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In the Navy, when there’s nothing else to do, sailors hoist a mop and swab the decks. Now it’s time for the 21st century law firm equivalent: knowledge management. At Silicon Valley firms, where the pace of work is moving about as fast as a moored ship, some in the lower ranks have been given orders to stop waiting for billable work and turn to collecting, arranging and distributing their firm’s information. While they’re at it, some get a pay cut, too. Menlo Park, Calif.’s Venture Law Group was the first to make knowledge management the order of the day. In May the firm told six associates to move down or move out. For a pay cut of about 30 percent, VLG associates were given the chance to work on the firm’s knowledge management project, called, in appropriately newspeak terms, the Better Client Services Initiative. Two associates left the firm. But four took the offer and are now annotating form documents, putting the firm’s Rolodex online, and creating deal databases. Their jobs are guaranteed only through November. “Once business goes up, they will have the option to go back to the field of law,” says partner Joshua Green, who is heading the project. But, he adds, “there are no guarantees in life, and especially not in Silicon Valley.” At San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and Palo Alto, Calif.’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, knowledge management work is fully paid and voluntary. In June, Brobeck chairman Tower Snow Jr. sent a memo asking idle corporate associates for two months of their time. Thirty associates who were twiddling their thumbs are now drowning in the arcana of legal research. What’s better? Writing an S 3/A registration, or writing a summary of the perfect S 3/A registration? Wilson has also asked associates to help on projects such as a database of important court decisions. It assembled “team captains,” who manage about a dozen research projects. “It should be perceived as an honor to be selected to work on a project,” says Donna Petkanics, Wilson’s managing partner of operations. The firm, which has logged about 8,000 nonbillable hours since it began the project late last year, counts knowledge management hours in associate reviews. At Brobeck, these hours are prorated to apply toward the firm’s target billable hours. Although the work won’t generate immediate revenue, these firms still hope it will be valuable by making them more efficient when the economy rebounds. That’s fine, assuming it rebounds eventually — and as long as the systems are continuously updated. Firms that already have sophisticated internal systems, like London’s Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, have dozens of full-time, nonpartnership-track knowledge management lawyers. Still, knowledge management Silicon Valley-style earns the firms points for their humane instincts. “The fact that firms are trying to be creative to hold on to their talent gives the sense that they’re trying to weather this,” says San Francisco Bay Area recruiter Avis Caravello. Those who take the work say they don’t mind it — even if it’s not the reason they have those law degrees on the walls. “As the economy stays bad, people are more and more willing to help out,” says Michael Todd, of counsel in Brobeck’s Washington, D.C., office, who has offered to pitch in to work on Brobeck’s document database as his technology transactional practice slows down. One associate at a Silicon Valley firm agrees, although she says her work on an internal technology project makes her feel more like a product manager than a lawyer. “It’s not something I’d do forever,” she says. But for now, it’s better than jumping ship.

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