head, collected materials such as research and case files, and forms libraries. The latter is actually a rudimentary form of knowledge management that firms have been using for years. Instead of reinventing the wheel, most lawyers use tried-and-true forms that can be easily adapted. Thus, they are leveraging their intellectual capital to get their work done and deliver value to the client. Accumulating all this intellectual capital will inevitably involve some culling and sorting, but eventually you should reduce everything down to a treasure trove of knowledge.

The next step is to create a knowledge map. Document where knowledge resides within the firm and how it is stored. This includes both knowledge in people's heads as well as that in drawers and folders. A knowledge map provides everyone with a quick means of determining who has information on anything from admiralty to zoning. The knowledge map should be widely available to everyone and should be kept current. In very small organizations, this step may not be necessary, but it could provide a way to validate the knowledge that you do possess.

Next, you should consider how knowledge can be repurposed and distributed throughout the firm. Technology has provided many alternatives; you should pick the one that fits your firm and its culture. For example, you could deploy a document management system or an intranet. In most cases, the process of automating your knowledge management will bring the effort to a new level as you begin to understand the magnitude of the problem and the richness of your knowledge.

A successful knowledge management initiative will also consider the people issues. Knowledge management will create a knowledge economy. Like any economy, there will be sellers, buyers, and brokers. Sellers are those with the knowledge and buyers are those who need knowledge or know-how. The key to success is to facilitate a free exchange of knowledge and information. Sellers must receive value or they will likely hoard their knowledge. This may involve recognition, compensation, or other creative means of exchange.

The most important players in this economy are the brokers. These brokers bring sellers and buyers together. These people are sprinkled throughout any organization. For example, in many law firms, the law librarian is a knowledge broker. These people must be empowered as knowledge champions and are excellent candidates for spearheading your knowledge management effort.

Knowledge management is a continual process. Just like knowledge is acquired slowly and over a long course of time, knowledge management is the same. The key is to get started. So don't delay.

J. Michael Jimmerson is an attorney, author and legal technologist. Michael is the CIO at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago. He is the co-author of A Survival Guide for Road Warriors, a best-selling book on mobile computing for lawyers, published by the American Bar Association. He can be reached via phone at 312/704-3350 or via e-mail at

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