1. From product to client service as the differentiating factor
When knowledge management became a topic for law firms in the 1990s, the focus was on the products lawyers deliver. Consequently, knowledge management was mainly an inward facing function. KM's main objective was to support the lawyers in delivering their products: oral and written legal advice and legal documents – memos, contracts, submissions, claims etc.
As KM and supporting technology has evolved, the lawyers' products have become less of a differentiating factor. The Internet has revolutionised legal research and most of the larger firms now have a powerful search engine and a central repository for know-how where lawyers may find templates or good precedents. Know-how providers such as Practical Law1 offer everything a lawyer needs to produce a document: practice notes, checklists, templates, even a peer review and legal query service. As a consequence of this development, legal products have become similar. Clients take it for granted that the documents lawyers deliver are of good quality. Documents and legal advice alone hardly make lawyers stand out anymore.
Instead, client service has become one of the most important differentiating factors in today's legal market.
This chapter discusses the role that knowledge management – the systematic and continuous collection, organisation, development and dissemination of all relevant knowledge2 – may play in the context of client service. It further explores client-facing knowledge management in business development and marketing.
2. The core elements of client service: the playing field
Core elements of what clients perceive as service are:
- availability, responsiveness and speed; as well as
- a specific understanding of the client's needs and requirements, for its business and environment.
Other areas of increasing importance are ancillary services such as:
- supplying the client with information;
- personnel support by providing the client with secondees;
- training and continuous education of the client's staff; and
- advice on organising the client's legal and compliance function, including advising on in-house contract and knowledge management.
In all these areas, KM may play an important role. Client service is a large and growing field for knowledge management.
2.1 Availability, responsiveness and speed
Good knowledge management is one of the most important driving factors for responsiveness and speed. Lawyers have to be able to quickly tap into the know-how relevant to the matter at hand, be it through accessing his or her own collection of precedents, a know-how system with templates and precedents, an intranet with wiki-style know-how or by asking the right specialist within or outside the firm. In the latter case, the 'know-who', the knowledge about the experts – the know-how carriers – combined with the availability and responsiveness of these experts, decides the reaction-time. A culture of sharing know-how,3 referring work to better suited colleagues and willingness to support each other is a fertile ground for fast service delivery; silo mentality, reluctance to pass on work to more specialised colleagues and poor accessibility are inhibitors. Although knowledge management may, at first glance, not be perceived as client-facing in connection with availability, responsiveness and speed, a firm's approach to KM does have a direct and significant impact on these key elements of client service.
2.2 Understanding the client's demands and needs
Under this title, several elements with importance for KM may be distinguished.
(a) Monitoring the market for legal services
Whereas businesses in other industries are constantly monitoring their respective markets, their competitors and the products and services offered by competitors, many law firms do not systematically observe developments in the legal industry and market trends, especially outside the jurisdictions they cover. Those who do might detect opportunities and risks earlier than their competitors and adapt their strategies accordingly, for example, vis-à-vis clients or with respect to recruiting talent. Knowledge about developments in other law firms may help to build up or expand relationships with these firms and increase referrals.
KM may be involved in gathering and processing such information, screening publications4 and clients' guides5 and passing on relevant information to those it concerns.
(b) Knowledge about the client's business and environment
KM tools and personnel may also be deployed to improve the law firm's knowledge of the client's business and its specific environment. Smaller firms may have to be satisfied with an intranet page featuring industry know-how and linking to useful websites. KM in bigger firms may send regular industry updates to partners focusing on certain sectors, for example, in the form of an industry blog.
(c) Obtaining client feedback
Many law firms offer 'solutions and services tailored to our clients' needs', at least on their marketing material. The number of law firms that ask their clients for feedback in a systematic and structured way may be significantly lower. This is surprising: client feedback makes it easier to take measure, to fully understand the clients' needs and to optimise client service. KM lawyers are well positioned to take part in obtaining client feedback. They understand the products and services offered by law firms and are well suited to put themselves in the perspective of clients. As an additional advantage, KM lawyers, as opposed to partners, do not have to develop their own business and may therefore be more neutral and less biased. Law firms may ask clients for feedback as part of an After Action Review (AAR),6 after completing a matter, upon reaching certain milestones or as part of high level relationship meetings, or both.
Technically, CRM solutions (see below) may be used to process client feedback.
2.3 Supplying clients with information, intelligence and thought leadership
Adapting Wayne Gretzky's famous quote:7 Clients wish to know where the puck is going to be and from where body or cross-checking will come. Law firms that earn the reputation of supplying clients with such information and intelligence will have a decisive competitive advantage. These firms may become the trusted early detector of (legal) risks and opportunities and become almost irreplaceable. To be able to achieve this position, the firm must be 'close to the client'. What does this – slightly overused – term mean?
(a) 'Close to the client' – what it means and how to get there
As a principle, the more a law firm works for a client, the closer to the client it will get. The more work a client allocates to a law firm, the more attention the firm will give this client. As a consequence, law firms with clients that generate recurring work should rather focus on a limited number of key clients than spread themselves too thinly. Clients on the other hand are well advised to reduce the number of their external legal advisers to a panel of law firms. Not only will the panel firms be more willing to agree on discounts, provide support by dispatching secondees and by rendering ancillary services (as discussed below), the panel firms will also get closer to the client. With every matter or transaction a law firm advises on, its specific client know-how increases. The better the law firm's specific client know-how is, the more efficient its services for this client should become – a virtuous cycle for the client and the law firm.
What can law firms do to increase their chances of being in the circle of a client's chosen law firms? The simple answer is, they should sharpen their profile. As trivial as this may sound, many law firms don't seem to give their strategic positioning much thought. Sharpening the profile typically means reducing the scope, focusing on a limited number of practice areas, industries or on a special type of client and increasing the quality of client service, strengthening their presence and building on the reputation within the chosen scope. Less is more.
Once firms have achieved a preferred position, regularly aligning their profile and business strategy8 with the specific needs of key clients is paramount. As shown above, asking key clients for feedback should be an institutionalised element in continuously fine tuning the firm's strategy.
(b) How KM may contribute
Supplying clients with information and intelligence is an obvious field of (clientfacing) knowledge management. In many law firms, KM personnel is involved in preparing client briefings and newsletters. To stand out and provide value to clients, these briefings and newsletters should be more than backward looking summaries of recent legislation or court decisions. They should contain forward looking elements, making clients aware of opportunities and risks, pointing out possible practical implications of legislation and judicature. Clients expect thought leadership, not merely chewing the cud. Only lawyers with broad and current experience and a deep understanding for the business of their clients are able to provide such contents. Consequently, KM lawyers that are expected to write valuable client briefings and newsletters have to be embedded in the practice teams. In larger firms, they may collect and develop specific industry or client know-how.
Smaller firms with a minimal number of central KM staff should not rely on KM to provide the contents of client briefings and newsletters. A central KM function won't be immersed in practice enough to provide thought leadership. It may, however, contribute to the quality of client briefings and newsletters by supporting the authors with research and by reviewing and proofreading.
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2 This definition of knowledge management is based on Schulz/Klugmann, Wissensmanagement für Anwälte (Aufl, Köln 2006). See n 14.
3 On the importance of KM culture see Schulz's chapter on Getting lawyers to contribute content to KM systems and to use KM resources.
4 Eg, The Lawyer, The American Lawyer, Legal Week, Legal Business, or JUVE.
5 Eg, Chambers, The Legal 500, IFLR 1000.
6 A structured review or de-brief process (originally developed by the US military) for analysing 'what' happened, 'why' it happened and 'how' it can be done better by the participants and those responsible for the project or event (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After-action_review).
7 "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." The Canadian Wayne Gretzky, active in the NHL from 1979–1999, is regarded as the greatest ice hockey player ever ("The Great One").
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