Best Practices should be right up there with motherhood and apple pie. So why did a gathering of large law firm knowledge managers conclude that law firms were lagging behind other businesses in implementing best practices?
About one year ago, I participated in a lively panel discussion about best practices in law firms. My colleagues on the panel were very experienced, well-regarded knowledge managers from top tier New York City law firms. In the audience were knowledge managers from large law firms all over the United States and Canada.
With the exception of one firm (mine), it appeared that the consensus view was that lawyers weren't terribly interested in identifying, documenting and following best practices. Some participants posited that this was due to the fact that lawyers are artisans and as such were much more interested in pursuing their craft individually rather than establishing corporate guidelines. Others suggested that lawyers had fallen into the habit of assuming that the best version of an agreement was the one signed in their most recent deal. However, as recent law suits in Delaware have demonstrated, not every signed agreement is a model of clarity and concision.
So what can a knowledge manager do to begin to address this? Focus on areas of the business that are subject to high levels of risk: examples in a law firm are opinion letter writing, electronic discovery, etc. And then begin to document your firm's current policies and practices in this area. Because of the driving need for effective risk management, these are areas in which lawyers are most likely to be willing to give up some of their individual creative freedoms in order to ensure the safety of the firm.
Once you've dealt with the high risk areas, you can turn to areas of practice where there is significant volume or routinized work. By establishing best practices here, you can make these practices more efficient and more profitable. These obviously are great incentives for lawyers and their firms.
Of course the catch in all of this is establishing sufficient consensus within your firm regarding what constitutes a best practice. This is the point at which many attempts at documenting best practices fail. It's easy if you have a single authority in the area who can simply designate a best practice. In the absence of such authority, your next best bet is to work with senior people in your organization who understand the scope of the risk and are willing to act to reduce the firm's exposure in this area. Failing that, use the best judgment of your colleagues (as reflected in their work and client advice, as well as internal training materials) to derive a list of best practices. Then make those available, not as a gold standard or firm policy, but rather as recommendations. If these practices are sensible, they will be adopted.
If you would like to read more about the panel discussion on law firm best practices, see Ron Friedmann's helpful article, KM Best Practices.