How has technology changed the legal profession for knowledge managers?

How has technology changed the legal profession for knowledge managers?

As technology continues to change the face of the legal industry, Jon Beaumont, knowledge systems advisor at Shearman & Sterling, Sandra Smythe, knowledge manager at Mishcon de Reya, and Tim Barlow, head of legal information services at Stephenson Harwood, look at how technology has changed the roles of knowledge managers over the past few years.


Technology is changing the face of the legal industry. Established roles such as knowledge managers, IT directors and of course fee earners themselves have all been impacted in many ways. Beyond that, we are seeing the emergence of entirely new roles such as legal project managers or teams of paralegals who are no longer focused on directly supporting fee earners but are instead working on technology products built in-house. In some cases law firms are going from just selling services to actually selling technology products.

In light of all these changes, how do some of the more established members of legal teams see their roles changing? What are experienced professionals doing (or what should they be doing) to keep up to speed? Are new entrants to their professions realistic about what their futures are likely to entail and are they arriving properly equipped to perform these roles in this changing world?

The changing role of knowledge managers

The expectations placed on KMs have increased over recent years, possibly partly due to Google setting such a high bar when it comes to search functionality. According to Jon Beaumont of Shearman & Sterling: ‘Individuals and Practice Groups are no longer happy with a general search that returns no more than a handful of partially relevant documents and the odd email or piece of know-how. The challenge has always been that lawyers believe there is some sort of magical remedy to return knowledge they seek immediately with little input. Whilst this is largely not possible, as search capability, retrieval and intuity increases everywhere, it is expected within firms. Not only do we require such intuitive search, we also need a dynamic linkage between many varied systems which is a vast challenge.’

He also says that project planning has become more challenging: ‘The ability to correctly implement and now manage small to large scale projects has also been a major challenge. Whilst previously a rough estimate of time, resource, budget and deliverability was acceptable this is no longer the case and projects have to be planned to the minutest detail. Project planning tools and direct access into these by lawyers or administrative staff is expected, meaning any part of a project can be scrutinised at any point.’

Tim Barlow at Stephenson Harwood has noticed that KM projects are increasingly about technology: ‘My Legal Information Services team has become much more occupied with technology issues over the past five years. The resources we use from our desktops have become more numerous and more complex. For example, we have become responsible for our firm's intranet and accompanying enterprise search system, which have brought with them many interesting and high-profile projects but also a raft of IT challenges, from minor niggles to strategic issues such as upgrade paths and compatibility clashes. We are now stepping back from these more advanced IT tasks and handing them over to the IT team instead.’

He says that technology sometimes causes IT support distractions for KMs: ‘The rise of technology has brought phenomenal benefits but there is a downside for information professionals; we are often distracted by unproductive IT tasks such as solving user login problems, reporting bugs, or fiddling with formatting anomalies on an intranet page. The time would be far better spent exploiting our expertise in information management to make a difference at the front line of client service.’

Barlow echoes the views of Gator (see How has technology changed the legal profession for IT directors?) in terms of technology helping firms to go paperless: ‘The replacement of traditional hard copy books, looseleaf services and journals by online electronic versions and e-books has continued to accelerate. This has enabled us to reduce the physical space taken up by our library and make the content much more widely available to lawyers across our international offices, but it also increases the need for training, support and awareness-raising. It’s doubtful that any of our end-users have a full understanding of the vast information sources at their disposal; they are busy professionals and don't have enough time to devote to mastering dozens of different online resources and interfaces. Our job often involves guiding them through the maze.’

For Sandra Smythe at Mishcon de Reya, aside from changing the roles of knowledge managers, the changes have caused an increased need for KMs themselves: ‘The changing technologies in law have actually facilitated the creation of my role within my firm – five years ago I was working as a traditional research/information professional but due to new software and processes that we were launching within the firm the opportunity arose for a more Knowledge Management (KM) systems focused role. The continuing evolvement of KM in law firms and the technologies to support it have also allowed my role to evolve and change. I think this is likely to continue in this area for the next five years as well. KM professionals need to be adaptable and happy to lead change within their firms, without thinking that something should be done just because it is new. I think the biggest change brought about by technology will be that a static understanding of our roles – as there possibly was in the traditional information roles I came from—will no longer be possible.’

How can KMs stay ahead of the curve?

Beaumont says that automation and AI could be key topics for KMs interested in future developments: 'A big focus, particularly over the next 12 months, is likely to be full implementation of document automation. Whilst this has been evident for some time, it appears that lawyers are finally starting to see the benefit and the challenge we face is to figure out the largest efficiencies which are achievable by such implementation. AI is the buzz word and certainly something with which we need to be aware. The question we must ask is what piece of work product is customisable, currently and in the future. Search technology will also develop continuously and we need to remain diligent. Simply delivering a product and sitting back to admire your work is not an option.'

Smythe argues that KMs need to ensure they are looking at trends in the wider business community as well as those within the legal industry: ‘I think knowledge managers in law firms are often perceived by their counterparts in other professional services environments, where they have been longer established, to be slightly behind or not quite what a knowledge manager should be. However, there has been a concerted drive within the legal environment in the last five years to actively encourage KM and to define the roles of its professionals. And the fact that our profession is more recently established in the legal environment allows our roles to be very responsive to the needs of our organisations. To stay ahead of the curve we obviously need to focus on new technologies and processes, not just from our competitors but also from other professional services organisations. Knowledge managers need to be aware of the culture and business of their law firm – one of the great things about being in KM in the legal environment is that law firms all do things quite differently and have different focuses, to enable them to align technology and processes to suit and enhance the business rather than be a barrier or an annoyance. An awareness of trends within wider society is also essential as the next ‘big thing’ often occurs elsewhere first before penetrating the more traditional and risk aware professional services environment.’

For Barlow, it’s necessary for KMs to embrace the 24/7 remote culture: ‘For knowledge and information managers, one of the big IT challenges is to provide mobile, flexible access to published and internal information. We should think of the library not as a physical entity in a particular location but as a service which can be accessed any time, anywhere, from any device.’ He says that KMs will need to look beyond some of their traditional roles as advanced technology eats into some of their duties: ‘As technology enables lawyers to locate core legal information such as cases, legislation and commentary for themselves, we can move into more specialist, value-added research using premium information services: news and business, client current awareness, background company research for pitches, industry sector research, competitor analysis and so on.’

They should also keep an eye on AI and Big Data: ‘We should keep a careful watch on Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. Nobody seems quite sure of the impact these are going to have on information and knowledge services, but it could be seismic. Hopefully one day they will enable us to escape the shackles of word-searching, Boolean operators, multitudes of different user interfaces and enormous results lists. I'd like to see the day when these unwieldy mechanisms are the stuff of comic nostalgia.’

Do new KM recruits have the skills they need and are they prepared for the changing profession?

Smythe says that combining technical skill with people and communication skills can be a challenge for some new entrants: ‘Until recently there weren’t many junior KM roles within law firms which made it harder to equip people with the skills and experience for more senior roles and give a proper career path for the profession within law firms. With the growth and expansion of KM this is now changing and does allow for new entrants to gain the necessary skills at the right time in their career. The main shortcomings I have noticed in new/aspiring entrants is the ability to combine good technical skills, that allow for the proper manipulation and management of the technologies we use, along with the people and communication skills, that allow for them to be a true advocate for KM with fee earners and senior stakeholders. These skills need to then be combined with a good, solid understanding of the legal environment to allow for them to truly feed into the knowledge management strategy of the firm.’

She also notes that an understanding of the law-specific environment is occasionally lacking: ‘I think, due the nature of the people generally drawn to KM focused roles, aspiring entrants are usually well informed as to the nature of the role and what it is likely to comprise. We are also fortunate that we work in an environment where colleagues from other firms are happy to share their experiences with each other. However, I think there can often be misconceptions about what law firms are like to work for and the need to understand the law and the legal environment can be underestimated. This is essential if KM professionals are to properly engage with fee earners and professional support lawyers to win confidence and demonstrate genuine value.’

Beaumont notes the importance of an understanding of project work for new entrants: ‘One large misconception for entrants into legal KM world is that a lot of the project work is simple implementation of revolutionary new products. A failure to understand that much of the work in a project is difficult and quite laborious has certainly been evident my experience. Equally it isn’t always understood that correct data analysis and knowledge of the problem a team is attempting to resolve are foundations of a successful project.’ He also says that bespoke technologies need to be grasped by new entrants ‘With many firms being very unique in their approach to knowledge technologies it is difficult to comprehensively understand the skillset of the majority of new entrants. However, we have found that as long as basic understanding of KM is evident and there is a willingness to learn, it is most useful to train and develop an individual in the way we think as opposed to have them arrive with differing ideas already place.’

For Barlow, technical ability is expected from new entrants to the profession and its communication skills that differentiate them: ‘The ability to exploit office software and quickly master any source of online information should be a given. Any Information or Knowledge professional should be IT-savvy now. What makes the difference is the human element; the confidence to speak to groups, talk to lawyers on their wavelength, find out their needs, contribute to their meetings and work our way into the heart of the business. We need to build networks, demonstrate a real interest in what makes our firm tick, and think like business people, contributing ideas and constantly asking whether tasks are effective and profitable or a waste of time. Technology should free us to concentrate on these opportunities.’

He notes that new entrants sometimes have a couple of misconceptions: ‘One misconception is that information and knowledge are ‘back-room’, reactive support services; that we can occupy ourselves in the library until a lawyer calls on us to find something. That may have been true in the past but now we have to come out of the shadows and work with the lawyers more closely, understanding their work and their frustrations, proactively making information easily available to them and anticipating their needs. None of this is easy but unless we attempt it we will become irrelevant. Another [misconception] is that the role of the information professional is all about understanding the technology. I hope that, paradoxically, the technology will liberate us to work on the human and business aspects of the role.’

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

First published on Lexis®PSL.

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