What’s Legal Knowledge Management Not About?

Money, Sex, and Technology

It’s often said that legal knowledge management is “not about technology.” Even hard-core techies readily give lip service to that proposition.

Remember Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers channeling H.L. Mencken at Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial?

When you hear somebody say, “This is not about money,” it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.

So, does it follow that legal knowledge management is about technology? Hmm.

In the world of law practice improvement initiatives, the secondariness of technology is an important truth that deserves repetition. Unless we’re careful, technology can take center stage in these efforts.

War is not about weapons. Symphonies are not about musical instruments. And law practice is not about the tools of the trade.

Veterans of even a single legal knowledge automation project know this to be true. People and process drive the success or failure of legal tech projects. You might say, “It’s the knowledge, stupid.” Or, “It’s the process, Sherlock.” Mindless deployment of technology gets us nowhere. The notion that you can install the latest/greatest software and be done is magical thinking.

Putting Tech in its Place

Three common admonitions reflect the not-about-technology principle:

1. Avoid changing processes and technology at the same time

When a practice improvement initiative involves process change, it is best not to throw new technology into the mix at the same time. For example, consider a practice group that decides to collect matter profile data, to better find precedents, identify experts, benchmark fees, and generate experience lists for pitches.

Success is more likely if the group starts with familiar tools like Word forms, e-mail, and Excel spreadsheets. The people issue of institutionalizing a new business process that requires a critical mass of lawyers will be hard enough work. When that is accomplished, automation can be added. If management introduces a new tool right when lawyers are asked to follow a new process, they may resist the process by rejecting the tool.

2. Don’t bring in new technology until the business requirements are well understood

For some new tasks, it may not be possible to create a low-tech version first. An example of this is enterprise search. Still, there are steps that should come first. One key one is to define the business needs in depth. The types of questions that lawyers would most like to answer should be compiled. The compiled questions may reveal that the firm’s existing information systems are not capable of producing answers. If lawyers want to be able to find key types of agreements used in specific types of matters, they may first need to embark on a matter profiling project.

3. Don’t automate a broken process

Automation can make a bad process more efficiently bad. For example, a group that has been drafting documents from individualized collections of precedents might be inclined to carry all the lawyer- and/or client-specific variations into its new document assembly system. Better to review the variations first, settle on those that best reflect current law and practice, and jettison the historical baggage.

On the Other Hand

So, we should de-emphasize technology, right?

Not always. It’s not bright ideas and capable people alone, but effective technological implementations, that produce the concrete results we care about. Lawyers who undervalue technology are just as troublesome as technologists who undervalue legal knowledge. For admonitions like those above we could frame counter-admonitions. For example, don’t change a process you intend to eventually automate without thinking about how that automation might change the process.

And ‘technology’ encompasses more than hardware and software. Wikipedia defines it as “the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services.” The Greeks called craft-like knowledge technê, which comes from the Indo-European root teks-, meaning “to weave or fabricate.” That’s also the root of most the significant words in one of my favorite self-quotes: “Text (inevitably open textured) and technique, after all, define the context within which the architects of legal technology must operate.” (Building legal practice systems with today’s commercial authoring tools. Artificial Intelligence and Law 1.1, 1992.)

In this conception, technology is the whole apparatus of artifacts and practices that enable us to achieve desired results. There are no sharp lines between processes and tools. The written word itself is one of our most profound technologies, as Andrew Battle’s recent book Palimpsest reminds us. Our increasingly code-driven world depends on an ‘interweaving of writing and machinery.’

Knowledge systems are inescapably human and technical. It’s a matter of balance. The tribes of lawyers and technologists may speak different languages, but must find common ground.

As with many things, what legal knowledge management and related efforts are ‘about’ is not either/or. None of the ingredients – people, knowledge, process, tools, training – are ends in themselves. And none are dispensable.

So ask not what legal knowledge management is not about. It’s not about any one thing. And it’s not not about technology.


Getting Strategic

Some Law Practice Division actives increasingly talk about “knowledge strategy” rather than “knowledge management.” They rightly view the role of tech as a servant of both strategy and operations. For more on this perspective and related ideas, check out the free webinars being offered by the division’s Knowledge Strategy Interest Group. The next one will be on Feb. 25th: “How to Compete with IBM Watson JD: Future-proof your practice by improving efficiency now – Part 2.”

And don’t forget to register for TECHSHOW, one of the premier events at which lawyers and legal technologists gather in a spirit of mutual indispensability.

About the Author

Marc Lauritsen is the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools and is president of both  Capstone Practice Systems andLegal Systematics. He’s a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and a member of the Law Practice Division’s Knowledge Strategy and Legal Project Management committees. Follow him on Twitter @MarcLauritsen. Marc would like to thank Jack Bostelman for his help with this article. 

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