Articles on Knowledge Mgt.

An annual strategic planning process that involves a law department’s staff

Kenneth Fredeen, the General Counsel of Deloitte Canada, mentions in ACC Docket, June 2012 at 114, that he uses strategic planning as a management tool. In fact, “His staff participates in the exercise annually.” I have cast doubt on the value of strategic planning by a group that is essentially reactive to business needs (See my post of Dec. 15, 2005: doubts about law department strategic planning.) but there are different flavors of strategic planning.

Fredeen doesn’t say much about his flavor of process or outcome but it could be useful for a law department each year to pick one area of its operations and think how to reengineer it to be more efficient. Or, the department could ask each staff member to bring one operational improvement to the strategic planning meetings (See my post of Dec. 21, 2008: quarterly idea from each lawyer on outside counsel cost control.). The meetings could call through them and pick a few to work on during the coming year.

Strategic planning could involve scenario planning (See my post of Aug. 25, 2009: uses of scenarios in legal departments with 18 references.) or a SWOT analysis (See my post of Aug. 8, 2005: SWOT analyses with five criticisms of the method; Dec. 9, 2005 #1: SWOT review of large legal department discloses risk aversion; Jan. 13, 2006 #3: SWOT’s historical roots; and Nov. 5, 2007: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.).

In other words, the term “strategic planning” encompasses a wide range of possible activities, all of which are designed to keep the department thinking about how it runs and how it might run more smoothly in the future.

Imitation, under-publicized, yet more likely to succeed than innovation

We hear all the time praise for law departments that innovate. Do something new, General Counsel are told, to keep up in the competitive race and make the cover of a trade journal. In fact, it may be far more effective to copy what other law departments do and perhaps add your own wrinkle. This is the message of an essay in the Economist, May 12, 2012 at 76. It flat-out states that “history shows that imitators often end up winners.” According to a recent book on this subject, “studies show that imitators do at least as well and often better from any new product as innovators do.”

The media’s obsession with novelty shortchanges the effectiveness of borrowing ideas from others. The adoption of an idea that is borrowed – referred to often as a best practice – calls for its own competencies, and combinations of borrowed ideas can result in something we might deem to be innovative. Blatant copying of practices from other law departments should be welcomed and should be honored by those who give awards mostly to departments that pioneer (See my post of May 24, 2010: innovation and creativity with 6 metaposts.).

Two ideas to spur full discussions at a meeting

Every general counsel who has direct reports, by which I mean senior lawyers who manage other lawyers, deals with the different styles of those lawyers in staff meetings. Every general counsel encounters how their comments dampen or direct discussion (See my post of Feb. 1, 2006: how to reduce the chilling effect of a dominant personality or position; Dec. 8, 2006: a GC’s chilling effect; Jan. 9, 2009: ideas are suppressed around a general counsel; and July 12, 2012: two methods to warm the chill.).

To reduce that quashing risk, two techniques from the NY Times, May 13, 2012 at BU2, are worth considering. They were articulated by the founder and general partner of a venture capital firm and they reflect a deliberate effort by her and her fellow partners to foster open communication.

At meetings, “Each person would have time to be heard. And each person would be required to be heard.” On important decisions, this obligation for each direct report to weigh in should be worth trying. I like the additional touch that everyone first write down their position and what they would do before anyone talks. Further, the general counsel should speak last.

Second, “One of our rules is that everybody gets a chance to speak, and they have three minutes each.” That short period is still plenty for people outline their views and neither feel rushed nor monopolize air time.

It would benefit in-house attorneys to keep a learning log and steadily improve and enrich it

An enthusiast duplicate bridge player, I have for years added periodically to my personal summary whatever strikes me as useful. My personal bridge log is now about 60 pages. Writing helps test whether I have learned something, it helps me remember, and it helps me reorganize material in ways that suit my mental models.

Every lawyer in a company learns as they go. They talk to others in their field when they bump into them or meet across the table, they read articles that come across their desk, they satisfy their CLE requirements as best they can – but what they rarely do is set themselves to deliberate study (See my post of May 27, 2008: write down nuggets of learning.). On-the-job training suffices for the large majority, I suspect. Deliberate programs of learning are the great exception.

Are there examples out there of in-house lawyers who keep a learning diary? Or any exemplary autodidacts who pick a reading list and diligently summarize what they get from the books or articles? Any that create a living, growing manuscript of what they have learned in their field?

Four uncommon ways to harvest ideas for management improvements

Most general counsel sharpen their management tools from reading about a technique that strikes them as worthwhile, or from hearing about one at a conference or meeting. Some less common sources also supply new ideas.

You can ask your favorite law firms to critique how a major matter was handled by another firm (See my post of Feb. 25, 2010: post-mortem competitions by law firms.).

You can sponsor a contest. Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin 2012) at 119-2-122, reminded me or this from his discussion of InnoCentive. InnoCentive started at Eli Lilly but was spun out. It provides a platform for companies to offer rewards for solutions to difficult problems. So too might a law department (See my post of April 29, 2011: Brazilian think tank sponsored a competition; Feb. 21, 2008: College of Law Practice Management InnovAction Award; Dec. 5, 2010: Financial Times innovation award to ITV; and Dec. 3, 2010: seven law departments and two focused initiatives recognized by the Financial Times.).

You can borrow from ideas in responses to RFPs (See my post of Oct. 1, 2005: the ethics of using good ideas in RFP responses; and July 15, 2011: RFPs that exploit good ideas and those that respect the proposers’ intellectual capital.).

You can set a goal for your staff to submit improvements, such as one idea per quarter (See my post of Dec. 21, 2008: try a method and report on it.).

You can learn about practices from the lawyers at companies you acquire or merge with. Likewise, you can debrief lawyers you hire from other law departments.

Canned reports, dashboards, and data analytics – different levels of insight

Matter management and e-billing systems come with built-in reports, sometimes called “canned reports.” They and the more sophisticated capabilities of report writers can tell users quite a bit. For example, they can show the law firms paid the most during a specific period of time.

A dashboard advances data analysis to another level because it collects on one screen key metrics that a user wants to track. As an example of a legal spend dashboard, doeLEGAL provides one on their website. Like it, a dashboard might report total fees paid year to date, plus the number of new matters opened, plus the average elapsed open time of certain cases.

Data analysis goes further than reports and dashboards. It strives to correlate more than two metrics with each other. An example might be the size of law firms and their effective billing rates. Another might link numbers of timekeepers to monthly burn rates or settlements paid to external fees.

Let’s review these three capabilities. Reports from tracking software collect and present single items of data, usually in tables. Dashboards bring together those reports that are judged to be most important to track, usually using graphics like dials, red lights or column charts. Data analytics digs even deeper by trying to show relationships between figures, thereby allowing better management decisions.

Five ways to organize how we might organize our thinking about law department management

You can find posts here on different conceptual frameworks. Each framework attempts to package and comprehend the multifarious components on law departments.

  1. McKinsey 7S model and similar frameworks. The alliteration is tiresome and forced but the terms cover a lot (See my post of Aug. 8, 2005: McKinsey 7S model.).

  2. Topics of this blog (Benchmarks, Clients, Knowledge Management, Non-Law Firm Costs, Outside Counsel, Productivity, Showing Value, Structure, Talent, Technology, Thinking, and Tools).

  3. Information, networks and decisions. I have written about this trio (See my post of June 9, 2010: key function of a department is decision-making; and Nov. 19, 2010: mathematics underlies three building blocks of management: information theory, network theory, and decision theory.)

  4. Concepts, processes, tools, and decisions. Abstract, but with potential (See my post of July 13, 2008: processes pulled together with 26 references; and Jan. 9, 2012: ten most common tools in retrospect.).

  5. Academic disciplines including anthropology, economics, engineering (design), ethnography, history, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology. Each discipline organizes what law departments are, do, and look like, but each from a different a set of ontological principles.

Other candidates to organize what we observe about law department operations come from tables of contents of books on law department management, risk management perspectives, and systems thinking.

Each framework falls short. Each struggles to shoehorn a very complicated subject into conceptual boxes; they are reductive with a vengeance. They all need extensive definitions for someone to understand their perspective and how they might apply. None of them has presumptive superiority or has been explored or written about more than superficially in light of legal departments. None of them appeal to more than a handful of management intellectuals surrounded by an ocean of pragmatists: “Don’t describe and taxonomize, tell me what to do to improve my legal team.”

Things that do not work to promote knowledge management in legal departments

Reid G. Smith, who is currently Enterprise Content Management Director and IT Upstream Services Manager, Marathon Oil, published several years ago a list of non-starters for knowledge management initiatives in law departments. I quote the four.

• Expect that people will “make time” for KM. Either give them extra time, or specifically re-balance current responsibilities to make it clear that KM activities are included in Terms of Reference (TORs) [RWM I assume TORs are personal objectives].
• Assign people to communities – true CoPs [RWM Communities of Practice] are powered by their members’ personal or professional interests. Let lawyers join the communities they find relevant.
• Assume KM is about technology and let the IT department manage KM initiatives.
• Make communities act primarily as training/development venues.

From my experience, Reid has correctly identified four common mistakes. Along with them he points out some success stories at the time. “Several corporate legal departments have made significant KM progress (e.g., Lucent, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Schlumberger, BP, Siemens, and Cisco). The efforts of five legal departments are reflected in the “Global Law Department Knowledge Management Benchmarking Survey” that he cites at the end (compiled by Greta Russanow).

Two simple ways to increase your creativity – vary what you learn and learn in various places

In-house lawyers do most of their reading, listening, and giving advice – their primary ways of learning – within a relatively narrow cone of their practice areas. Further, while seated at their desk they do most of this. Time and facilities don’t permit otherwise, they would remonstrate. That rigidity takes a toll on creativity.

John Brockman, Ed., This Will Make You Smarter (Harper Collins 2012) at 101, presents research that shows we can learn more effectively through situational change. Periodically, read something from a field that is new to you and, here’s the odd part, read it in a different place. So, find out about Renaissance tapestries at a table in the cafeteria; delve into the international notation for opera singers in a conference room; learn something about Mongolian yurts in the reception area. That is, to fertilize your mind and store creative building blocks, we should “invest a few hours a week in reading research that ostensibly has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in common with our regular workplace.”

Careful reading, how in-house lawyers prefer to take in information, can’t be sped up

The Am. Scholar, Spring 2012 at 66, reveals how we read. Our eyes make hops, known as saccades, and for the 20 to 30 milliseconds of each we do not perceive anything, and then they fixate for 200 to 300 milliseconds. Thus, the absolute fastest any of us can read – actually read each word – is 500 words per minute. That assumes no comprehension beyond just identifying the word. “In practice, most of us read about 250 words per minute.”

The author emphasizes that so-called “speed reading” reduces to skimming, and skimming means attention to detail and absorption of it falls apart. Moreover, note that “the speed with which we read something is linked to our ability to remember it later.”

Sorry, the better way to pick up your reading pace is to select what you read with more care. You can read more here on reading (See my post of April 27, 2008: speed-reading is a myth; and July 14, 2009: better meetings through reading during them; June 16, 2010: drawbacks of hypertext reading; Oct. 22, 2010: reading is one of the least effective ways of learning.).