The Knowledge Management of External Content

March 1, 2003

Law firms are notoriously reluctant to divulge how much they spend on subscriptions to external content. However, there is no doubt that the figures are significant. Our research shows that the annual cost, in a Top 10 UK firm, of subscriptions to essential legal and business online information sources will be in the order of £500,000, (and more than this in the Magic Circle firms). Printed journals and hard-copy publications will increase the total subscription budget to over £1 million. Add to this the cost of library and information staff, infrastructure, IT services, training and support, and the firm’s total investment in external content will be doubled or trebled to £2-3 million or more.

In a mid-range firm, the total will, of course, be smaller but it will still be significant. We estimate that in most firms the cost of external content, including online information sources, books, journals and loose-leaf publications, plus library staff and support infrastructure, will be well over £1,000 per lawyer. For a firm with around 100 fee earners this represents an investment of over £100,000, each and every year.

A recent survey by Perceptive Technology showed that more firms are spending more money on KM projects. Of the firms surveyed, 30% have now invested over £1 million over the past two-to-three years on their KM projects, with as much as 75% of this sum spent on IT systems alone. Yet very little of this budget is spent on gaining more value from their investments in purchasing and providing firm-wide access to published legal and business information. Why is this?

Firstly “Big Technology” has been better at marketing in this area than “Big Publishing.” It is surprising how many people still spend large sums of money on the basis of seductive demonstrations, only to find, as is always the case with KM, that the devil is in the detail and systems prove more difficult to implement than originally anticipated. Unfortunately, whatever your IT vendor may tell you, search engines and KM systems designed to retrieve information from largely unstructured internal sources, such as the firm’s document management system, are rarely up to the very different task of selecting, filtering and integrating content which has already been indexed, organised and structured to a high degree by a specialist legal or business publisher. Some firms genuinely believe that their investment in building up their own knowhow repositories will in the longer run save them money on subscriptions to published content. To my knowledge no firm has ever succeeded in achieving this.

Secondly, until very recently, the legal publishers had not got their act together in distributing their content in a way that makes it more accessible. But this is now changing. Everyone knows there is a wealth of valuable information available via the publishers’ online services. What is not so well known is that a quiet revolution has been taking place over the past couple of years in how the publishers make this content available. Now, instead of expecting their users to log on to their powerful, highly functional but frequently complex and difficult to use online systems – and undertake hours of training in how to use each of these systems effectively – the major publishers have begun to release new interfaces (known as APIs or application programming interfaces) that enable their law firm customers to take published content and display it as an integral part of their own intranets, portals and knowledge management systems. LexisNexis Butterworths Tolley is leading the way in this, with Westlaw not far behind and the smaller players following fast.

Advantages of Information Vendors’ APIs

There are many advantages for the client in using the information vendors’ APIs. You have all the benefits of running your own system, but without the overheads. You don’t need expensive servers or databases to host the content. You don’t need to take a “data feed” and store vast quantities of content yourself, with all the maintenance and updating issues and problems that involves. The hard work of keeping the information current and up-to-date is delegated to the information vendors, who are doing this anyway. You still have at your disposal all the functionality, indexing and structure created by the vendors, to assist in retrieving precise results to information requests. You only take, or expose to your users, those parts of the vendors’ systems which are relevant to your own needs. You can combine content from multiple vendors within a single interface which meets your own needs. You are not locked in to a particular set of functionality or way of working, imposed by one particular vendor. And you can decide for yourself on the best look and feel to suit your own business and end users.

Outside the field of legal information, there are also significant benefits to be gained from better access to online sources of news and company information. Publishers such as Factiva, Perfect Information and ICC have been providing their content via APIs for years. This means that news and corporate information can be integrated with practice management, client information systems, extranets, CRM and marketing systems to help you win and keep new business.

In the current market, many law firms are looking to improve their client information programmes. The ideal scenario would be a combined “pull” and “push” capability. The pull facility would offer, at a single key press, the latest press stories, company reports, regulatory filings and market data from external sources, combined with up-to-date contact and billing data from the firm’s internal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Practice Management (PMS) Systems. The “push” facility would be a precisely targeted e-mail or intranet client alerting service for fee earners – something my own company, Vrisko, now does for Linklaters and Baker & McKenzie.

Some law firms have gone a step further, and are using external content to support their clients, through providing a managed and tailored view of published content on their client extranets. The argument made is that there is a large and unsatisfied demand for specialist legal information from in-house counsel, who do not wish to learn all the complexities of how to search these systems effectively and who do not have the resources of a specialist legal information and research team to help them do this and are therefore receptive to an added value service from their external advisors. The leader in this field is Eversheds, who have developed their Knowledge Banks extranet service in close collaboration with LexisNexis Butterworths Tolley to meet the demand from in-house counsel at their corporate clients.


But beware. As always, here too the devil is in the detail. At Vrisko we have encountered many common mistakes over the past four years that we have been developing and implementing systems which interface to vendors’ APIs.

To take just one example. Before letting your people loose on these exciting new products and interfaces, make sure they understand the commercial realities of the information industry and the sensitivities and valid concerns of the Information vendors. We know of at least two companies, fortunately not law firms, where the first thing the IT department did was write simple programs to download vast quantities of content from the publishers’ sites and dump it in their own systems. Why they wanted to do this, I don’t know. It’s like driving past the British Library in a bulldozer, seeing a door open, shovelling all the books onto a fleet of trucks and then leaving them somewhere in a heap. As one Head of Information said to me: “the last thing we want to do is spend money building our own databases of publicly available information.”

With so many advantages for the client, APIs can create a dilemma for some vendors, who are afraid that they are losing control of the desktop and the way their content is used, to the client. Twenty years ago, as online systems started to replace the printed word, similar issues were debated. Publishers agonised over pricing models for online access and devised new contracts and terms of use. Nowadays, vendors may seek to place all kinds of restrictions on the way content retrieved via APIs is used. Some restrictions, such as copyright limitations or branding guidelines, are eminently reasonable. Other restrictions are more questionable and in our view should be strongly resisted by clients; such as a requirement that at certain points in the information search and retrieval process (for example, when downloading a specific document) the users have to leave their internal business system and enter the vendor’s own product.

Implications for KM Strategy

So what implications does this have for your KM strategy? To answer this question you need to ask why do most law firms invest in KM in the first place?

The reasons usually given are to protect their “Crown jewels” and mitigate the effects of their most valuable assets walking out of the door if key staff leave or are poached by a rival firm. But another approach is to attract new staff through making the firm a more attractive place to work in. Improved client satisfaction is equally important, through lowering the barriers between the firm and its clients, and another factor is the fear of losing business and clients through not having relevant information to hand. These are all worthy objectives. Some of these goals, such as the capture and protection of the firm’s knowhow assets, can be achieved only through developing an excellent internal KM system. Other KM goals, such as achieving internal efficiencies, through saving lawyers’ time and reducing training costs, or lowering the barriers between the firm and your clients, may be achieved equally well, at lower cost, through making better use of the external content to which you already subscribe to.

Why then, if some significant KM goals can be met equally well, if not better, through the use of external content, is it not higher up most firms’ agenda? Maybe the real answer lies in the internal organisation and management structure in the firm. It is an area which no one department sees as their primary responsibility and so nothing gets done. In our view, the best systems are those which are built by independent experts, who have a detailed understanding of all three of the key factors needed to ensure a successful project – content, technology and business objectives.

On the law firm’s side, projects need to be sponsored by the partners and managed and controlled by the IT and Knowledge and Information departments, working together. In these cases everyone wins. The fee earners and other end users, such as marketing, have better and easier access to business critical information, the Knowledge and Information Department maintain their responsibility for the quality, cost and centralised administration of high-value, subscribed for, content, and the IT function keeps control of issues such as IT strategy, system integration, data integrity, security and performance.

Chris Knowles is Managing Director of independent search specialists Vrisko Limited.

He can be contacted by email at