Knowledge Management

Episode 16: Vishal Agnihotri on Knowledge Management for Law Firms and Legal Departments

Our guest this time is Vishal Agnihotri, Chief Knowledge Officer (or “CKO”) for the Chicago based national law firm, Hinshaw & Culbertson. As CKO, Vishal is responsible for the firm’s knowledge management programs. 

What is knowledge management? Vishal has a great way of defining it: the ability to identify critical knowledge within an organization and then leveraging it to serve up at the right time for the right purpose.

Vishal explains that law firms are great candidates for knowledge management and that for law firm KM programs to succeed, CKOs must work closely with the firm’s Chief Information Officers and Chief Marketing Officers (CIO and CMO).

Vishal talks about her many responsibilities as a law firm CKO including keeping up with changes in legal tech, vendor management, making sure tools and software the firm already owns are used effectively and educating others about KM and related tools.

For law firms and legal departments interested in implementing a knowledge management program, Vishal says the first step is determining what constitutes “critical knowledge” and to use tools to organize that critical information. She suggests a good starting point is a collaboration platform to share knowledge and pose questions and to also utilize a good intranet for the organization.

To connect with Vishal, you can find her on LinkedIn.

 

Legal Founder Segment: Jeff Kerr of CaseFleet

We also talk to Jeff Kerr, the CEO of CaseFleet. A case chronology and management tool for lawyers that helps attorneys review evidence, organize facts, and identify trends in legal matters. Jeff also points out that CaseFleet is also used by investigative reporters and expert witnesses.

You can find CaseFleet on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

Things We Talk About in This Episode:

Peter Drucker Knowledge Workers

 

Episode Credits

Editing and Production: Grant Blackstock

Theme Music: Home Base (Instrumental Version) by TA2MI

 

 

Podcast Transcript

Chad Main: I’m Chad Main, and this is Technically Legal, a podcast about the intersection of technology and the practice of law, where each week we’ll talk to a different mover or shaker in the legal and technology field. We learn a little about them, what they’ve been up to, and hopefully get some real-world tips that will help lawyers better use technology in their legal practices. You just heard from Vishal Agnihotri. She’s the chief knowledge officer for the law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson. In this episode we talk to her about knowledge management for law firms and legal departments. We also talk to Jeff Kerr, the CEO and founder of CaseFleet, case chronology software for lawyers.

In this episode we’re talking about knowledge management. What is knowledge management? In short, it’s a way for companies, law firms and legal departments to keep track of the information they collect in their day-to-day business. If ever there is an industry that has a use for knowledge management or KM, for short, it’s the law. The cornerstone of law is knowledge and precedent. Although when many think of lawyers, they might think of a stunning closing argument by a trial lawyer or a shrewd negotiator sitting across the conference table getting the best deal for the client, but as we lawyers know, the vast majority of a lawyer’s time is not spent on exciting verbal activities. In fact, the vast majority of time spent practicing law is doing the mundane, taking a look at the written word, reviewing legal documents, examining contract templates, or looking into laws handed out by governing bodies.

All this information used to be stored in file cabinets and books, but in the digital age, it is stored on computers, and there’s a lot more of it. This is why law is such a perfect profession for knowledge management. Despite what we want to think, not every legal matter cuts new ground or requires lawyers to come up with some new novel legal theory or create a new contract clause. Chances are really good another lawyer somewhere else, probably even in the same law firm or legal department, was hired before to address the same problem. This lawyer has notes, research or document templates that, again, could be put to use. But, often, all that prior knowledge is not that easy to find. It may not be organized, or it may not even be available. That’s where knowledge management comes in.

Our guest today is Vishal Agnihotri. She is the CKO, or chief knowledge officer, for Hinshaw & Culbertson. Although Vishal studied marketing, she got into knowledge management pretty early in her career. Before she made the jump to the legal industry, she worked at consulting and accounting heavyweights like KPMG and Ernst & Young. Vishal has a great way of succinctly describing knowledge management: It’s the ability to identify the critical knowledge within an organization, and then leveraging that information to serve it up at the right time for the right purpose.

Vishal: Knowledge workers, this was a term that Peter Drucker came up with. They’re workers whose main capital is knowledge. When you’re talking about accountants or lawyers or engineers or doctors, they all fall in the same category. Their work involves non-routine problem solving, and it involves convergent and divergent thinking. So, in both capacities, knowledge management is just about raising the corporate IQ, the collective intelligence of the firm itself, and the ability to build on each other’s ideas. So what we sell in a professional services firm is really between our ears. If you’re smart about it, you want to capitalize on what you know, what you’ve done before, so that you can make better margins going forward.

The purpose of a good knowledge management program is really to identify those key critical crown jewels of knowledge, if you will, that, when we leverage correctly, will serve for the firm’s benefit at the right time for the right purpose. Traditionally, this has been a very labor intensive process, so knowledge management was more about curating knowledge, gathering it, painfully, disseminating it for the greater good. We’re finding that that approach is becoming harder to sustain as we live in a world where information has just exploded. There’s an overload, if anything. So it’s giving way to an alternative approach that uses both technology and adaptive behavior to manage knowledge that’s internal to a firm, to manage knowledge that’s external to a firm as well.

 

Technology Begat Knowledge Management and Technology is Needed to Handle Knowledge Management

Chad Main: The interesting thing about knowledge management is that it’s kind of a thing solely because of technology. There has been an explosion of data as a result of the digitization of information, and you need even more technology to get a handle on all this digital information.

Vishal: We create, we curate, and we share digital knowledge in many more forms today than ever before, so firms end up needing a helping hand with managing all of that, in the service of their clients, with well designed systems that everyone understands and that everyone uses. I say uses because sometimes the scale and complexity of interactions between people and content can actually lead to increased business risks, so it is important that people understand how to use the systems, but they also have a fuller understanding of information governance and try to be compliant with that. All of this cannot sit on the shoulders of billable attorneys, and so they do need help with sorting through emerging technologies and evolving regulations around data.

So your point about, yes, somehow the electronic control and management of files of documents has led to some of this issue, and yet we turn back to knowledge. There used to be a time, at least when I started in this discipline 21 years ago, where piecing together information was the larger challenge. These days, that has become lesser of a challenge. What we face now is the challenge of filtering, of accessibility. I think, to some degree, people have started to undervalue information. They think it’s just abundant and it’s at your fingertips, but we know that that’s not the case. We have to make sure that you have integrated your systems well and you’ve employed better search engines, smarter systems, better filtering, and accessibility. Everybody wants it mobile, et cetera. So, yes, some of the problems have been created by technology, and we’re using other forms of technology to now address those.

 

Responsibilities of Law Firm CKO

Chad Main: So now that we have an idea of what knowledge management is, what does a law firm CKO do?

Vishal: As a CKO for a law firm, I straddle the world of business strategy and technology. I work very closely with the firm’s CIO, and my other partner in crime is the CMO. The CKO, like I said, introduces the firm to new tools, new processes, new idea that will enable faster and more effective access to useful, to actionable intelligence. I have a team that oversees all of the research, both legal as well as business research. We manage the vendor relationships for our digital research resources, print collections, et cetera. I’m also responsible for the vendor selection, implementation, training adoption of knowledge tools. This could be a knowledge sharing platform. It could be a smarter search engine, just integrating systems in order to be able to get to answers more effectively.

Even more important than that, while we are looking at surfacing the knowledge we have, because of the exploding legal tech landscape, there are lots of opportunities to automate specific, basic tasks. So what e-discovery tools did for document review, there are now so many other tools in the marketplace that are similarly automating some basic tasks, but changing the game very dramatically. That becomes our role to be sort of a technology purveyor, to go ahead and sort through the tech landscape and make sure that you find the right fits for your organization.

While we’re on that topic, a huge part of the role that I think nobody else necessarily has in the firm, or is at least expected to have, is keeping a lookout for new and interesting technologies. We talk about AI, machine learning, blockchain, et cetera. What are the new tools? What are the new technologies that are popping up? Is any of that relevant to our processes, to our workflows? Do we see them as things that can augment how we do things? Can they be possibilities for new service lines? Are they possibly threats to how we’re doing things? In terms of emerging technologies and both evolving regulations around data privacy, data practices, all of that is also a responsibility that the CKO has.

 

Law Firm CKOs Work Closely With Chief Information Officers and Chief Knowledge Officers

Chad Main: It used to be the only acronyms for business positions was CEO and CFO. Now there are quite a few acronyms hanging around the C-suite. As noted, Vishal is a CKO, or chief knowledge officer. In that role she works closely with the law firm’s CIO and CMO. That’s chief information officer and chief marketing officer.

Vishal: The CIO definitely offers, I would say … I’m going to use anatomical references here. The CIO definitely offers the backbone for the organization, so they’re not only making sure that the lights are kept running and the servers are humming and emails are sent the way they should be, with security and encryption and so on and so forth, and everything they do, in that sense, is mission critical. A lot of their work actually falls on the backend. A lot of times, I think, at the frontend, people don’t even know the extent of the work that’s going on.

In contrast, a CKO, a chief knowledge officer, does everything in the frontend space. So if they’re bringing in a new tool or a new technology, it is almost always to either bring the firm together. So, again, anatomically, if I reference it, it would be more like a nervous system, where you’re gluing everything together. You’re making sure all the connections are made, the dots are connected. Also, you can’t get away without making the main constituents actually use your tools. That’s the whole point. You cannot deploy it and then just hope that they will use it. You need to almost cultivate it, nurture it, make sure that they are paying attention, that they are using it the way it’s meant to.

There’s an element of adoption that is much more stronger, or an element of change management, I feel, that is much more stronger in a CKO’s job description, because you have to ensure that each user, each intended user, is using the new tool or is implementing the new process the way it’s meant to be. They may not get it the first time. There’s a marketing rule that says seven times you have to touch something to have enough brand recall. It’s similar. I think lawyers, paralegals are extremely busy. They have billable pressures. So in order to make a successful implementation, you absolutely need to make sure that they’re grabbing their attention and convincing them of why they should be using something, why they should change the way they’re doing something.

 

CKOs Must Educate Others

Chad Main: You just heard Vishal mention a couple of times that part of her job is educating others at her law firm at the tools and tech available to them. So I asked her to expand on that a little bit.

Vishal: The law firms make excellent cases, no pun intended, for the application of knowledge management. So one of the ways to explain to them how this works out is everybody is learning. Their entire job, their entire role as a professional rests on the idea of what they know, what they’ve learned. I don’t mean just what they learned in law school. Who knows what? Who knows whom? A lot of that is learned. It’s built upon. It’s interpreted in different ways. It’s managed, and it grows exponentially with their career. Some of it is lost to turnover. Not everybody grows up in the firm together forever. Some of it is just wasted, if you don’t capture it in any systematic way. Some will always be impossible to codify and share. But what we can share, and I’ve come to believe that a lot of the just-in-time knowledge that can be shared, can really, really change the game for them.

These are professionals who’ve spent a lifetime perfecting their craft. They get very specialized, very deep in a subject, and now they’re suddenly being challenged for even better service, quicker service, cheaper service, by the client. Knowledge management helps build that ecosystem of … We don’t expect partners to, on their own, take time, or lawyers, on their own, to take time and write down lessons learned from a specific case or some a-ha moment that they had. But as the knowledge officer in the firm, you can now build out the systems and bring them along in a way that makes it easier for them.

Under no circumstance can you build a system or create something for them that makes them cringe at the idea of knowledge sharing. So how do I educate them? A, by showing them that this is how other firms, other professional firms, have been doing it for decades now. By doing so, they’ve achieved better margins. They improve their not just marketplace value, but also wallet share with clients. Because the more you can codify this is what we do, this is what we’re known for, the more you can capitalize on that for future engagements, for future client relationships. In some ways, I think it’s not even rocket science. It can be uncomfortable, I will give you that, for law firms, for lawyers.

Chad Main: How so?

Vishal: So a lot of lawyers of the … I guess, trained many years ago, I think took the line, “Knowledge is power,” very seriously. I think, by that, they meant individual knowledge is power. My idea back to them is it is still power, but collective knowledge is even more powerful. So they are hesitant, sometimes, to put in the time or put in the effort or put in the mind share to help you with your knowledge platform, to endorse it, to participate in it fully themselves, largely because they’ve gotten this far without it, so they feel like they can continue to do so. But we don’t live in the same world that we did 20 years ago. Like I said, client expectations have moved. The marketplace dynamics have changed. So we really want to focus on what the marketplace looks like today and what works and what doesn’t work for today’s marketplace, for today’s client.

 

Legal Founder Segment: Jeff Kerr CEO of CaseFleet

Chad Main: Let’s take five away from our talk with Vishal, because now it’s time for our legal founder segment. This time around, we’re talking to Jeff Kerr. He’s the founder and CEO of CaseFleet, case chronology software for lawyers, and, as we will find out, software that’s used by others outside the legal realm. Jeff, thanks for being here today. Tell us a little bit about CaseFleet.

Jeff Kerr: Thanks, Chad. CaseFleet is a tool for creating chronologies of facts, and it’s designed for litigators and investigators, people who care about the facts and the evidence and who believe that mastering the facts of their case is the best way to win.

Chad Main: What was the inspiration for you to develop CaseFleet?

Jeff Kerr: So it goes back to my former legal practice. I practiced employment law in Atlanta, Georgia in a small firm setting, myself and my partner and a few associates. We didn’t have a whole bunch of paralegals to help us out on our cases, so we tried to leverage technology to do as much as we possibly could and to work our cases as well as we could without having a large team. I found that mastering the facts of my cases and knowing the documents and knowing the events and knowing the witnesses was the best way for me to get a good outcome for my clients [inaudible 00:16:26]. A lot of attorneys were a little bit sloppy about the facts, and if I just knew them well and was very faithful to the evidence, it really helped.

I found that the best way to do that was with the help of software of different kinds. Having a database, in particular, is essential if you want to create a real representation of the relationships between the legal elements in a case, the facts that you know, and the evidence that you’ll use to prove those facts. Those are three very important components to every case, and I think people underestimate the number of connections that there are, even in pretty simple cases. A database and a database-backed application is really the best way to organize that kind of information.

I wanted a tool to exist that I could not find anywhere, and I was somewhat proficient with technology myself, and I wanted that tool to exist so badly that I started writing code and developing some prototypes. I had so much fun doing that that I decided to make that my new job, and so I left practice of law in 2015 to work full-time on CaseFleet. That’s what I have been up to since then.

Chad Main: Did you write all the code and develop it yourself? Or did you hire a team of developers?

Jeff Kerr: I did not, by any means, write all of the code for CaseFleet. Throughout the entire history of the company, I’ve been working with developers and our CTO, who’s a computer science graduate from Georgia Tech, who understand best practices, and our professional coders, to create an extremely reliable and high-performing application. But because I have such a clear vision of the way I want certain features in the product to work and the different use cases that there are for a product like ours, it’s been very helpful for our team that I have been able to design and even implement some of the features, particularly on the front end of the application.

Chad Main: That’s cool. So I know CaseFleet’s got a bunch of different features. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Jeff Kerr: The main feature in CaseFleet is what we call our facts page, and that is the place where you go to see what the facts are in each of your cases and to add new facts. Each fact can be linked to different people and businesses that are involved in the fact. A date can be assigned to it. It can be related to different legal issues that make it important or relevant in the context of the case. You can also attach evidence to the fact.

The second core feature is our document review feature. It really differentiates CaseFleet from a lot of other products that are in this field, in that document review is built in to the software. Our users, everyday, upload a great number of documents, which we index so that they can be searched for keywords, and also we allow those documents to be previewed within the same web browser that you use to access facts page and other parts of CaseFleet. That provides a huge benefit, because, as you review the documents, you’re able to extract facts from them in a very efficient way. So creating the chronology isn’t necessarily something where you’re having to write every single fact in place. You can build it from the documents themselves, such as depositions, interrogatory responses, and other documents that play a role in the case.

Chad Main: So, great. That sounds like a great tool. Who’s it for?

Jeff Kerr: We designed CaseFleet primarily for litigation attorneys, and litigation attorneys are the core of our user base. But we’ve found that it’s also been very useful for paralegals, litigation support folks, and other people on the litigation team, anyone who has in interest in reviewing the documents and ensuring that the facts of the case are mapped out in a really clear way. Another category of users consists of clients of lawyers who sometimes are the first people to buy the software and who want to organize their documents and different facts. We also have a good bit of use among investigators, investigative reporters, and people who provide expert testimonies for attorneys, such as forensic experts, forensic psychologists, medical records review folks. So it’s kind of a broad [inaudible 00:20:59] of uses that can be found for CaseFleet.

Chad Main: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought about that right off the top of my head, investigative reporters and expert witnesses. That is an interesting use of it. Well, great. I appreciate your time today, Jeff. Where can people find out more about CaseFleet?

Jeff Kerr: The best way to learn more is to visit our website, which is www.CaseFleet.com, and, from there, you can sign up for a demo or access a free trial of the software.

 

Do All Law Firms Need a CKO?

Chad Main: Let’s get back to our conversation with Vishal Agnihotri, the CKO for Hinshaw & Culbertson. So do all law firms need a CKO? Not surprisingly, Vishal thought that most firms could use one, or at least could start thinking about formalizing knowledge management protocols. She pointed out that, by doing so, it forces law firms and law departments to examine their internal processes, which in turn might encourage improvement of those processes and boost productivity and client service.

Vishal: Any law firm or any professional service firm should have a CKO, if they are ready to implement the changes that will come with that kind of investment, so it’s a mindset thing. I will say this: Profession firms are very adept at serving clients. They’re very good. They hone the craft of looking externally, whether you’re talking about marketing or in terms of service, service quality. They’re very externally focused. I think what they sometimes neglect to understand is that building out a knowledge management program internally moves some of that focus to our processes internally as well. That could also be very beneficial in the service of the client. It could improve client service quality. It could improve margins and productivity for the firm itself. So, yes, a law firm should hire a CKO or should at least have a knowledge management program led by someone who can bring about both new ideas, improved processes, but also, frankly, raise the base understanding of everybody in the firm of new ways of working.

In a professional service firm, whether it’s a law firm or an accounting firm or an architect’s firm, you will realize that the client expectations are evolving every single year. They keep moving the goal post. Even if we are not willing to share collective knowledge, at a minimum, somebody’s got to be responsible for raising the professional intelligence of the firm itself. I can’t imagine that somebody who’s on a billable track has the time and the wherewithal to do that, so you almost need somebody to come in from a different discipline, like knowledge management.

Knowledge management is a lot about change management, thinking about how this human-computer interaction is going to take place. It’s a lot about looking at the marketplace. Some of it may be even pontificating, like looking at various scenarios. What would work out best? So being a little bit of a futurist, looking out a couple of years at the minimum. So they should have a formal KM program leader, largely because nobody who’s billable will have the bandwidth to do that.

Chad Main: There is also a business case for the implementation of a knowledge management system. It makes clients happy but it makes attorneys more efficient.

Vishal: So you could work on a number of documents and save them on your desktop and never share them with anybody else, and best of luck when you’re looking for something.

Chad Main: So legal documents, contracts-

Vishal: Right.

Chad Main: … pleadings or whatever?

Vishal: Right, client documents, your work product. Now, for example, you have a need where you’re looking for something. It’d be wonderful if you were doing the exact same kind of document for the exact same kind of client for 30 years, but that does not usually happen. So every now and then, you will run into a need where you’re looking for something. You’re looking for a piece of information. You could go back to the phone culture and pick up the phone and call 20 people before you get an answer. Or if you had a system where all of the work product was in one place, you had a very good search system that would search across, you would actually save a lot of time, instead of manually trying to go gather this information. Now you may still end up finding a document or two that you think are worthy, and you may still end up picking up the phone to the partner that created that or that has his or her name on it, but that is much more different and much less compared to the hours upon hours you would spend otherwise piecing together the information.

Clients, I don’t think, want you to have that luxury. They’re not willing to pay for research, that kind that you would do 20, 30 years ago, when they know that there are better tools out there right now. So they’re expectation is that you bring your A game on and you’re finding what you need to find as quickly as possible. In terms of dollars and cents, A, it’s great for your reputation in the marketplace. B, if you’re actually doing it in lesser time, the client understands that you’re very efficient. It may not be billable time, but I doubt if you were to spend six hours finding something whether you would try to bill all of that time anyways. In effect, it makes you more efficient and less burned out, but also you’re keeping true to the essence of client quality, and hopefully you’re improving your margins. So if it is a flat fee arrangement, if it is one of those alternative fee arrangements, then you’ve actually improved margins if you have managed to use a better technology to find something in a shorter period of time, as opposed to going at it with sticks and stones.

 

Where Legal Departments and Law Firms Can Start to Implement Knowledge Management

Chad Main: So we ended our talk with a question I try to ask all my guests. Where can lawyers start to implement the ideas they heard discussed on this podcast?

Vishal: First of all, I think, from a content perspective, you definitely want to understand what qualifies as critical knowledge in a law firm. I mentioned this earlier, that it’s a very laborious process to try to codify every single item, so you do definitely want to just focus on the critical elements. There’s also an element of timeliness. Sometimes you just need an answer to this question. So, right now, a lot of law firms will have pardon the interruption emails, where somebody has a question and they send it around to everybody, and everybody else is popping in to give an answer.

But what you really want to do is employ better tools that can help with that. For example, one of the tools that I had rolled out in my last law firm, and we’re working on it at my current firm as well, is a social collaboration tool where lawyers are able to ask a question. Others who think they have an answer are able to answer, and that Q&A is almost on a Facebook-like or a LinkedIn group kind of interface. It has a picture next to the person who’s replying, and it creates, if you think about it, a searchable repository of question and answers, with zero effort from anybody on the KM team. Of course, we implement the system. We make sure we remind people. We teach people how to use it, et cetera. But once that is done, you’ve now created an auto-building auto-populating … As the day-to-day questions pop up, the Q&A repository is being built. That’s a very good place to get started, because it’s just-in-time kind of learning. It’s just-in-time kinds of Q&A. It is very simple to use. It does not require a ton of training, and it’s relatively inexpensive to actually put into a firm.

Other places to start, for example, the research and library services report in to me. A lot of times you’ll find that the resources that we have that the firm has paid for are not fully utilized. I know it sounds like common sense. Why would they not use something that they’re not already paying for? But a lot of times we do have tool fatigue or training fatigue even. People pay attention for when they need it, and then they forget about it. So one of the roles that I take very seriously is making sure that the awareness level of everything that we have, that we subscribe to, is very high within the firm. So you can do that with your good old fashioned newsletters. If you need to add incentives in there, you can. But a lot of times, people will come back and say, you know what, I had forgotten about that. I’m glad you brought that up. Or, you know what, I attended a training session when it first came out, but it’s been a year since I’ve used it. So even though that may feel like a very small effort, it actually has a lot of returns, because the firm’s already invested in that tool or in that resources.

You want to have a good, strong intranet. You definitely want to have a good portal that … in a very simplified way, a bulletin board that sits, electronically, where you can go hand everything from the firms PTO policy to other firm-wide information, office locations, et cetera, et cetera. But that portal can also be made … It can be more than just a pointer to different applications. Here, I want to schedule a conference room, or here I want to check out the events calendar. It can be more than that. It can be an operations portal. It can have more items on that. It can be an operational dashboard. You can have the lawyers looking at their billable hours, at their WIP, et cetera. You could have more insight on specific clients, on your top clients, et cetera. So there are many ways to use that kind of hub, if you will. That’s important as well, to move people to a central location, especially if you’re operating with a small team.

Most importantly, you want to use all of these tools, also, in the service of building camaraderie and rapport within the firm. I know this sounds a little bit like HR’s role, and it is. I think knowledge management, as I mentioned, works as the glue of bringing people together. You’ll find that people share more or share better or share easier if they trust each other. So in a lot of firms where you have a lot of lateral acquisition, partners being brought in at direct entry level, they may or may not feel comfortable right away. Even though this feels like soft, mushy stuff, believe it or not, putting focus on building the camaraderie within a firm, not just within the office, but within a firm, across practice groups, across offices, is actually key to having a strong knowledge sharing culture.

Chad Main: So that’s all we have for this episode. If you want to get a hold of Vishal, you can catch her on LinkedIn. Her name is spelled V-I-S-H-A-L A-G-N-I-H-O-T-R-I. If you want to get a hold of me, shoot me an email at CMain@Percipient.co. That’s C-M-A-I-N@Percipient.co. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you want to subscribe, you can find us on most major podcasting platforms, like iTunes, Google, Stitcher, et cetera. If you like us, I hope you give us a good review. Thanks for listening. Until next time, this has been Technically Legal.

 

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