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Today’s law firms face many pressures. Clients demand lower costs, faster turnaround, and deeper expertise, while firm management seeks to improve collection rates and stem the cost of high associate turnover. One initiative that works with both imperatives is the drive to obtain greater value from assets in the form of knowledge management, also called work product retrieval efforts. One of the key assets of any firm is the work it has done in the past, as reflected in its work product. Yet historically, firms have not focused on getting full value from their accumulated work product. In the best cases, the wise use of a firm’s previously created work product can wrestle a bit of profitability from “commodity” services (like drafting employment agreements or stock incentive plans) that have increasingly become a necessary evil for a firm to hold on to a client’s more lucrative litigation or mergers and acquisitions work. Put another way: If a firm can do less research and drafting by better using existing documents, it has been estimated that it can reduce write-offs by at least 1 percent of revenue. That’s not an insignificant amount at a top firm. Just a few years ago, the management of work product was the province of individual lawyers. The most ambitious of these lawyers maintained their own files of forms or favorite briefs and contracts. Another crude form of knowledge management or expert identification takes the form of firmwide e-mails, in which an individual attorney requests information on a given topic. While firms in the last few years have tried to improve their knowledge management, efforts that encourage the sharing of work product have met with resistance from some lawyers. For one thing, steps necessary to facilitate knowledge management require extra work — attorneys or staff members must promote or publish materials to a practice page or Web site, or create detailed descriptions of materials (called document profiles). Beyond the extra work, the notion of sharing work has been viewed by some lawyers as giving away a competitive advantage. Resistance to “manual” approaches to creating shared repositories of proven template documents has led many firms to explore automated alternatives for meaningfully storing, categorizing, and accessing the firm’s intellectual capital. WHAT ABOUT THE DMS? In the last five to 10 years, many midsize to large-size firms have purchased and implemented document management systems (DMS) at a significant expense. Document management systems, as their name implies, exist to manage documents — so shouldn’t they be at the center of any work product retrieval efforts? Hypothetically, yes. In reality, no. Document management systems were designed, first and foremost, for aggregating all of a firm’s work product into one system. They do an excellent job of tracking different versions of a document and what comments were made by what author, but if an attorney wishes to cull through documents by criteria other than document number, client, or author, the DMS is woefully inadequate. Document management systems do have an apparatus for document retrieval — but for this searching tool to be effective, attorneys need to create a profile of the document in question, which can then be searched. The problem is that few if any attorneys take the time to complete the profile. Without accurate, consistent profiles for documents in the system, a “garbage in, garbage out” scenario occurs. This renders the search mechanisms in the DMS all but useless. CONTRASTING APPROACHES If you were to canvass a sampling of attorneys regarding their most pressing “knowledge management” needs, chances are the following demand would come up: “I want to get the right information when I need it.” On a more specific level, attorneys would also like to see a system that helps them access work product from other firm offices (and even from the public domain); an interface that’s intuitive and doesn’t require complex searches; and a search engine that returns only highly relevant search results, rather than an abundance of extraneous hits. Software developers and publishers have developed several new approaches in the last few years. One relies on universal searching systems. Universal searching systems set out to identify information from a multitude of sources, including the document management system. Full-text search results are aggregated from multiple sources, and can be ranked by relevance. 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, or the firm stores or manages a significant amount of its data outside of the DMS, such as in Lotus Notes, portals, or file servers (networked drives). Another approach for helping attorneys locate the right information at the right time comes in the form of targeted work product retrieval applications. Like the universal search approach, work product retrieval systems also mine and index the firm’s document set (DMS or otherwise), but with a focus on access to attorney work product. The most advanced of these systems include classification technologies that employ artificial intelligence to perform two key tasks: managing clutter in a firm’s collection, such as faxes, cover letters, proofs of service, and other administrative documents, which historically account for a great proportion of the documents on a firm’s servers and obfuscate real search results; and performing a level of substantive analysis concerning what is contained in each document. This level of analysis enables pinpoint searching by the type of criteria relevant to lawyers, such as document or transaction type, governing laws, jurisdiction, substantive areas, or even individual clauses. The thinking here is that attorneys and support staff will have a better chance of locating on-point documents from their internal knowledge banks if some specific information about each document is available. Working under the assumption that attorneys don’t have the time (or inclination) to create the profiles that capture information about each document, the work product retrieval system will do it for them, in an automated, “behind-the-scenes” fashion. Without going into detailed technical comparisons between the two approaches above, early adopters in the profession have shown a preference toward the second option as it best addresses the problem most prevalent to attorneys, which is identifying on-point work product in the most direct manner. While there is value in some of the peripheral databases that a universal search tool might scan beyond the firm’s work product collection, the overwhelming majority of the time, attorneys need effective access to their work product. The retrieval approach goes deepest in the area that matters most to lawyers and clients, and is therefore often regarded as the most immediate need. The automated analysis and classification engines in certain retrieval systems provide this targeted power, which makes them superior to systems relying on full-text searching. For example, let’s say an attorney was interested in locating construction-loan agreements concerning real estate transactions governed by the laws of the state of New York. In a work product retrieval system that includes automated profiling of documents, the system would recognize which documents are in fact construction-loan agreements governed by New York law, such that this specific type of agreement could be located immediately, without the attorney having to type in an elaborate search query and wade through extraneous results. 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. INSTITUTIONAL RESISTANCE A system that automates the capture and classification of work product inherently overcomes some of the resistance lawyers may have to sharing their work. But to realize the benefits of the system, a firm must foster a culture where use of the system is encouraged. Even if the application is easy to use, ongoing outreach to lawyers is necessary to strike home the importance of adopting the new technology. This outreach can take the shape of introductory product demonstrations or training sessions, conducted under the auspices of senior or even managing partners, with regularly scheduled (but less formal) follow-up sessions through the first three months of the product’s rollout. The latter could take the form of “lunch and learns.” In the last decade, adoption rates for new technologies have accelerated tremendously. On one level, firm management must groan at the prospect of purchasing and rolling out another technology. But on another, if the application is one that partners actually want to use, and one that can show some return on investment, it could make them look like heroes.
Rudolph DeFelice is president and chief executive officer of Practice Technologies Inc., a Venice, Calif.-based provider of software and content for legal professionals.

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