Over the past few decades, technology has had a significant impact on how lawyers work. In order to stay competitive in a challenging business climate, legal professionals have had to embrace new digital trends that provide opportunities for greater efficiency. As a result, knowledge management has also had to evolve. Knowledge management is the process of capturing and distributing knowledge within an organisation. In this article, we will explore: 

  • what knowledge management used to mean;
  • why this meaning has changed; and 
  • what it means today. 

The Power of Documents

Knowledge management is the process of recording, distributing and effectively using knowledge. By capturing and reusing lawyers’ collective wisdom, knowledge management supports efficient and effective operation

Traditionally, knowledge management meant providing reliable and consistent documents and resources. This would mean either: 

  • identifying and indexing prior work product; or
  • creating and maintaining precedents. 

A work product is any substantive document that a lawyer creates, such as a contract drafted for a specific transaction. Precedents, on the other hand, are template documents that do not contain details relating to any single transaction. Therefore, lawyers can adapt and reuse them for multiple purposes. Both types of document are still extremely helpful to lawyers. 

For example, a lawyer might use a template to draft a letter. However, they might also want to look at a letter written in a similar context by another lawyer.

Legal teams progressively came to realise that knowledge management was essential to keep a record of past work and generate precedents. However, they quickly discovered that knowledge management required dedicated resources. With digitalisation, the number of available documents increased and finding the right one to use became increasingly difficult. The legal industry realised that specialist lawyers were required to: 

  • create precedents; and
  • monitor and record legal updates. 

The Challenges of Technology

Technology has posed several challenges to knowledge management systems. For example, as emails became increasingly common in the business and legal worlds, many lawyers began dispensing legal advice via email. This was a challenge for knowledge management teams, as knowledge was no longer kept in contracts, which were filed away, but rather in emails that knowledge management lawyers did not have access to. 

Lawyers also started using their email software, such as Outlook, as a way to manage documents instead of using central document management systems. As a consequence, a lot of the content they were creating was trapped on their personal computer system.

To meet the challenges of technology, a number of knowledge management tools have emerged. These include: 

  • enterprise search software; 
  • intranet portals; and 
  • legal databases.

Enterprise Search

In the mid-2000s, enterprise search was introduced. Enterprise search software made it possible to search through emails and documents on lawyers’ computers. This software does not simply search for keywords in Word and PDF documents. Instead, it organises and searches information from multiple sources, including documents, emails, matter numbers and dates.

Since the introduction of this software, the user-friendliness of an enterprise search has improved. Enterprise searches now display information based on how relevant it is to the search. Lawyers can also use filters (such as jurisdiction or document type) to narrow down the search and generally have a very good chance of finding the document they are looking for. 

Intranet Portals

Legal departments have also started using intranets as a way to manage dynamic legal content. 

Modern portals are a good way to share content because they give lawyers access to large quantities of current information. In a way, intranets have taken some aspects of a librarian’s role. However, in order for the information to be available on the intranet, humans still need to collect, categorise and update content in the background. 

For intranets to be a truly valuable tool for lawyers, the user experience must be tailored to their specific needs. This may mean that the content displayed varies depending on users’ login credentials.  

Legal Databases

Every lawyer knows how important research is to their work. 

In the past, conducting research relied heavily on documents, librarians and books. Now, however, companies have emerged that focus on legal research and offer databases of legal content to legal departments. In a connected environment, it is crucial for lawyers to stay up to date with the legal environment. This may mean outsourcing the research to specialised firms. 

However, in-house knowledge management experts also have a role to play in helping lawyers with their research. Now that all this information is readily accessible, knowledge management can be key to helping lawyers narrow down their research to actually find what they are looking for. 

Key Takeaways

Technology has affected the way lawyers work. As a result, new tools have emerged to capture and distribute the knowledge that lawyers develop. Knowledge management used to mostly refer to documents, books and other tangible resources. Today, most lawyers have access to a tremendous amount of legal content, through enterprise search, legal database and intranet portals. Consequently, the role of knowledge management today has shifted to helping lawyers narrow down that research through filters, keywords, indexes.

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Melanie Gilbert
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