The Golden Gate Bridge is 8,980 feet wide. New York City was the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790. The gestation period of a giraffe is fifteen months. Most people take the ability to find facts for granted, but Paul VanderMeer doesn’t.
VanderMeer remembers spending countless afternoons in his elementary school library as a young student, where he pored over books about ancient history. “Reading about things like the Trojan War and Pompeii enriched my life,” he recalls. “And I realized I could have that experience at the library only because someone at some point had organized facts and information in a way that made it available at my fingertips.”
VanderMeer later went on to study library science in college. He started his career gathering information for an ad agency, and later managed library operations staff for Microsoft. He served on a public library board in his local community. Twenty years later, VanderMeer is the chief knowledge officer at Bilzin Sumberg, a commercial law firm based in Florida.
One might assume that librarians at law firms retrieve dusty leather tomes from large oak shelves and search for antiquated Latin terms that somehow relate to a modern trial. VanderMeer, however, explains that legal chief knowledge officers play a vital role at the intersection of business and technology. “Information powers a law firm,” he says. “Whoever can innovate and find new ways to leverage information has an undeniable competitive advantage.”
As chief knowledge officer, VanderMeer leads a team of eight employees (including three lawyers and three library scientists) dedicated to developing solutions and implementing technologies to increase efficiency and enhance profitability. Together, they are responsible for new business research, due diligence, competitive intelligence research, and developing and maintaining a robust intranet.
VanderMeer, a self-described tech and gadget junkie who pits Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices against each other in his own home office, is constantly pushing his team to innovate and expand on key technological advancements. “Our goal is to identify and eliminate our client’s pain points so they can work better, smarter, and faster,” he says.
While many firms talk about efficiency and innovation, Bilzin Sumberg has invested the necessary resources into making real improvements, and VanderMeer’s track record of producing results has won him credibility.
Soon after he joined the firm, he volunteered to take over an important intranet project from another department. VanderMeer brought in a Microsoft Sharepoint expert, added data sources, and built a variety of successful integrations. More recently, his team built out and deployed a matter management platform that gives lawyers a 360-degree view of their cases. The system centralizes all relevant information pulled from many sources so users can search by judge, jurisdiction, case name, and other hyper-specific fields to get immediate results.
These and other tools liberate employees from low-level, monotonous work. A new AI tool VanderMeer developed with a website business partner automatically tags related information on the Bilzin Sumberg website. Now, internal marketing employees who once performed the task manually can work on higher-value endeavors.
But perhaps VanderMeer’s most impressive recent achievement is the digital dashboard his team built for the firm’s capital markets group. The custom tool—loaded with notices, alerts, and reports—gives attorneys a real-time look at where each of their matters is in the process cycle. The dashboard has reduced reporting time by about two weeks.
In normal times, having all employees in one office helps VanderMeer uncover new opportunities for innovation. Collaboration is key, he says, and he refuses to slow momentum in the digital and remote world of COVID-19. His team is pushing forward with virtual happy hours, weekly group chats, and important one-on-one meetings.
The period has also produced at least one positive indirect result—lawyers, who are notoriously reluctant to adopt new technologies, have had no other choice. Many have tried new solutions for the first time.
With his colleagues more receptive, VanderMeer is looking to seize the opportunity in a post-pandemic world. “We have more ideas and are always hearing the need to create something new,” he says. “That makes my work interesting each and every day.”
Paul VanderMeer’s to-do list for chief knowledge officers (CKOs) new to the game is simple. In fact, his “list” contains just one key piece of advice: play the long game.
While CKOs are always pursuing exciting innovations and demonstrating the latest digital tools, attorneys are often busy with other demands and responsibilities; testing out the latest technology is not their top priority. CKOs who are willing to play the long game can avoid overwhelming busy attorneys and instead look to implement (and then later build upon) smaller solutions that are easy to use and understand.
Keep all shareholders receptive, do your research, and be ready to step in with the right tool when the time is right.
Thoughts from Guest Editor Tasker Generes
Paul VanderMeer’s note that CKOs are a vital role at the intersection of business and technology is so true! Increasingly we see that innovation is driven not just by the “five forces” (threat of substitute products/services, bargaining power of suppliers and customers, threat of new entrants, and current rivalries of existing competitors) but through the experiences people cannot live without. My dad, a retired lawyer, helped me get to know the profession well as I spent countless hours in the law library. Getting the right information easily is a lawyer’s dream. But when you challenge someone to learn something that requires change, which most are not willing to do. I admire Paul’s success in a tough but awesome job of delivering innovation as well as experiences that matter.
iManage congratulates Paul VanderMeer, chief knowledge officer at Bilzin Sumberg on recognition of his leadership and contributions to the legal profession. iManage RAVN empowers legal professionals to optimize information and know-how for insights-driven results.