My Blog - Connecting the Dots

Grab the low-hanging fruit

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Apr 01, 2012 | 0 Comments

My previous two posts (“Welcome to My Blog for Law Firm Leaders,” Part 1 and Part 2) described a practice management technique relevant to execution of all law firm strategies, which I call knowledge strategy. Those posts observed that success has evaded many who pursue this technique, mainly because of specific personality traits, described in the Part 2 post, that are characteristic of lawyers. This post explores specific initiatives that minimize dependence on lawyers. Future posts will explore more ambitious initiatives that overcome lawyer personality traits.

Low hanging fruit fotosearch k75067372

What is low-hanging fruit in the context of practice management? These are practice changes that are relatively easy to institute, but bring high value to the firm. They are a great place to start generating good word-of-mouth before undertaking more ambitious initiatives. Three examples of low-hanging fruit in the knowledge strategy arena are:

  • Interconnect existing data collections, which allows lawyers to pinpoint practice-relevant documents and can improve lawyer staffing on matters,
  • Create a subject matter view for each practice group's intranet page, and
  • Create a searchable database of the firm's legal opinions.

These changes are easy because they require minimal input from broad groups of lawyers, and no changes to the way lawyers work. I'll explain below the high value that each brings.

Connect existing data

“We have a powerful search engine, but my lawyers say they can't find anything,” says Keith Mayfield, the AmLaw 100 chairman introduced in my first post. It sounds as though Keith's firm, like so many others, hasn't connected its existing data.

Instead, Keith's firm is leaving all the search work to the firm's search engine. Finding the right documents among the millions in a law firm database is far different than a Google search on the web. No law firm search engine can do this by itself. What's needed are reliable ways to filter the documents to a manageable and relevant collection before performing the search. For the most part, document profile information recorded in the firm's document management system is not reliable or extensive enough for this search filtering.

Yet the firm does collect relevant information for other purposes. The Marketing Department at Keith's firm collects data about matters for use in pitch books, such as the type of transaction or kind of dispute, as well as the industry involved. His firm also collects relevant information during the new matter intake process, such as the practice area involved. Keith's lawyers could regain their faith in searching if this information could be used to create targeted searches when looking for documents. This extra information about the context of a document is called metadata. For example, using metadata filtering a lawyer could perform a full-text search focused only on documents relating to a single transaction type or dispute type in a given practice area and within a single industry – such as IPOs for software companies or arbitrations of employee claims in the health care industry. In the absence of the ability to filter this way, as the firm's document population grows, the odds of finding useful material solely using full-text search diminish. Quite soon, the lawyers stop trying and resort instead to sending e-mails to their entire practice area seeking documents. The irrelevant hits that are eliminated through focused searches using reliable metadata can make the whole search process worthwhile again.

If lawyer time entries are connected to the metadata, a staffing resource can be created. Finding lawyers with experience in particular types of matters would involve filtering based on the matter type metadata (perhaps filtering by industry and firm office location as well) and looking at the list of lawyers who have billed the greatest number of hours to matters meeting the relevant criteria.

If billing information is connected to the metadata, comparable matters for purposes of preparing fee estimates can be readily identified.

Connecting this data requires some technical resources, but can be relatively straightforward if the firm already has the right enterprise search software. Success also requires that the data be relatively accurate, so not all the firm's data collections may be suitable for connecting. Still, this is low-hanging fruit because lawyers can find a greater number of relevant documents and can do so more quickly, without having to take time off from client work to help craft the solution.

Subject matter view of intranet

“Our practice groups have so much material on their intranet sites that our lawyers have a hard time finding what they need,” says AmLaw 100 firm chairman Keith Mayfield. This rich intranet content has become a mixed blessing at Keith's firm. What they need is a subject matter view.

A typical practice group's site contains training materials, client alert memos, recent developments bulletins, internal memos on selected topics, standard forms and precedent documents. Material is regularly added, but rarely pruned. Importantly, the material is organized mostly by type of material (training outlines, client alerts, etc.), rather than by topic. That organizational approach is easy to maintain and works well enough for many types of searches. However, a lawyer seeking information on a specific subject is forced to wade through a potentially overwhelming quantity of material.

Because of the flexibility of web technology, multiple views can co-exist. Thus, it is possible to add a subject matter view as an option to the existing practice group web site presentation. Creating a subject matter view requires three things:

  • Develop a subject matter index (called a taxonomy) for the practice group,
  • Tag all the practice group's intranet material with the relevant subject matter (or sub-matter) labels, and
  • Develop a process to tag future content as it is added.

While this process does not require general participation of the firm's lawyers, it does require focused involvement by one or two lawyers in the practice group, both to develop and maintain the taxonomy and to tag material. This effort will be significant for those lawyers. Creating a taxonomy is more difficult than it seems. It requires time of senior lawyers. It must have sufficient detail but not too much detail. It should include cross-references, as not all users will think about the subjects in the same way. It should be user-tested. And it should be modified as new subjects arise. It is quite feasible, though, to motivate one or two lawyers to undertake this effort.

The hard work to create a taxonomy results in a powerful tool. Beyond making intranet material more accessible to the firm's practice groups, the taxonomy can be fed into specialized auto-categorization software to add subject matter tags to the firm's general document population. This adds an additional way to filter when searching for documents.

Searchable opinions database

Keith's firm has a risk management-driven process to file in a central location the legal opinions the firm renders, together with related back-up memoranda. Wouldn't it be great if this file could be made searchable?

Fortunately, that requires only a modest effort. The hard work has already been done, because the firm already has a process for identifying final opinions. These documents are also already searchable as part of the firm's document management system. All that remains to be done is for a paralegal or other administrator to electronically tag the opinions submitted to the central file as “Final Firm Opinion.” When that attribute is then used for search filtering, a legal opinions database has been created. Other filters can then be applied to create powerful searches on the opinions database. For example, combining filters based on matter type and industry (made available via the first project discussed in this post) would allow the firm's lawyers to identify industry-specific opinion formulations rendered in given types of matters.

Final thoughts

When pursuing any of these suggestions, the process should include three important elements. First, one person should be in charge, working under the supervision of one partner. That partner must be engaged. Second, the program should proceed with a pilot effort, to determine whether the concept is viable. In this pilot the reliability of underlying data should be assessed, the usability of the system for lawyers should be tested and training needs should be determined. A project almost always changes during the pilot phase. The third important element is to establish success criteria. These are metrics or subjective criteria (such as lawyer surveys) that will support (or negate) the conclusion that the program works. If the success criteria are not achieved in the pilot, the program should be cancelled or substantially revised before additional firm resources are committed.

[Photo credit: © Raffalo / www.fotosearch.com]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

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Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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How a practice management technique called knowledge strategy can help law firm leaders achieve strategic goals – ideas from a former AmLaw 20 senior partner.