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Law firms that decide to adopt knowledge management initiatives quickly encounter significant cultural barriers to successful implementation. Acknowledging the existence of cultural barriers is the first step to overcoming those barriers. These cultural barriers to knowledge management limit the growth and profitability of your law firm. Overcoming them is fundamental to your firm’s future success. Having a clear vision of your target culture will help you to move away from the current culture and build the right culture for knowledge management: that is, an environment in which lawyers share their knowledge with others in their practice group and across the firm, and look for opportunities to refer work to others and to collaborate on projects. In other words, the lawyers should think of your law firm (not their practice group) as a business, and seek out ways to use their knowledge to grow that business. MAJOR CULTURE BARRIERS There are many cultural barriers to knowledge management, some of which go to the heart of how a law firm operates. These cultural barriers do not just hamper knowledge management, they limit your firm’s ability to achieve its business objectives. Consider which of the following barriers exist at your firm: • The time-based billing model.Lawyers argue that if knowledge management makes them work more efficiently, this will lead to decreased revenue. Not true. In fact, there are a number of flaws with this model: — It assumes that clients will continue to pay for inefficient work practices. — It means that your firm’s revenue will always be limited by the number of fee-earners employed. — It leaves no room for investment in the future growth of the firm. — It creates an unsatisfying work environment for your staff. • Partner compensation models that reward the individual.In a revenue-based compensation model, a partner’s compensation is almost solely determined by the amount of revenue he or she generated. Under this model, partners are focused on growing the profits of their own practice, rather than growing the profits of the entire firm. Practice groups tend to operate as separate business units, which happen to share the cost of a common infrastructure. In this environment, there is usually no incentive to invest in nonbillable activities, and certainly not in finding more efficient ways to work. There is also no incentive to share work with others, since few firms offer any reward for referring work to colleagues. This model is particularly incongruous for a multidisciplinary law firm, which markets itself as a provider of services across a range of practice areas. • Overlap in areas of practice between lawyers in different practice groups.Overlap is often the result of limited interaction between practice groups. When different practice groups are handling similar matters, they may be competing with each other in the market. This means that the groups are even more unwilling to share their knowledge. • Knowledge is power.There is a high degree of competition among individuals and practice groups at many law firms. Lawyers perceive that to become partners, they must amass a unique knowledge base. To keep this knowledge unique, they must not share it with others. In a “knowledge is power” culture, lawyers think knowledge management means losing one’s unique knowledge base and, therefore, one’s power base. • “Our work is unique and is of no value to others.”This is a variation on “knowledge is power.” Lawyers believe that each piece of work is so uniquely crafted for each client, that it could not possibly have any future application to other clients or circumstances. This is a fallacy. All legal work involves a certain degree of repetition. • Fear of peer judgment.Lawyers confidently draft work product for clients, but are often reticent about sharing it with their peers. They fear that their peers will judge their work as inferior. This fear factor may explain unwillingness to share work product with others in the firm. • A decentralized culture.Where a firm with multiple offices has a decentralized culture, it is difficult to implement a firmwide approach to knowledge management. Consequently, knowledge management initiatives tend to succeed in small pockets of the firm, but the firm never gains the full potential benefit. Other cultural barriers to knowledge management include: — Lack of senior management support. — Knowledge management is perceived as the work of an isolated group. — Knowledge management is perceived as an IT initiative. — Staff are not rewarded or acknowledged for their knowledge management efforts. CONDUCIVE CULTURAL ELEMENTS If all or most of these barriers exist at your firm, you may be wondering whether it is really worth the effort to try to implement knowledge management at your firm. There are, however, elements of the law firm culture that are actually conducive to knowledge management. • The legal services market is a knowledge-based market.As we all know, the only product lawyers have to sell is their knowledge. Knowledge management is about leveraging that product so that the firm can derive as much value from it as possible. • A law firm is a learning organization.Lawyers crave new skills and greater expertise throughout their careers, and leading law firms encourage their lawyers to become leading experts in their practice areas, investing significantly in lawyer training and mentoring programs. Knowledge management relies on the willingness of staff to acquire knowledge and share that knowledge with others. • The law is constantly evolving.Lawyers must be able to keep up with frequent changes to laws and regulations in their practice area. Knowledge management enables lawyers to manage the daily process of acquiring new knowledge. OVERCOMING THE BARRIERS To address cultural barriers to knowledge management, you must first identify what your particular barriers are. This sounds so obvious, yet many law firms do not take the time during the knowledge management planning stage to consider the scope of cultural barriers the firm faces. Consequently, firms are placed in a reactive position, addressing cultural barriers as they appear. Typically, a cultural barrier is clouded in high emotion and seems insurmountable. Staff affected by this barrier may feel frustrated, disenchanted, and in the end, defeated. By understanding at the outset which cultural barriers exist, you can plan how best to tackle them. There are four elements of management’s role in building the target culture. Management must be in front of, and behind, cultural change. It must tell the firm that knowledge management is a business imperative. Management must make knowledge management a top priority and make a substantial financial investment in knowledge management. And it must adopt specific initiatives to overcome cultural barriers. The best way for management to overcome cultural barriers is to adopt this methodology: 1. Identify the cultural barrier. 2. Send a clear message about the cultural behavior expected. 3. Support the message through the adoption of specific initiatives to overcome the cultural barrier and reach the target culture. Many of management’s substantive actions involve building knowledge management into the firm’s business processes: the compensation system, budgeting system, billing system, career progression model, business plans, and management reports. Initially, you should reward staff for their contribution to knowledge management, but, ultimately, their contribution to knowledge management should be expected. Consider the following illustration of the barrier-message-action methodology for addressing cultural barriers: Barrier: The partner compensation model rewards the individual, not the firm. Message: The firm is committed to building a knowledge-sharing environment and leveraging the multidisciplinary nature of the firm. Action: — Make knowledge sharing within and across practice groups an important factor in the measurement of partner compensation. — Reward partners for referring work to others. — Provide billing relief for partners to pursue specific knowledge management initiatives that add value to your firm. (Treat knowledge management initiatives as though they are client matters.) This example illustrates how straightforward addressing a cultural barrier should be, if your firm is really committed to knowledge management. While it is critical that you identify and address these barriers, you should not ignore the fundamental culture of your law firm. There are clearly elements of your firm’s culture that make it a successful firm. Making cultural change is not about “dumbing down” your culture or compromising how you do things. In essence, you should maintain those elements of your culture that are your firm’s strengths, while encouraging cultural change that addresses your firm’s weaknesses and supports the growth of your firm. Gretta Rusanow is a lawyer and management consultant. This article is based on Chapter 6 of her book,Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer (ALM Publishing). As the head of Curve Consulting, a U.S.- and Australian-based consulting firm, she advises law firms and law departments worldwide on their knowledge management, e-business, management, and technology initiatives. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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