Process Improvement, Knowledge Management & the Intranet

The Hildebrandt Headlines published on this week, included a brief Insight article focusing on how law firms are using process improvement.  It also introduced a virtual seminar titled Lean Sigma: Process Improvement for Law Firms that Silvia Coulter will be presenting on Dec 3rd.  I always pay attention to what Silvia has to say and would recommend any of her presentations.

As a member of the Practice Innovations’ Editorial Board, I had the pleasure of participating in a meeting once a year where we (including Silvia) would discuss law firm innovations.  One of those meetings produced the October 2007 issue of Practice Innovations that focused on the process improvement models that law firms were starting to use.  Articles on Six Sigma, BPR (Business Process Re-engineering) and ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library).   All of those articles focused on process improvement.

Process improvement has been a focus of how I’ve worked (and continue to work)  since starting a  knowledge management position in 1986.  After all, knowledge management isn’t just managing a collection of work product.  If taken beyond that in law firms, it could be a tool for process improvement.  For example, developing a collection of best practices and checklists, should follow a review of a business process. 

I recently met with a young lawyer who had been assigned the job of studying what process her firm used when working with their clients on initial public offerings (IPOs).  The firm wanted to improve that process.  The result of her work was to create a list of best practices, checklists, documents for working on an IPO and documentation of the process plus training to make improvements to that process. 

While taking on the job, she was unsure of how to start and was looking for ideas.  She had found plenty of process improvement resources but none that related to the practice of law.  As she started this work, a mutual acquaintance recommended that she talk to me.    After she told me about her process improvement project, I told her that her project could be called a knowledge management initiative and there were articles and books that demonstrate how firms have used knowledge management to do what she had been assigned to do. 

As we continued to talk about  her project and how she might go about it, I recommended that she talk to her firm’s intranet manager to determine how she could present the new process and the materials that went with it.  After all, a law firm intranet has many purposes with one being the conduit for KM initiatives delivered using technology.

What constitutes a process improvement initiative using knowledge management  and delivered via the firm’s intranet?  Here are a few examples:

Matter Intake:  In the past, many firms built their own web-based system for matter intake using ASP, .NET, etc.  With a majority of firms now using SharePoint workflows to do the same thing, it would seem that creating something like this would be easy.  I’m thinking not, but with the right in-house or vendor support, it can be done.  Note, along with workflow vendor offerings, many of the enterprise accounting applications provide modules for this type of initiative.  Many firms implement these out of the box while others are looking for more customized applications that provide them just what they need (no trade-offs).  Tom Baldwin wrote about creating workflows with SharePoint in his article, Rethinking Workflow, Practice Innovations, October 2008, page 4.

Deal Tracker:  Firms need to keep track of their merger, acquisition, real estate, and other deals for marketing purposes.  One firm I worked with kept a Word document for merger & acquisitions where everyone was supposed to send their deals to one lawyer who would enter the information.  Not only a waste of time for all, but they often didn’t capture what they needed. 

We worked to develop a mashup where new matter data for specific types of deals was drawn from their accounting system together and displayed on a web page where those reporting the deals could add additional information (stored in a separate database).  We also added the documents from the deal which had been scanned for placement on a DVD or extranet, to our deal tracker.  It became a single location for information about all deals in the firm and could be used to prepare marketing materials for proposals as well as report on deals to the media and the firm could also retrieve samples of deal documents prepared internally and by the law firm on the other side of the deal. 

See the SydneyPlus website for an M&A Deal Tracker example (Search/Results pageData Entry page). 

Client/Matter Centricity (C/MC): C/MC provides billing, staffing, documents, revenue, etc. information about a matter done for a particular client.  There are many intranet solutions out there for client and/or matter centricity and, as with the client intake solutions, many firms implement them without customization.  Here again, a review of the process that currently exists at a firm should be done before implementing anything.  What is the process for obtaining that information at the firm currently?  What works and what doesn’t?  How can it be improved?  All too often firm’ s accept a cookie cutter solution that may not meet their needs.

So what is the point of all this for those of you managing an intranet?  I learned a long time ago, from an intranet manager who consistently created solutions that worked, that you never automate a process or build intranet solutions for a process unless you’ve done a review and looked for ways to improve that process.  Good advice.

~ Nina Platt


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