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Circa 1999, law firms�especially those with national and multinational clientele�were anxiously seeking new ways to improve collaboration. Upstart technology companies responded to the call, developing new modes of communication- extranets, for example, and later portals. It seemed as though the profession was on the verge of real breakthroughs in how information could be shared both internally and externally, breakthroughs that could change the way law firms conducted business. All that innovation slowed to a crawl in mid-2000. First came the burst of the tech bubble, then the economic downturn that accompanied Sept. 11, 2001. The upstart tech companies that had appeared to address the legal information voids either folded their tents or were greatly impeded in their introduction of new products. As interest (and accompanying resources) in new client-service technologies waned, firms shifted focus to obtaining greater value from existing assets. Often, this came in the form of knowledge management or work product retrieval efforts. Just a few years ago, these activities were mostly the province of individual lawyers, the most ambitious of whom maintained their individual precedent or form files. However, the last few years have seen firms increasingly focus on formulating broader strategies for tapping this resource on an institutional level. Historically, most large firms have struggled to get their attorneys to embrace knowledge-management efforts that encourage the sharing of work product. The steps necessary to facilitate knowledge management-requiring attorneys/staff to promote or publish materials to a practice page or site, and to create detailed descriptions of materials-necessitate extra work. And, for some stakeholders, sharing work product has been viewed as giving away a competitive advantage. Relying solely on a “manual” approach to making work product available to everyone in the firm requires continual reinforcement and often cultural changes, both of which simply take time and likely result in a partial solution to the problem at hand. This challenge has led many firms to explore automated alternatives for meaningfully storing and accessing the firm’s intellectual capital. The arena of knowledge management presents unique opportunities for innovation, not only in terms of people and processes, but technology as well. In fact, it can be argued that “innovation” as it pertains to knowledge management is one of the few areas where technology can be utilized as a competitive asset. The demand for innovation comes as a result of two needs that are not being met: the daily need for focused work product retrieval and more generalized searching across all firm systems. Underlying drivers include the need to locate work product via a simple search interface (there’s a reason why Google is so popular among attorneys), and the fact that legal services are becoming increasingly global in nature; for the latter reason, systems that support practices need to be scalable and accessible. Another driver for improving access to work product is less arcane-boosting the bottom line. First, the kinds of basic research and drafting that are streamlined by effective work product retrieval are particularly vulnerable to client-initiated write-offs. If a firm can do less research and drafting by better retrieving existing documents on a given topic, it can potentially reduce write-offs by up to 1% of revenue; not an insignificant amount at an NLJ 250 firm. Second, streamlined access to a complete repository of a firm’s knowledge bank will reduce occurrences of firmwide requests for information. These requests for information burn up minutes each day, while providing a source of disruption and frustration for recipients-and, in retrospect, chagrin for senders. Fortunately, a number of promising technologies that address work product retrieval have emerged in the last two years; most have come from young, energetic companies willing to take innovative approaches to solving these problems. Finding the right information Canvass a sampling of attorneys at most larger firms regarding their “knowledge management” needs, and chances are the following concerns will be raised: A pent-up demand to access existing work product to support drafting, research and expertise identification. A recognition that, aside from retrieving documents by author and/or client matter, the data management system (DMS) is insufficient for document retrieval; while the DMS can be credited for doing a good job with aggregating all of a firm’s work product into one system, it is not a practical tool for profiling documents, which results in distorted search results. Also, many documents never make it into the DMS. A frustration with the inability to construct searches that would retrieve documents on point, and, more significantly, a sense of “information overload”-in other words, existing systems deliver too many extraneous results that need to be read individually in order to identify which ones were on point. An increasing interest in documents created in other offices as part of a more complete search and retrieval. A desire for a system that attorneys can communicate with in their own terms-meaning they want searches to tie to what they are doing directly. If the broad-based objective for the hypothetical firm’s knowledge-management system could be reduced to one sentence, it would be: Get the right information at the right time. As you might imagine, there are several potential approaches to isolating work product. One approach relies on universal searching systems. Universal searching systems set out to identify information/data from a multitude of sources, including but not limited to, the document-management system. Full-text search results are aggregated from multiple sources, and can be ranked by relevance. One system on the market from Recommind (recommind.com) offers a level of concept searching that identifies relationships between words and concepts, with the goal of providing more targeted search results. Universal searching has excellent application if a firm does not have a document-management system, if there are other repositories that the firm is interested in uncovering data from, such as litigation support databases, and/or the firm stores or manages a significant amount of its data outside of the DMS, such as on Lotus Notes, portals or file servers (networked drives). Like the universal search approach, work product retrieval systems also mine and index the firm’s entire document set (DMS or otherwise), but in addition provide some form of substantive analysis as to what is contained in each document. This level of analysis augments search results with more detailed information, such as court jurisdiction, clauses contained within a document and accurate document types (i.e., lease agreement v. purchase sale agreement). Without going into detailed technical comparisons between the two approaches represented above, early adopters in the profession have shown a preference toward the work product retrieval model, as it pertains to solving the more immediate problem of finding on-point work product contained within a DMS (the right information at the right time). In doing so, it permits attorneys to mine data in many different ways with a common interface, and likewise reduces information overload. ‘Intelligent’ retrieval Most targeted work product retrieval technologies approach the problem by automatically performing two key tasks. The first is vetting superfluous documents from the document-management system. Such documents would include faxes, cover letters and memos. Likewise, other vetting rules can be applied, such as date ranges, elimination of duplicates and aggregating documents in these databases (so as not to clutter search results) that originate in a legal library within the DMS. The second task is analyzing and connecting documents in some logical manner or enhancing a document profile by providing substantive details about that document. For example, West KM automatically updates citations within a document and allows users to see other documents in the DMS that contain the citation of interest. RealPractice from Practice Technologies Inc. ( www.practicetechnologies.com) goes a few steps further. The RealPractice system gives users the flexibility to search in many different ways, depending upon their needs. The technology programmatically analyzes each document in the firm’s information base (DMS and beyond) and determines what the document is used for and what it contains from a lawyer’s perspective. It creates an abstract of each document, augmenting existing DMS profiles with substantive information such as jurisdiction, opposing counsel and type of document (e.g., “motion to dismiss”). Whereas other solutions required users to “back in” to document retrieval through case links (which were often absent in many documents or did not relate to the point of research at all) or to utilize full-text searching with DMS profiles, RealPractice lets users “talk” to the system according to their specific needs and situations. The system in turn combines categorical searching-by substantive area, document type and objective, practice area or transaction type-with full-text searching of the abstract. The process can be better illustrated through the following example: Let’s say an attorney was interested in locating a real estate agreement that considered construction loans in Orange County, Calif. The system would make a distinction between general real estate lease agreements and construction loans, without the attorney having to type in an elaborate search query. Likewise, the system would isolate documents pertaining to Orange County (if nothing turns up, the user can broaden the search to adjoining counties or go statewide). Instead of delivering a list of “hits” identified by obscure file names, the results are accompanied by meaningful abstracts that enable users to assess what they’ve found, without opening and reading documents. Will firms adopt surreptitious systems that automatically abstract every document that every practice group creates? It’s hard to say. But then again, five years ago, extranets seemed pretty exotic. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a larger firm that doesn’t have at least one extranet in place to collaborate with clients. Peter J. Ozolin is chief technology officer/chief knowledge officer at Los Angeles’ Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker.

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