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Technology

How law firms can move from human to institutional knowledge

Human knowledge is a beautiful thing. It’s flexible, adaptable, and can be applied in many contexts. People and their knowledge can help solve challenging new problems in creative, unique ways.

But what about teaching new people to solve old problems? Or finding answers when the expert is out of town?

Law firms are recognizing that systematizing knowledge and processes can help them better serve their clients, support their employees, and improve the firm’s overall health. They are making cultural shifts and taking advantage of technology and tools that make it easier to create repeatable processes and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Help attorneys get up to speed

Often knowledge management and training have focused on helping associates learn a firm’s particular way of doing things. New associates come out of law school understanding how to think like a lawyer, and then firms — especially the largest ones — teach them how to lawyer according to the firm’s best practices and style.

In many fast-paced legal environments, attorneys may learn the firm-prescribed way of approaching a matter from one or two busy mentors — passed down verbally with a few model documents to demonstrate the message.

Firms can build on this personal knowledge with practical, curated advice from the legal tech world. For instance, the Dynamic Q&A feature in Practical Law combines the power of artificial intelligence with the editorial expertise of over 600 editors to give new and seasoned attorneys a place to start with matters that are new to them.

Give time back to the most seasoned attorneys

Not only does Practical Law give new associates or anyone who needs to get up to speed a better starting point, it also frees up time for mentors. Their time is extremely valuable, and this tool allows the firm’s most seasoned attorneys to spend time on whatever the firm needs most, whether that’s business development or high-stakes cases. Full-time mentorship is often not where they can (or should) spend the majority of their time.

Some major firms take it even further than teaching a particular method or approach. They systematize matters so that everyone follows essentially the same process to deliver exceptional client service efficiently and consistently. Seyfarth Shaw, for instance, has adapted Lean Six Sigma to its legal practice. Legal professionals at the firm use hundreds of legal and operational process maps as well as automation tools and collaboration platforms that reduce manual effort.

The Dynamic Tool Set from Thomson Reuters Practical Law facilitates this consistent knowledge transfer for firms that want to start with established expertise and process. It also allows attorneys to customize based on their experience.

Setting up clear and effective processes for common matters and tasks helps attorneys avoid spending time creating their own way. As a result, they can spend more time developing and applying their legal expertise.

Better serve clients

Serving clients effectively means being clear about what you can say “yes” to and what you need to refer to another attorney or even another firm. Having easy access to the know-how and wisdom of seasoned legal professionals within your firm and through industry-leading tools helps attorneys say “yes” to more matters, even when they are outside their exact area of expertise. With the right tools, an attorney can instill confidence in a client even when the matter presents some unknowns or is in a less familiar practice area.

Clients are also keen to see more predictability in matter pricing. To deliver this predictability and still grow profits, firms need to assess the cost of delivering a matter accurately. They can compare that cost to market norms to set a retail rate. Institutional processes allow firms to offer flat-rate pricing with confidence that they will be able to deliver the work and still profit from it.

Improve the law firm’s health

Process maps and clear guidance on best practices help seasoned attorneys move between practice areas and help new associates deliver billable work more quickly. Both factors help firms take on more work. Happy clients tend to give more work to the firms that serve them best.

Retaining clients and retaining employees are both good for revenue. Firms see topline growth in new client engagements and bottom-line health as attorneys can get farther faster. What’s more, as attorneys work more quickly within established processes, firms are likely to see higher profitability per matter and overall, as attorneys deliver more value in less time.

Prepare the firm for the future

Future-thinking law firms will see how much risk there is in having key knowledge and capabilities locked up with individuals who may leave or retire. And while work to “institutionalize” knowledge can help slow down employee attrition, institutionalizing knowledge can also help protect against an inevitability: retirements. The legal profession is facing an impending “silver tsunami” of retiring Baby Boomers. Navigating this transition will require both preserving the actual work product aligned to a client and that firms make it easier for anyone to master certain types of tasks or matters.

Law firms and their clients are increasingly relying on repeatable processes and shared wisdom to work more effectively. This shift requires some cultural adjustments as everyone involved sees the work as a bit more science than complete art. With the right mindset and tools in place, however, this shift can drive better legal outcomes and help firms thrive.

See how Practical Law can prepare your firm for the future.

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