Mary Abraham recently wrote about an FT survey of the most innovative law firms, which found that what the highest ranked firms share is “their commitment, their ability to adapt and to work together in the best interests of business to unusual and important effect.” But despite a great deal of investment in IT and much discussion of the role of KM and talent management functions in law firms, how much progress have most firms really made in bringing together people, process and technology in pursuit of this kind of operational excellence?
One of Mary’s concerns as a legal KM professional is to ensure this function acts as a force multiplier, rather than wasting time with low level housekeeping tasks such as arguing with IT, managing Intranets and manually classifying documents, which are all tasks that 40 of her colleagues in the field told her they spend time on.
But this is not just an issue for KM professionals. More and more firms are now exploring how they can become more efficient and at the same time leverage their intellectual assets to create value for clients. Often, this is driven by client pressure to reduce costs, but it also reflects wider challenges to the legal sector that pose the question: what value does the firm add above and beyond the work of individual fee earners? Nor is it a debate about technology as much as it is about the future shape and scope of law firms. Mid-tier and large firms are concerned with how to better orchestrate the talent of their people in a way that adds value for the client and justifies their choice of a larger firm rather than a cheaper, perhaps offshore operation. Smaller firms want to know how they can use social tools to punch above their weight and develop greater client intimacy.
We believe that social business thinking and technology is the most important development in organisational design for legal and professional services firms since the advent of email. But right now, many firms continue to invest more in storage than they do in knowledge production and sharing, and indeed after 40 years, email remains the default collaboration tool in most cases (See this piece from BBC Online today about why I think this is a problem). But this picture is changing rapidly, as a recent McKinsey report illustrates, with 77% of business and professional services firms now using social technology in one form or another.
In many firms, processes such as new matter intake, conflict checking, bid development, client research and matter or project co-ordination continue to rely on Word documents and spreadsheets being passed around by email. Sometimes, the pendulum has swung the other way in the direction of highly process-centric software tools that force fee earners to enter data and information in a series of tick box operations. The right answer, in our view, is to use lightweight technology to enable people to work together more easily and efficiently, perhaps with some workflow support, but without putting the process horse ahead of the legal cart.
We have been working with pioneering law firms to explore the role of social technology for over seven years, and researching how firms are using these tools; but this year, we have noticed more firms than ever starting to understand that this is not just an IT issue, but central to organisational development.
It is important to work with partners who understand the sector and the firm’s business issues as well as the technology, as the disconnect between business needs and IT thinking is one factor that has historically held back technology evolution in law firms. We offer a number of services in this area that are designed to help both the legal, business and technology stakeholders play a key role in shaping social technology solutions within law firms, such as:
If you are keen to explore how social business could help improve your firm, whether magic circle, mid-tier or small and specialised, why not get in touch and have a chat. 2012 looks set to become a year of transformation for the legal sector, and firms that make best use of their talent and intellectual assets will be among the winners.