If a company wants to gain and keep a competitive edge, it must
learn better than its competitors and then must apply
that knowledge faster and more widely than its competitors,
said Lord Browne in an interview in Harvard Business Review. This applies to law firms even more than most.
One of the most important assets of a law firm is the knowledge and experience of those who work within in it. This applies to both explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the traditional legal knowledge that all lawyers require in order to carry out their role effectively; the statutory provisions, the procedural rules and the cases. Tacit knowledge is the experiential knowledge that lawyers acquire through carrying out their day to day role; the ’wisdom’ held in the brains of those within the team.
For explicit and tacit knowledge that is acquired to be applied across a team or firm, it must be shared effectively.
By sharing this knowledge effectively, it is possible to:
Improve cost-efficiency by avoiding having to ‘re-invent the wheel’. Most tasks in a law firm are not one time events.
Increase delegation to junior members of the team to increase efficiency.
Reduce exposure to risk.
Make better use of who knows what. Expertise learnt and applied by one member of the team can then be leveraged by another.
Capture the knowledge and experience of those retiring or moving on. When someone leaves a law firm, their knowledge walks out of the door with them unless steps have been taken to capture it.
Support innovation. Innovation comes from reflection and sharing experiences - what worked well? What didn’t? What could be done better next time? How could things be changed for the better?
How do you share knowledge effectively?
To succeed, you need to provide the means but more significantly you need to create a knowledge sharing culture within the firm.
What role does technology play? Is it possible to share knowledge effectively without using technology? If your firm or team has more than a couple of fee earners, then you will probably need some form of technology to support your knowledge sharing. The advantages can be enormous; the ability to search both the title and the document itself makes things quick and easy to find.
Creating a culture of knowledge sharing (people)
You can have the most sophisticated technology, capable of finding a needle in a haystack. But first you need the haystack.
Lawyers are notoriously fond of paper, and most lawyers will already have their own personal 'knowledge bank', whether they keep hard copies of particularly useful documents in a file, or whether they have an Outlook folder for emails offering advice that they may wish to refer to again. The key is changing the mindset so that lawyers no longer retain their own personal knowledge bank, but contribute to a team-wide knowledge bank.
How do you share tacit knowledge?
There are many different ways to encourage the sharing of tacit knowledge. It may be as simple as creating a forum for fee earners to come together and discuss their experiences. Another option is to have matter debrief meetings where a file is reviewed in order to determine what lessons were learned. Some firms encourage partners who are nearing their retirement to move towards a learning and development role, so that the benefit of their valuable years of experience is captured and passed on to more junior members of the team.
Any opportunity for fee earners to share their experiences will encourage the sharing of knowledge, and will motivate people to work more collaboratively as team members who have better knowledge of who is doing what.
A strategic imperative?
Knowledge sharing is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to meet the objectives of the business.
Clients want high quality advice that is consistent, efficient and cost effective. By leveraging the collective knowledge within a family law firm or team, you ensure that the team is providing the highest possible quality of advice, and the most efficient service possible.
In my view, it is a strategic imperative, and is certainly worth the investment.
About the author - Sara Hunt
Sara is the knowledge lawyer for the family team at Farrer & Co. Her role is to provide expert, technical legal knowledge to the team, analysing new law and ensuring that the firm is at the forefront of family law and practice.
Sara is also responsible for the team’s knowledge management and training strategy, and regularly provides training and know how solutions to the team.