Wide-reaching knowledge management at Irish firm A&L Goodbody
By Jack O'Farrell and Paula Reid
In the past 12 months in particular, A&L Goodbody has been the recipient of a number of significant business and legal awards. Such accolades are a testament to the hard work and commitment of the firm’s lawyers and support staff, and are a tangible manifestation of the success of its business strategy.
With the firm performing so well in a diverse range of business sectors, the partners might be forgiven for letting things such as the knowledge function take a back seat. This, however, has not been the case with A&L Goodbody, in fact quite the reverse. Over the past two years especially, there has been increased partner focus on knowledge development. This commenced in the summer of 2004 with the appointment of Jack O’Farrell, then a senior partner in the corporate department, as knowledge-development partner. He is assisted by Paula Reid, the firm’s director of knowledge development.
Knowledge growthWhile a know-how function was first established at A&L Goodbody in the late 1980s, the focus of the department at that time was on risk-management issues, chiefly ensuring that its lawyers were up to date on key legal developments and that its precedent bank was in good shape. Over the years, with the growth of the firm, the knowledge department has developed both in terms of personnel, structures and technical support, and also in its role as a key element of the firm’s business strategy.
On the people side, following a recruitment drive, there are now:
While dedicated know-how personnel are crucial to a law firm’s knowledge function, in our view a successful knowledge strategy can only be implemented through the hands-on involvement of our partners and senior lawyers – particularly in creating top-quality knowledge products, such as precedents, practice notes and other know-how materials, then sharing these among the firm’s 330 fee earners. The focus in the past year has been on facilitating and supporting this activity.
This investment in knowledge activity has stemmed from the realisation that the knowledge function must support the firm’s core practice areas, and that it is crucial to align the knowledge strategy with the firm’s overall business strategy. Our lawyers, in turn, are increasingly seeing the important three-way connection between:
1. The firm’s knowledge function;
2. The delivery of proactive, solution-focused legal advice, which is of the highest quality, to clients;
3. The firm’s business and financial performance.
Branding The firm has gradually moved away from the concept of ‘know-how’ in favour of the broader title of ‘knowledge’. This reflects the fact that delivery of top-quality, commercial legal advice requires much more than technical legal expertise. It relies also on ensuring that our lawyers have access to the accumulated expertise gained from the involvement of the firm in high-profile, cutting-edge transactions over many years. On the training side, it means more than merely focusing on legal skills, instead extending to a range of soft skills, such as presentation skills and case management. As part of this change, the profile of the knowledge department was enhanced, with a formal relocation of knowledge staff to designated offices adjacent to lawyers and the simultaneous launch of a ‘knowledge brand’. A logo was developed for the firm’s legal updates, transaction information, newsletters and intranet sites, and all knowledge products and services developed by the group are branded with this logo, which is instantly recognisable as being part of the knowledge function. This has proved to be a simple but surprisingly effective move. There are also practical benefits – for example, it is quite easy to spot a folder that has gone missing if it is sitting in a fee earner’s office stamped with a knowledge logo.
Integration of functionsThe library, training and knowledge functions have traditionally worked closely together, but the manager of each one has usually reported to a different partner – and they tended to be perceived as separate and discrete functions. One of the key strategic steps taken in 2004 was to unify the separate functions under the same knowledge brand. Meetings of the wider group are now held regularly and all three functions are becoming more integrated, with each contributing to the support of the firm’s lawyers and clients.
Relocation and rebranding of the library In 2006, the firm decided to take a fresh look at its traditional law library, which was based on the ground floor of its main offices in the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin. This resulted in a move to a more open-plan area situated beside lawyers’ offices on the first floor. As part of the branding and integration initiatives mentioned above, the new information service was christened the ‘knowledge centre’. Juliet Humphries of Pierian Spring Consulting, formerly director of knowledge at Linklaters, was retained to oversee the transition and to help ensure that the centre and its personnel had a business and client focus. This was to ensure that the centre’s information officers assisted fee earners not just with legal queries and research, but also with business and commercial information relating to clients and their activities.
Further infrastructure developmentA&L Goodbody has had a know-how database for many years and, in line with most modern law firms, has access to an ever-increasing number of online legal and business-research systems. While fingertip access has its benefits, it can also mean that the burden of learning and using a plethora of diverse information systems increasingly falls on busy lawyers.
As part of the re-organisation of our information and knowledge-management (KM) systems, we invested in the SolSearch search engine, which enables fee earners to simultaneously search logical groups of information sources using a single search form. Feedback from the pilot group was good and it was rolled out earlier this year. Usage has been consistently high. It works well on single word or phrase queries and on particular groups of resources such as precedents, in-house position papers, practice notes and case law. Importantly for us, we were satisfied that the order and number of results returned on a search via the search engine were consistent with the results obtained if the user executed the search on the underlying database using its own search form. This was important for credibility and acceptance by our lawyers, who would be likely to query any material variations in hit numbers, even if there were good technical explanations. The list of hits returned on SolSearch also provides quick links back to more advanced search forms on the underlying databases, for those users who wish to use them.
Currently, the focus in this important area is on enhanced development of the firm’s knowledge databases by adding new practice areas to our knowledge intranet, and keeping existing practice sites up to date. The firm uses its document-management system to store much of its electronic know-how and tries to leverage as much use as possible from this investment. Together with the firm’s IT department, our knowledge-content manager continuously monitors developments in newer technologies, such as portals, enterprise-search engines and content-management systems, to investigate whether investment is merited, which would improve productivity and enhance response times.
Training and developmentThe firm has recognised that knowledge systems have implications for important human-resources issues, such as recruitment and retention. The partners believe that it is very important to invest in the right training and professional development for their trainees and lawyers, as this helps to ensure that good people stay with us and, also, that the firm hires the best lawyers. This year, Paul White, the head of our corporate department, worked with the knowledge department and a number of partners across other areas, as well as with our training staff, to establish a corporate-induction programme for solicitors qualified up to four years. This programme was organised as an intensive series of seminars and tutorials, which were spread over a number of days and led by experienced partners from different disciplines. While the investment in such programmes, in terms of time and other resources, is significant, we believe it has been a success and will become a permanent feature of the professional development of our lawyers in the future.
The firm is also moving forward with e-learning initiatives. Research by our training unit has shown that there are certain areas of work that lend themselves to some aspects of e-learning, and we have experimented with some different formats. We are still on a learning curve with this initiative, as are many other firms, but we see the potential to reduce training costs and add to the range of services the knowledge group can provide for its lawyers and the firm’s clients.
Reward and recognition for knowledge contributionsThe firm has recognised that, while good PSL support is crucial to a successful knowledge function, it is equally important that partners and senior lawyers are involved in disseminating quality legal content. The knowledge group is lucky to have the support and participation of very experienced lawyers who are at the coalface in terms of deal expertise, having been involved in many high-profile, demanding and innovative transactions. We have, therefore, focused on developing appropriate methodologies to capture and release this knowledge so that, where appropriate, it can be shared and utilised across the firm.
The firm adopts a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to ensuring that the right lawyers are given the necessary support to participate in knowledge development, as, inevitably, this will compete with the demands of client work and billing. As a result, knowledge contribution has been built into fee earners’ annual appraisals. In addition, knowledge contributions are recognised within the firm’s bonus schemes. At departmental level, there are also separate incentivisation schemes to reward, in a more tangible way, contributions of high-quality legal content, such as practice notes, checklists and other valuable know-how. Prizes awarded range from a day in a beauty spa to golf lessons and, curiously, these awards have had a very positive impact on the level of knowledge contributions being made.
Project-management approach to knowledge initiatives The firm is very conscious of the challenges and realities involved in seeking to liberate busy fee earners from the demands of client work and asking them to focus part of their time on knowledge activities, which can be both time consuming and technically demanding projects. Therefore, we try to offer the relevant fee earners as much support as possible. For example, when updating precedents and allocating responsibility for certain documents to fee earners, we adopt a project-management approach to the exercise. This means that the project is managed by the director of knowledge development and appropriate partners, such as the knowledge-development partner and department head, to ensure that it is completed within certain timescales and that where a particular lawyer is especially busy with client work, support from the department is given to enable them to complete the project on time.
Cultural changeAll of these initiatives have had the effect of prompting a significant change in the firm’s culture and attitudes towards knowledge creation and sharing, the result being that knowledge contribution and participation in knowledge initiatives are increasingly seen as an important component not just of the strategy of individual practice groups, but also of the firm’s overall business strategy. While it will always be a challenge for such activity to compete with the billable hour, the connection between this and financial performance is now something that is much more manifested than previously. Most importantly, perhaps, is the realisation that knowledge is the essence of a law firm’s business and excellent KM systems are crucial in delivering excellent legal commercial advice to clients. The unambiguous and wholehearted support of the firm’s managing partner, Paul Carroll, as well as the heads of departments and other business functions, has been a key factor in bringing about this cultural change and has sent a clear message, both internally and externally, that knowledge activity is important, is part and parcel of the professional development of the firm’s lawyers – and is here to stay.
Jack O’Farrell and Paula Reid are, respectively, knowledge-development partner and director of knowledge development at Irish firm A&L Goodbody. They can be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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