Why Knowledge is Power for Lawyers

Meredith Williams is making knowledge management work for lawyers

Meredith Williams’s brother, John Erin Williams, died in an automobile accident when he was seventeen years old.

“He hydroplaned on a wet road,” she recalls. “He was the tenth person to pass away in that exact location. My parents decided to sue the state to ensure a railing was placed there to prevent more deaths. It was a long, drawn-out battle. I was fifteen and fascinated by the effect lawyers could have on people’s lives.”

Several years later in 2002, after earning a degree in accounting and a JD from the University of Memphis, Williams started her career as an associate with Baker Donelson. At first, she primarily worked on corporate matters but planned to eventually focus on tax law. The firm also asked her to help research technology and its effect on the practice of law.

At that time, technology was just starting to play a role in legal work. However, since then, it has only become increasingly important. When the partner who had been heading up the effort decided to return to his bankruptcy practice, he asked Williams to take over the newly named knowledge management (KM) department. “He handed me the reins and told me I had too much personality to be a tax lawyer,” Williams says, with a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s true, but this has been a very good fit.”

The department grew and evolved into a full administrative area for the firm. KM “connects the right people with the right information and technology at the right time,” Williams explains. What that means in a law firm is analyzing and organizing information and making sure the people who need it can easily access it. “It also means breaking down the legal functions so we understand what is required to do the job efficiently,” she says.

“You have to understand how a law firm works before you can improve the processes.”

As the firm’s chief knowledge management officer, Williams oversees a staff of nine, most of whom are attorneys or have worked within the practice of law. She prefers that they stay active in their practice areas so they stay up to date on the issues and know how best to manage projects and draft procedures. “You have to understand how a law firm works before you can improve the processes,” she explains.

The KM department works with other groups within the firm and several strategic external partners—including WinWire Technologies, Handshake Software, Neudesic, and Fireman & Company—to deliver high-value systems and information to the firm and its clients.

Williams says the department also calls on some individual lawyers in the firm for specific advice. However, some balk when asked to do work that is not billable. To address this, the firm launched an internal venture fund program. “It enables us to pay our lawyers 100 percent working-attorney credit for the time they spend on KM projects,” she explains. The KM department handled ninety-three projects in 2016, utilizing the services of 110 subject-matter experts throughout the firm. “We would not have been able to accomplish that much if it had just been me and the full-time staff,” she says.

“We have to predict the information we are going to want two or three years out and build our strategies around that.”

As far as Williams knows, Baker Donelson is the only firm paying its lawyers in this fashion to help with KM projects. “I’m often told I am the envy of many industry colleagues,” she says. “Of course, some firms have larger KM departments, with as many as one hundred lawyers from lots of different practice areas. That is one way to get around having to pay your practicing attorneys.”

While some might think technology would make KM easier, Williams says it has actually increased expectations. “We are expected to know everything about every matter, whether it is an opposing counsel’s actions or a specific judge’s previous rulings,” she explains. “It is all discoverable now, so we need to have it if an attorney needs it.”

Technology also accelerates the development cycle. “We have to predict the information we are going to want two or three years out and build our strategies around that,” Williams says. “We have to stay focused on the information that will be most helpful and not get distracted by the speed of technological change or the latest gadgets.”

KM doesn’t just concentrate on the firm’s needs, though. In the beginning, the team was entirely internally focused, making things easier for the attorneys. Now, however, more than half their time is spent building applications for clients. For instance, the firm offers free mobile apps to help labor and employment and bankruptcy clients understand these areas of law without incurring legal fees. They also offer an app that addresses franchise issues.

Another thing that has changed about KM is its importance. The International Legal Technology Association offers programs and networking events for KM professionals and holds a yearly conference entitled Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession. “Over the past five years, the number of attendees has more than doubled, from one hundred to more than two hundred, and this year more than 40 percent were new to the profession,” Williams explains. “Much of this has been driven by regulations with which we—both firms and clients—must comply. KM is no longer a nice-to-have; it has become a need. I love being involved in such a growing and dynamic field.”