The Human Value of Knowledge

March 1, 2005

Staff – a law firm’s greatest expense
Staff, both fee earning and support, are a law firm’s greatest expense as well as its greatest asset.  Firms need to maximise the return on their investment. 

Good staff are hard to find and, like clients, no longer stay with the same firm for life.  To succeed in this increasingly competitive market place, law firms need to:

  • attract the best staff
  • once there, make sure they stay
  • support them so that they become effective and profitable as early as possible
  • encourage them to share their knowledge for the benefit of the firm so that the firm becomes more than the sum of its individual parts, and all the knowledge of its staff does not leave with them.

We believe knowledge management can make a positive impact on the recruitment, development and retention of the best lawyers at all stages of their career and enhance the human value of a law firm.  This may seem obvious but our research with the SCL KM Group suggests that this is an area that firms should focus on more.  In this article, we reflect on current perceptions, highlight opportunities for and barriers to change and provide guidance on relevant KM tools.

Knowledge as a recruitment tool – a missed opportunity?
Many law firms have invested significant time and money in knowledge management tools, processes and people.  At the same time a firm’s highest cost is its lawyers, not just their high salaries but also the cost of hiring, training, and, if all goes wrong, replacing them.

Considering these two expensive investments, it would seem natural that both are used to exploit and enhance the other – but this is rarely the case.  Our discussions with a number of law firms and a leading legal recruitment agency suggest that many firms are not selling the benefit of KM to recruits effectively. 

The majority of lawyers do not appear to consider knowledge management as a factor when seeking a new position and do not make the connection between the availability of good knowledge management and the positive impact that this can have on their careers.  Any connection that is made is strongest amongst graduates and younger lawyers starting out on their career and fades with seniority.  At best it is informed curiosity without any real understanding of the potential of knowledge management; most are neutral, taking the ability to tap into the firm’s knowledge for granted but rarely using it.  At worst, there is no interest in it at all.

This negative perception was reinforced by our survey of lawyers and KM professionals at a recent SCL KM Group meeting.  We asked if they were given any information about knowledge management within their law firm before they joined it, either:

  • on the law firm’s website
  • in the job advertisement
  • through their recruitment agency
  • volunteered by the firm at interview or
  • provided at interview in answer to their questions.

Less than 10% of the lawyers/KM professionals working in law firms who responded were given any information about the firm’s knowledge management capabilities before the interview stage, only 43% of firms raised knowledge management at interview and only 33% of those interviewed questioned their interviewers about it.



A perfect world of knowledge management
To challenge this lack of recognition of the value of KM in staff recruitment, development and retention, we devised a workshop for the SCL KM Group focusing on lawyers at different stages of their career.  For each of our “8 Faces of Know-How”, we presented ideal scenarios where knowledge management tools are available and used to their full potential and asked the group to consider these in the context of their own and their firm’s experience.

A summary of the scenarios and workshop responses is set out in Table B and shows the tangible benefits of KM at all stages of a lawyer’s career.

Table B – The 8 Faces of Know-how

Stage of career

Knowledge aspirations

Benefits to the lawyer and firm if achieved

Graduate Recruit

·          Open sections of knowledge systems to “signed up” recruits whilst at law school.

·          Mentoring and shadowing.

·          Extensive training programme.

·          Access to the firm’s knowledge and experts.

·          Learning development and career progression mapped out.

·          Recruit will value and be part of firm’s culture prior to “Day 1”. 

·          Firm will get better educated lawyers.

·          Lawyer can “hit the ground running” and obtain interesting work at an earlier stage.

·          Lawyer with a clear career and learning roadmap stays motivated and develops more quickly.


·          Mentoring and work shadowing.

·          Trainee pack and individual training with on-line refreshers.

·          Working with PSL one day a week.

·          Transaction toolkits, document assembly.

·          Trainee development plan.

·          Knows where to find help fast.

·          Training available at all times.

·          Up and running quickly on transactions.

·          Knows how career is progressing.

Ambitious Lateral Hire

·          Know-how online on topic pages.

·          Client and experts’ information online.

·          Online training.

·          Contribution to knowledge management part of partner selection criteria.

·          Seminars on client-related topics.

·          Up and running quickly in a new firm. 

·          Fully briefed for client meetings. 

·          Expert assistance at hand. 

·          Time for more interesting work.

·          Contributes to knowledge management.

Over-worked Senior Associate

·          Know-how and experts’ information online.

·          Videos of missed training sessions.

·          Focused current awareness.

·          After action reviews.

·          Dealrooms.

·          Client and industry information.

·          Development programme for senior associates.

·          Contribution to knowledge management reflected in appraisals.

·          Able to give clients informed advice.

·          Constantly learning to improve on performance.

·          Maps progress to partnership.

·          Contributes to knowledge management.

Lawyer Seeking Greater Life/Work Balance

·          Full knowledge management resources available through portal at any time from anywhere.

·          Training and support available online.

·          Career alternatives, such as secondment to knowledge management, home working.

·          Work can be done away from the office.

·          Focus on more rewarding work.

·          Range of possibilities for different life/work balances.

Managing Partner

·          Excellent knowledge management and training programme available, used and contributed to.

·          Attracts the best staff. 

·          Clients have access to selected know-how.

·          Seniors can delegate to more effective junior staff and do more value-added work.

·          Greater profitability.

Retiring Expert

·          Consultancy arrangement.

·          Mentoring.

·          Making introductions at marketing events.

·          Giving training sessions.

·          Drafting and reviewing know-how.

·          Writing books, articles.

·          Continued use of knowledge and experience for firm’s benefit.

·          Assists junior staff to network.

·          Improved training sessions and know-how.


Alumni Manager

·          Alumni database.

·          Social events.

·          Briefs and bulletins.

·          Client seminars.

·          Access to know-how and discussion groups.

·          Keeps firm in touch with valuable client contacts.

·          Less know-how is taken away when people leave the firm.

·          No embarrassing refusal of access to know-how.

Why the perfect world is not with us yet
We also asked the group to consider the barriers law firms have to overcome in this context and they identified the following.

  • Although knowledge management can make a difference when all else is equal, it does not compete with salary and benefits in most lawyers’ minds.

  • Lawyers are not necessarily aware of the knowledge management tools that are available nor how to use them.

  • Lawyers are keen to benefit from available knowledge but not to contribute their own personal knowledge.

  • Some lawyers are IT illiterate and reluctant to admit to it.

  • Providing incentives to share knowledge is hard, especially when lawyers’ main concern is fee-earning work and immediate client demands.

  • Firms do not have the resources available to set up or maintain knowledge management tools and this is not seen as a priority.

  • The quality and currency of knowledge management content is hard to maintain.

  • More resources can just add to lawyers’ information overload.

  • There are risk management concerns about sharing know-how with staff before they join or after they have left the firm.

These barriers reflect the importance of cultural and business process issues to KM initiatives, particularly regarding lawyer recognition and participation.

Exploiting the HR value of KM

This is clearly an area worthy of greater focus by law firms.  For many involved in our workshop, it was the first time they had considered KM in the context of staff recruitment, development and retention.  We believe there are real opportunities for firms to bring together their KM and HR strategies and focus on using KM tools to bring specific business results.

In the remainder of this article, we look at some of the knowledge management tools that are likely to underpin any strategic focus in this area.    

1. Know-how
Know-how is an integral part of any knowledge management system, but documents alone are not enough.  To get the maximum value from know-how, it needs to be set in context.  This can be done, for example, by the use of metadata about the document, by making it a document that can be assembled by using document assembly software, by adding practice notes and checklists, and by grouping applicable know-how around subjects or matters.
2. Current awareness
Keeping lawyers up to date with the law has become increasingly difficult.  The law has become more complex and information about it is instantly accessible from ever increasing sources.  Knowledge management tools such as internal newsletters, pre-selected sources of information, and team meetings to discuss current awareness can provide lawyers with very focused current awareness.
3. Expertise and skills
Collecting information about skills and expertise is invaluable.  Finding the right colleague means that no lawyer has to reinvent the wheel or advise on areas he is not confident in, and clients can be provided promptly with expert advice.
4. Client and industry knowledge
Just as client loyalty to a law firm has diminished, clients are also more demanding.  They expect their lawyers to know them, their business and the market they operate in.  Collating information on all aspects of a client and making it available gives lawyers a head start.

5. Accessibility, availability and usability
Items 1 to 4 all require not only that this information is collected but also that the lawyers:

a. can easily find the right source for the information they require at all hours and from any physical location (eg on intranets or portals)

b. find it easy to use and locate information within a source (eg taxonomies, good search engines)

c. if they do not know how to use it, have training immediately available (eg on-line)

d. can see that the materials are kept up to date (out-of-date materials are deleted regularly)

e. can easily contribute information (by e-mail or ticking a box).

6. After-action review
Reviewing what has happened in a matter soon after it has been completed, both good and bad, is an excellent way of learning from, sharing and recording the knowledge gained.

7. Professional and personal development
Training is one of the best ways of passing on knowledge from senior to junior lawyers, and enables those junior lawyers to be more effective.  This no longer just applies to legal skills but also to personal skills, since if a firm wants its lawyers to be fully effective they have to function well in all aspects of their career.
8. Career progression and flexibility
Although it is not strictly knowledge management, career progression and providing career flexibility cannot be ignored when considering human value.  Lawyers’ career paths are no longer straightforward and they need to have their career mapped out and assessed at all stages so they can measure their own progress and make choices.
9. Mentoring and shadowing
Mentoring gives lawyers someone with whom to discuss day-to-day problems.  Work shadowing enables lawyers, especially junior ones, to acquire knowledge by example.
10. Reward for sharing knowledge
All the knowledge management tools mentioned above require lawyers to share their knowledge and experience.  Since this is their value to the firm, they are understandably reluctant to do so, especially when they have fee-earning work and demanding clients  to deal with.  The only way lawyers will contribute is if they are rewarded for doing so.  This can be done in a number of ways such as making contribution part of the appraisal process or route to partnership or making it compulsory to spend a certain number of hours on know-how. 
Meeting the challenge
However small or large the firm, a properly defined and co-ordinated investment in knowledge management will enhance its human value.  This will involve not only setting up core knowledge management tools but also making sure that the culture encourages and rewards contribution to knowledge management at all levels and that all lawyers, and potential recruits, are aware of the tools and their benefit. 

Ruth Ward is  the Central Know-how Manager  at Allen & Overy LLP.

Shelagh Taylor is Knowledge Manager at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP.

This article represents the personal views of the authors rather than the views of their respective firms.