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It’s readily apparent that Chris Boyd is proud of his work as a knowledge manager at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. After all, the results of his efforts resonate throughout the firm. Boyd credits the work of the Palo Alto, Calif., firm’s knowledge management staff with helping lawyers attract clients who otherwise might have gone elsewhere. “We’re able to put our entire firm’s knowledge base at our attorneys’ fingertips,” says Boyd. “Knowledge management has really been a way we can serve clients better.” To many, the job description of a knowledge manager is as amorphous as the title itself. Part librarian and part traffic cop, a knowledge manager’s main task is to corral the vast number of informational tidbits generated daily at a firm the size of Wilson Sonsini — everything from provisions tucked into hundreds of venture capital contracts to the myriad details found in obscure transactional agreements drafted by armies of associates — and place it all within easy and orderly reach of the firm’s lawyers and other staffers. “That means you can put the entire firm’s expertise in the hands of one attorney,” says Boyd. “After all, when clients hire a firm, they want the benefit of the entire firm’s body of expertise.” As an example, he mentions the time that a former Wilson Sonsini client, who had drafted a new business plan and was looking for a consultant to review and offer advice, contacted an associate at the firm. While the associate was on the phone with the former client, he called up a database created by the knowledge management department to find phone numbers for three consultants recommended by other lawyers at the firm. The former client was so impressed with the associate’s ability to provide information that quickly, he hired Wilson Sonsini as company counsel when he secured funding for the business plan. In another case, an associate there was working on a complex three-way joint development agreement involving universities and government funding. Using the firm’s knowledge management systems, the associate was able to find four similar agreements that a senior partner had already put together. “Lawyers by nature want to ask, and knowledge management can provide advice,” says Boyd. But knowledge management has been slower to catch on among American law firms compared to European firms and the general business community. London-based Clifford Chance, for instance, already employs more than 100 people on its knowledge management staff while Fortune 500 companies, with tens of thousands of employees on the rolls, similarly find knowledge management to be an indispensable part of doing business. Traditionally, however, American law firms have rarely been large enough to warrant large knowledge management departments, says John Hokkanen, knowledge manager at Latham & Watkins. “If you look at the history of the legal profession, it’s only recently that law firms have come to this kind of size.” It also seems as if knowledge management still has a way to go before it is more widely embraced in the legal business. Typically, firms that employ hundreds of lawyers continue to operate with relatively few knowledge managers — anywhere from a lone person to perhaps as many as 20. Often, they will combine their knowledge duties with other tasks and titles, such as training director. Boyd first worked at Wilson Sonsini as an associate but left in 1997 to set up knowledge management systems at US Web Inc., a Web consulting company in Santa Clara, Calif., that had been represented by the firm. “As a lawyer I had always been looking to do things more efficiently,” says Boyd. He returned to Wilson Sonsini in November 2001 to begin its own knowledge management department. Some firms incorporate knowledge managers into their technology department given the heavy reliance on technological tools when it comes to organizing so much information. Ultimately, a knowledge manager needs to find easy and convenient ways for attorneys and others to interact with their firm’s knowledge management system. “The core technology there is a Web server and a browser,” says Jeff Rovner, a knowledge manager at Clifford Chance who used to perform similar duties at San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. Lawyers use browsers to access a Web page that allows them to enter information into the knowledge management database as well as find information they need, explains Rovner. Knowledge managers can then organize the lawyer-supplied information with the help of outlining software such as NoteMap. “That makes it easy to organize vast quantities of information,” says Rovner. Knowledge managers then sort through the information to help determine what is most relevant to lawyers and what is not. At first blush a knowledge manager’s job might seem identical to that of a firm librarian. “There’s really a continuum,” says Rovner. “Because many knowledge managers have practiced law, they can create resources some librarians would find hard to relate to. The goal of knowledge management is to remove the friction from the practice of law.” Peter Krakaur, a former colleague of Rovner’s at Brobeck, agrees. “Some firms recognize the value that knowledge management can add to the firm as a business, that knowledge management can provide a superior client service,” says Krakaur, who now heads knowledge management at San Francisco’s Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe. He contrasts that with other firms that are wary of embracing knowledge management systems. “They aren’t really focused on these strategic initiatives,” he says. As part of a firmwide staff reduction, Brobeck cut several non-attorney positions a few months ago, including those held by Krakaur, Rovner and three of their colleagues in the knowledge management department. The move raised eyebrows in some law firm management circles simply because Brobeck had been one of the pioneering American firms in knowledge management. Starting three years ago with only one knowledge manager, the firm had increased its knowledge management staff to five people until the cutbacks hit. A Brobeck spokesman, who asked not to be identified, says the firm decided that it was unnecessary to continue with a five-person knowledge management staff. “The content would be stronger if the attorneys working on the case themselves provided the content.” Knowledge managers say that cutbacks like those at Brobeck remain the exception and that larger firms are continuing to launch extensive knowledge management initiatives. Even so, the task of successfully shepherding all those stray bits of information found within law firms is never an easy one. “It’s like rolling a rock up a hill,” says Hokkanen, at Latham & Watkins. “You just have to keep constant pressure on it to make it a success. It can’t happen all at once. This is not just implementing an e-mail system.” A large part of the challenge is getting busy lawyers to carve out time for information-oriented meetings. That’s when knowledge managers get to pepper the attorneys with questions about what is useful and what is not. Another challenge, at least on occasion, arises when a lawyer at a firm is reluctant to contribute information to a knowledge management database. A lawyer may not want to share contact lists, for example, if such information is regarded as a vital part of that attorney’s own client-development effort. Some lawyers “may be interested in keeping their own book of business,” says Krakaur, who adds that he did not encounter that either at Brobeck or at Heller, his current firm. On the other hand, Krakaur says that many attorneys are quick to see that effective knowledge management allows for more efficient client work, which ultimately helps to bring in more business to firms and individual lawyers. At Wilson Sonsini, meanwhile, the knowledge management effort has involved a volunteer group of 50 attorneys who have helped to organize the company’s knowledge system. The group broke down into smaller groups to mine through information and advise knowledge managers on how best to handle the body of knowledge that exists within the firm. “We wanted to determine what kind of transactions we do the most of and start to catalog those,” says Herbert Fockler, a Wilson Sonsini partner who had a hand in starting the firm’s knowledge management department. “I would say a knowledge management system pays back incrementally. It’s not like it happens all at once.” Ultimately, says Krakaur and others, knowledge management is an easy sell to firms considering it. “It creates a broader base for the individual lawyer, too,” says Krakaur. “They don’t know all the contacts that another employee has. If you want to do business with another client, you’ll create a much richer environment for that. They personally may get more business and the firm is increasing its business. And the client gets a broader level of service.” Andrew Simons is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.

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