In-house KM: The Value of Law Firm Know How

March 17, 2011

In writing this article I have considered the value that I as an in-house knowledge manager and the lawyers for whom I am responsible derive from law firm bulletins. This has led me to ask questions from the perspective of the law firms. What does this value mean in terms of return on investment? What content delivers the most value to their clients? What are the most effective channels for distributing content to clients?

After asking and in part answering such questions over the last few years, it seems almost obligatory to write an article that explains my thoughts and which draws on my experience and conversations with many lawyers and KM professionals over the past four years.

One of the first questions I asked myself when I started working in the legal industry is, ‘Why do law firms write publications in the first place?’ The investment in time and effort is significant. In the face of seemingly constant complaints from clients about ‘information overload’ and ‘oh, I never read anything I receive by e-mail/by post/by pigeon’, why on earth do they continue to do so?

The answer should be in the ROI that a law firm receives from publishing bulletins. Know how ROI comes from an enhanced perception of the firm within particular industry sectors. There are two sides to this ROI coin.

On the one side publications can improve awareness of firm’s activity in a particular sector. Publications form part of a much broader marketing and business development effort that takes in seminar programmes, expensive lunches, roundtable discussions, etc. etc. In effect they serve to push a firm’s logo out into the market at every opportunity, thereby improving the firms’ brand awareness, bringing it to ‘front of mind’ of current or potential clients.

On the other side, and more useful to people in my own position, the return comes when the content enables a client to gain a full understanding of the capabilities of a firm in dealing with particular types of work and legal issues.

The two sides of the return coin require different levels of investment but both are achievable with a good content strategy and a full understanding of: what clients are looking for in publications, how we use them and how to get us to read your publication rather than the competition’s! 

Content Types 

Before discussing the difficult issue of readership though, let’s look at the different levels of content that law firms offer. Content level is a major factor in cost of production and, of course, of the type of return you can expect to receive. I’m dividing the content into three levels:

·         Vanilla updates – a running commentary or regurgitation of legal and regulatory updates from primary sources – with no added assessment or opinion. These are low cost and frequent, contributing significantly to brand awareness when married to the right distribution channel. They can be particularly useful to clients with no access to PLC, Westlaw, LNB or similar.

·         Opinion pieces – commentary on the impact of particular legal and regulatory developments on one or more specific industry segments. Medium to high in cost, opinion pieces should deliver to the client a full understanding of the firm’s thoughts and therefore its ability to assist in managing the legal issue for the reader. Opinion pieces should be extremely sector/client focussed to ensure a full return on investment. In this environment, context is king. For example, a legal bulletin written for the defence industry is unlikely to appeal to a group of banking lawyers, although both groups may be equally interested in a topic such as the Bribery Act.

·         Thought Leadership – the ‘golden egg’ of the know how world, genuine thought leadership is the marriage between legal understanding and commercial awareness. Usually taking a macro view of events it is perhaps most easily thought of as the consultancy arm of the law firm. A law firm could commission research into a particular industry development for example and seek to write on and lead opinion in that area. Recent developments in the global regulatory architecture of the financial services industry is an example of a number of firms trying to position themselves as thought leaders with varying degrees of success. Although high in cost to research and develop, this type of content can potentially provide significant returns.

Each content type delivers value to the client. We are happy to use vanilla updates to keep up to date on legal developments. Opinion pieces are used regularly in my organisation to assess the thoughts of a firm on particular issues and consider whom to approach for further training and paid instruction.

We turn to ‘thought leaders’ for help and advice at an early stage. It is not unusual for a firm to be asked to present a series of training sessions on legal or regulatory issues on the back of thought leadership publications and round tables. That firm then becomes the ‘go to’ firm on that issue; that is lucrative for the firm and it is reassuring for the in-house counsel to have someone knowledgeable on their side.

Getting Your Content Read

The key to realising return on investment is to ensure that your publications are read by the people that matter. Distribution methods are the key factor. I have categorised these as follows.

·           Hit and Hope/Scatter gun – This consists of e-mail distribution and hard copy distribution by contact list. Hit and hope is low cost but contact lists are difficult to manage. By not differentiating in approach, you run the risk of annoying the reader with non-relevant content – not the right kind of brand identity! Unfortunately this is still the default (and often only) method used by the majority of law firms.

·           The Ivory Tower –This mechanism depends on the client knowing where the law firms are storing their publications – at best a public web site or at worst a log-in only client extranet. Although useful in gathering know how together, clients have never been willing to search across lots of sources for information. This results in minimal use of any source. The ‘Ivory Tower’ mechanism served to highlight the volume and quality of the know how that was out there, but problems with consumption led to a client backlash which resulted in the next two distribution methods.

·           Shared Channels – This is when law firms publish know how into shared distribution channels. The BLT Portal is one example of a client-driven shared distribution channel; 12 law firms make their content available to over 50 clients – resulting in over 20,000 document downloads per year. Lexology and Linex Legal are recent examples of the information broker, perhaps the oldest and certainly the most successful of which has been Practical Law Company. ‘Shared Channels’ are preferable to the ‘Ivory Tower’ approach. Presence on one or more of these solutions is probably the furthest a lot of firms are willing to travel in terms of targeted distribution.

·           The Guided Missile – This is an emergent distribution channel and one with the potential to target content most effectively. Admittedly, the guided missile has varying degrees of accuracy; this method is most effective when the client has someone coordinating on the inside. The use of RSS or similar web 2.0 technology can make it possible for clients to filter the information they value from you and feed it directly to the lawyers they know need to read it via approved internal channels. The law firm side of this set-up is actually quite simple to achieve with most modern web publishing platforms.

From a firm’s perspective, no single distribution method will work on its own. The content level dictates the choice of channel. The attraction of the more traditional ‘Hit and Hope’ and ‘Ivory Tower’ approaches is the comfort of an old blanket that no longer keeps you warm. It was expensive when you bought it and it does still (just about) manage to keep off the worst of the chill. The newer options, ‘Shared Channels’ and ‘Guided Missile’ require investment but will keep you nice and snug for the next few years.

Selecting an appropriate distribution method for your strategy is pretty important if you’re going to get return from your investment. If you are trying to increase brand awareness via vanilla updates, for example, it would be foolish to rely solely on e-mail distribution and mail shots. In the past the over-reliance on e-mail distribution has consigned large volumes of quality legal commentary to ‘trash’ and ‘[will you really?] read me later’ folders in personal e-mail accounts. Information overload is a genuine issue and despite the value inherent in many publications, results in minimal return from this distribution method.

The best approach in my opinion would be to set-up both e-mail and tagged RSS feeds from your web site. This enables clients at the very least to receive your publications by e-mail alerts. In addition it provides the flexibility for a more technologically able client to deliver specific elements of your publication suite, using RSS or something similar, via targeted internal distribution channels. To deliver opinion pieces you should combine e-mail and RSS distribution, supplementing this by publishing those articles (and I suggest only those articles for this model of return) via as many shared distribution systems as you can afford. There is often a cost involved, but that old blanket won’t keep you warm forever!

In particular, where your clients are driving a solution to the information overload problem, it would seem prudent to participate. The Banking Legal Technology group (supported by HighQ Solutions) have spent five years ensuring that their ‘BLT Portal’ has a broad client base, modern features and content from firms whose opinion they value.

What Do Clients Want?

In any discussion of law firm know how publications I am usually asked ‘what do clients want?’. This article has been written largely in response to those questions, but I am also happy to provide some specific pointers.

·          Write opinion pieces with particular clients in mind – simple to say I know and not so easy to accomplish in practice. Each practice area within a law firm should assess new legislation and write about its impact on key clients within their practice area. Don’t be afraid to write multiple pieces about the same issue, but indicate clearly the sector for which each is written.

·          Talk to your client’s knowledge manager or information officer about the best way for them to receive different types of information. I cannot speak for everyone but I have always been happy to work with our panel firms to help communicate know how and training.

·          Continue to provide vanilla updates, but state that’s what they are. The update should also provide clear signposting to more detailed analysis as and when it is made available.

·          Ensure that different levels of content are clearly signposted. An example for a vanilla update would be to add the following text as a standard footer, ‘a basic regulatory update from Sample Law Firm LLP – for more detailed analysis visit’. This would ensure that the reader knows this is not original content and that your firm has more in-depth articles available.

·          Invest in as many distribution methods as you can afford. The more channels a publication is in the more likely it is that clients will read it.

·          Measure the success of different methods of distribution and focus on what works for you and for your objectives. If you aren’t measuring the return, how do you know what/where to invest?


Over the last four years I have heard numerous discussions about the problem of information overload. More than one law firm has approached me to ask whether I would miss their publications if they were discontinued and I am consistently asked what clients value ‘most’ from their panel firm bulletins.

I personally don’t believe any single firm is able to resolve the issue of information overload on behalf of their clients. This task sits squarely within the remit of the internal knowledge manager, in whatever guise.

I hope that this article has provided some clarity regarding how know how is used within client organisations and some insight into the type of content clients value and why. I will happily admit that my own assessment of the distribution methods is biased by technology available to me and my participation on the Executive Committee of the BLT Portal. I like to think that even with this bias in mind I’m not too far off the mark.

For those that have made it to the end, remember the old Chinese proverb, ‘Only the man who crosses the river at night knows the value of the light of day’. 

Matt Whalley is responsible for HSBC’s Global Legal Knowledge Management Programme, delivering useful and useable KM to lawyers in 58 jurisdictions.