Event Review: New Professionals Guide to Knowledge Management in Legal Services

Our thanks to Shona Thoma for writing this review of the New Professional’s Guide to KM in Legal Services. Shona Thoma graduated from University College Dublin in 2013 with a Masters in Library and Information Studies. She is currently working for Trócaire, an International Development Organisation, as Knowledge Management Intern. Shona writes about all things information in her blog Information Sauce and you can also find her on Twitter.

Knowledge Management at A&L Goodbody

On Wednesday 7th May I visited the Dublin office of A&L Goodbody to attend SLA Europe’s first Irish event; New Professionals Guide to Knowledge Management in Legal Services. It was a really eye opening session and I have to admit I was surprised at how advanced Knowledge Management is in the legal profession.

Paula Reid, who leads the Knowledge team at A&L Goodbody introduced the important role that knowledge plays in a successful law firm and the structure of the department. In the Dublin offices, there is a whole team  working on Knowledge Management. This team is made up of lawyers and library and information professionals.

When it comes to sharing knowledge and encouraging knowledge capture and exchange, there are both human and business risks to overcome. Trainees or those who are more inexperienced can be shy of sharing a report they have written with the whole firm. Staff are of course busy and don’t prioritise sharing their knowledge and experiences. They also don’t often report difficulties they have had sourcing information. As a knowledge or information professional, Paula advised always actively looking for opportunities to improve the knowledge service provided. You have to keep an ear out for conversations that are happening around resources and the currency of information available to the lawyers and capitalise on this.

Another significant challenge is the sheer volume of resources for the legal profession and keeping on top of legal developments. There is a need to sort through the sources and consider how important a piece of information is and if it does need to be captured on the knowledge system.

Why is Knowledge Management needed?

Tangible knowledge, in the form of all internal written documents, is accessible within the firm on the “know how” database – except for some restrictions due to sensitivity and security. This knowledge is partner approved and has summaries written of each article. Two paralegals are assigned to analyse for keywords and abstract it. This database is now very evolved at A&L Goodbody, holding a wealth of knowledge. The starting point for finding knowledge is the propriety database. Importantly, Paula pointed out that “know how” often leads to “know who”, so even if the article isn’t exactly what you are looking for you can find the author and seek further advice.

Paula talked about the type of email we have all seen, that does the rounds asking “Has anybody ever looked at…?” These requests are generally unproductive and can be very frustrating when you know that someone has previously researched the area you need information on, but you cannot find who was responsible. Good Knowledge Management can help to reduce the instances of this.

The tangible documentation that the conversations generates such as a transaction bible, emails, and memoranda are analysed and keywords are added for addition to the database. The broader implications from the transaction and the lessons for the future are more difficult to document. The Knowledge team at A&L Goodbody try to organise a reflective conversation after a transaction is complete with the whole team that was involved. They look at the jams, the innovations and how decisions were made. Tacit knowledge is often what guides these decisions so they take time to analyse what informed the decisions. The things that weren’t done and brainstorming outcomes might still be useful afterwards so they are documented too. After a transaction is complete no one wants to talk about it, just like any of us when we finish a large project. It is difficult to persuade the lawyers to sit down to talk over their experience and navigating this is an issue for knowledge teams in many different contexts. Paula’s team are starting an initiative called Legal Process Mapping which aims to give more structure to identifying gaps, learnings, intuitive skills needed, what juniors were weak at and what new skills senior staff need. I found this interesting as I am finding in my current research that staff appreciate more formalised channels for knowledge sharing. This process mapping is especially useful to the knowledge team for highlighting training requirements in library skills.

The Library Professional

Paula rightly reminded us that everyone is looking for reliable and up-to-date information, this is not unique to the legal profession, but the need for accuracy and currency of information is sometimes higher.

As Paula wrapped up her part of the presentation she was keen to emphasise that the knowledge team is highly valued and trusted by the lawyers. Trust is important as lawyers need to know they are being provided with the most accurate, complete and current information. This trust is built up over time and is based on previous good results. Paula handed over to Lauren, one of the team’s two knowledge assistants, who she informed us is well trusted with requests for information because the lawyers know that she will leave no stone unturned.

Lauren then detailed more about her role as a library professional and the part she plays on the knowledge team. There is a very broad remit to being a librarian in a law firm, and research is not limited to requests for cases. It is a challenging environment and there is a need to give more support now to lawyers with a quicker turnaround time expected on requests. Greater efficiency is required in meeting these demands and the knowledge team needs to constantly innovate to meet these needs. The combination of quick turnaround and the high volume of resources to check can be stressful at times and the lawyers sometimes don’t understand how much needs to be done to come back with results. Despite this, I gained the impression from Paula and Lauren that the team is very supportive, and that Knowledge Management is valued throughout the firm.

It wouldn’t be a Library and Information event without some mention of job titles, and Lauren obligingly talked us through some of the titles she has had over the years relating to knowledge and information roles in the legal profession. Some were more succinct than others, but Lauren said she believes that for what she currently does the term Librarian is just too limiting. I can see that in this environment it is important that people recognise your role and have the right perception of the work you do. In the legal profession, as with many others, people will more automatically think of books and hard copy materials when thinking of the library. “Research Centre”, “Information Centre” or “Knowledge Centre” offers a better reflection of the professional service offered and the move away from hard copy. There is no room for misconceptions about the library professional being gate keepers to static resources.

From gatekeeper to information consultant

Both Paula and Lauren noted how important it is that the staff don’t just see the Knowledge Centre as a repository. Engaging with users is critical to meeting their needs and maintaining the knowledge team’s relevancy within the firm.

Lawyers often come to the Knowledge Centre to discuss the best approach to their research and the resources they need to look at before they begin. Requests can at times be vague and there is a need for the lawyers, particularly trainees, to be aware that they cannot get full returns on their requests if they don’t provide the full story to the library professional. Often trainees gain from talking through their research before they begin so that they can clarify for themselves what they need to do.

Trainees are on a two year programme with the firm and undergo mandatory Legal Research Training, this is followed up with informal drop in training and refresher courses as needed. At the trainees’ initial training Lauren sets information tasks that they need to carry out within two weeks, this includes a few curve balls that require visiting the Knowledge Centre to get the best answer – she also increases the incentive to complete the tasks with chocolate! For staff that have been at the firm for longer, it is not easy to get them to come to training. Lauren spoke about taking the initiative with them, and setting up meeting requests and generally being quite persistent. A lot of training opportunities happen on the fly and “just-in-time”. I think this needs to be reiterated to us new professionals in particular and is probably worth remembering if rounding up participants for information skills workshops.

The library professionals, or knowledge assistants, are valued for their familiarity with resources and ability to use them appropriately. They deal with the materials constantly and have a broad awareness of the resources and their relative strengths. The ability to discern the best source is not a skill that the lawyers naturally possess, and although they develop this over time with particular resources, the knowledge assistants can save them time.

Challenges and improvisation

The Knowledge Centre needs to be aligned with the overall strategy of the firm to ensure its viability. The knowledge team are constantly engaging and interacting with lawyers, working on building up the relationship with them and the trust they have in the knowledge team. This is increasingly being extended to clients too in the form of legislative updates and business information. The Knowledge team provide a current awareness service, tracking the publication of acts and bills. Monitoring the Oireachtas and other government sites, and updating their systems when items are published that will impact on business. The knowledge team can confirm the currency of resources, acts or developments in the legal systems for lawyers and clients.

The challenges that face the legal profession particularly are around information overload with rapid developments in legalities. There can be a nervousness over missing some vital piece of information. Knowing when to stop a search and that you have found enough is really important. Changes to the law, the legal environment, technology and resources all impact on the user needs and how they are evolving.

They are now experiencing the impacts of trainees who are “born digital” which is also influencing the need for increased resilience. They expect much a quicker return of information and often expect to find everything themselves with their own technical skills. Lauren notes that these trainees still need support in navigating the best resources and databases available at A&L – as research is increasingly indicating to us more that these users do not necessarily possess critical skills needed to narrow down searches.

As a new professional who has often found myself overwhelmed by the extent of activities involved in Knowledge Management, it was fascinating to hear about the successful operation of a well-established Knowledge team. From the involvement of partners to the division of tasks, there was a huge amount to learn from both Paula and Lauren. It was also interesting to discover more about the challenges that exist in providing knowledge services to the firm, and how they have met these challenges with innovation to remain viable and valued. Huge thanks is owed to all those who helped to plan and deliver this event as it is certainly an area that new professionals should stay alert to.