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Building a better law firm: People, process and technology

Lance Odegard  Director of Technology

Lance Odegard  Director of Technology

The technological innovations that enable law firms to improve their efficiency and lower costs to clients can't be taken in a vacuum. Too often, firms seize onto the latest shiny tech trinket – only to be disappointed with how it's utilized by firm lawyers (or not); how it's integrated into the rest of the firm's process management systems (or not).

Meredith Williams-Range, chief knowledge management officer at Nashville-based Baker Donelson, says it is a combination of people, process and technology; their coordination must be carefully planned, tested and implemented if a firm is going to have any chance of successfully improving its efficiency.

Lance Odegard, director of National Technology for Thomson Reuters, spoke with Williams-Range about how best to use technology to improve a firm’s day- to-day operations, and what the law firm of the future might look like.

Odegard: When considering your firm’s primary measures of success, is that measure profitability?

Meredith Williams-Range: Yes, profitability is everything. And when it comes to knowledge management (KM) in particular, it’s all about the actual practice of law. And we should be doing one of two things in everything that we do, and that is driving profit margins or bringing in additional revenue outside the typical practice. If we’re not doing one of those two things, then why are we doing it?

Odegard: With that understanding, what are the most meaningful technologies?

Williams-Range: It’s a combination of things because technology is only an aspect of profitability. It’s also the process and the people that have to go along with it at the same time. I can have the most impactful technologies that absolutely no one is utilizing, and that doesn’t help anyone. So, if you don’t have those three things flowing together, it can be the most beautiful technology, it can have the most effect on profit, it can do all different types of things; but if it doesn’t do it well enough for the people to use it, then it doesn’t really matter.

At Baker Donelson, the technology that probably has the most impact involves figuring out how we can take our 25 locations and put them on the same page.

First, we have an extensive cloud strategy. We want our lawyers to be able to work in the most remote way as easily as sitting in one of our locations, hardwired in.

A long time ago, we began to use the cloud in hopes of making a more effective and efficient work process.

We started by moving our HR system into the cloud. This involved much encryption and security planning due to the data type. Then we moved our email archive system. Finally, over the past year, we placed our document management system into the cloud. When you talk about major systems and moving them into the cloud, that’s gigantic.

Odegard: Do you see problems with law firms adapting the cloud to that degree, especially when client data is concerned?

Williams-Range: The issue is knowing your client base and what they will allow a firm to do with their respective information. Each culture and each client is different. Law firms must explore that prior to moving forward with any cloud technologies.

I’ll give you an example: Law firms that represent a number of banks are very quick to say “absolutely not” to the cloud move. This is due to the very detailed regulatory framework to which all must adhere. However, if the law firm is representing companies in Silicon Valley, they expect very innovative usage of technology and the cloud– they do not have the same regulatory complications. As law firms we should guarantee to clients how far we can go down that strategy.

The cloud is something that is significant to us because it speeds the process at which we can work. If we work faster and more efficiently, then we’re driving up the profits, and that’s critical.

Odegard: What else regarding KM is vital for law firms, especially if they’re approaching this issue for the first time?

Williams-Range: When starting a KM program, a firm needs a big win to quickly win over users, but the firm must also strategize for the longer term. There are two programs that can be most impactful when looking for a good win with lawyers and staff: a practice portal or enterprise search.

If a firm has more structured and tagged data, then the portal route is a good option. This allows access to data across silos in an easy format. Baker started with a portal more than 15 years ago; at the time it was the best choice because no great enterprise search existed for the law firm environment.

The cloud is something that is significant to us because it speeds the process at which we can work. If we work faster and more efficiently, then we’re driving up the profits, and that’s critical.

The second option is enterprise search. If a firm has lots of data, doesn’t know how clean it is, or has tons of silos where it lives, enterprise search is going to bring it all together in a searchable format. For organizations that have more than one location or have a diversity of practices, the ability to find expertise and internal and external information at the click of a few buttons is one of the biggest “wow” factors.

Adding an enterprise search system to a portal can also make everyone more efficient.

You can have the greatest tool out there, but if using it takes someone out of their day-to-day practice, they are not interested. If your people are not going to use it, then what is the value?

Baker Donelson has done this in a very complex way. As I stated, we began with a portal but then added an enterprise search system a number of years ago. Within that search system we have a diversity of connections to add depth and context to information when our people are searching. For example, we index all documents and metadata from our NetDocs document management system. We couple that data with all HR and client-matter data to provide additional context. We also index from Practical Law® to provide more depth in areas where we do not have forms or practice pointers. Combining all of this allows our employees to search all at once for forms or internally created work product.

Additionally, the work-product data combined with time notes and bio data provides a one-stop shop for expertise searching. It allows our more than 800 lawyers and 1,600 employees to search for who has the most expertise in an area of law.

Odegard: It seems to go right back to what you led with – it’s about people, process and technology working together. But if you remove any one of those three elements from the equation, it fails.

Williams-Range: Correct. If you don’t look at all three when trying to implement a new tool, process or initiative, it will fail. You can have the greatest tool out there, but if using it takes someone out of their day-to-day practice, they are not interested. If your people are not going to use it, then what is the value? You need to have those three factors – people, process and technology – always coming together.

Odegard: As firms try to put in place a knowledge management strategy, the challenge is you can’t just buy an off-the-shelf package and apply it to all the content and make good things happen. It takes planning, architecture, strategic thought and mapping exercises. Is that right?

Williams-Range: That’s right. You must know your people, your culture, the process they use, etc. Our new practice management portal is based upon two years of feedback and shadowing data. It brings together a number of firm initiatives: KM, Legal Project Management, eDiscovery, Phase Task Management, Matter Planning, Budgeting and more.

Combine this with a social element to get information out of email, working it directly into subscription-type systems in kind of a social network. It builds process improvement into every single matter of this firm.

This is not an easy undertaking, and every time you do something like this, it takes planning. But the way we’ve done it is that we listened to our end users, our lawyers. Everything that we built is in the process of how they practice today.


Meet the interviewee

Meredith Williams-Range is Baker Donelson’s chief knowledge management officer. In addition, Williams-Range is the president of the Board of Directors for the International Legal Technology Association.
Meredith Williams-Range is Baker Donelson’s chief knowledge management officer. In addition, Williams-Range is the president of the Board of Directors for the International Legal Technology Association.

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