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For years, the knowledge management movement has been long on promise and short on payoff. Big-firm lawyers like the idea of having access to well-organized repositories of work product. But most firms have balked at the cost of getting big KM systems up and running. But the times, they are a-changing. About six weeks ago, San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison rolled out what may well be the most advanced legal knowledge management system. Brobeck’s application — not-so ingeniously titled “BrobeckNet 2.0″ — is the result of five years of work and an untold amount of money (the new Brobeck brass is keeping uncharacterisically tight reins on the financial details). The system — a beefed-up version of an earlier model — ties into every piece of work product that’s ever resided in a Brobeck document management system, according to Jeffrey Rovner, the firm’s director of knowledge management. Every equipment lease and Hart-Scott-Rodino filing from 1995 on is available in just a few keystrokes. Client and financial data dating back to the mid-1970s is also on the system — who brought in what clients, who worked on what matters, and, of course, who made the most rain in, say, 1992. “It’s good for figuring out who to staff on a case or matter,” says Rovner. “And, of course, it’s great for beauty contests [for prospective clients].” The application has the look and feel of an intranet. “We wanted it to look like the Amazon.com site,” says Rovner. To wit: Four tabs appear at the top of each screen. The tabs allow lawyers to shuttle from one database within the system to the next. And that lets them search in a variety of ways: by client number, by lawyer, or by topic. Most off-the-shelf document management systems can retrieve documents by client and matter number. But Rovner and his staff spent years building a system made up of several hundred topical categories. A first-year associate who types “venture capital” into the search window under the topic tab might get back forms for private equity deals, upcoming CLE information and documents from recent venture capital financings. “This is what sets [Brobeck's] system apart,” says Sally Gonzalez, a consultant at Hildebrandt International. “Anybody can set a portal on a document management system and call it KM. But Jeff has put years into building a sophisticated taxonomy. Few others have done the hard, unglamorous work that Jeff has.” Across the country, firms are buying into the old saw that KM is more about understanding law firms than understanding technology. So they’re bringing in attorneys like Rovner to spearhead their efforts. Atlanta’s King & Spalding recently set up a firmwide “Knowledge Management Council” and hired Bradley Robbins, a lawyer-turned-executive from Sprint Corp., to take the K&S KM reins. And New York’s White & Case last month hired Shearman & Sterling Chief Information Officer Eugene Stein to work full time on KM. Ironically, it’s Brobeck that’s doing the paring back. In the late 1990s, when the firm was riding high on the tech wave, it employed four full-time KM staffers other than Rovner. But last month, budget tightening forced the firm to axe three of the four. “The firm made its decision, and now we have to move forward,” says Rovner, struggling to mask his disappointment. After all, sometimes less is less.

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