The Legal Knowledge Business

Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

In this chapter, we’ll look back to see why the law firm model works as it does. Remember that the model was crafted in a time of information scarcity, a state that no longer applies. That’s an enormous shift. Have we really understood how the vastness and connectedness of knowledge change our role as lawyers?

We’ll dig into this question, recognizing that it is not merely academic. If you can’t justify high rates using exclusive access to knowledge, you’ll need to come up with an alternative explanation. You can only find that new rationale if you look creatively at your current situation.

As Russell Ackoff often explained, creativity requires three steps:

  1. First, identify the assumptions that limit your possible solutions;
  2. Next, remove those assumptions to open up possibilities; and
  3. Finally, explore the newly-revealed options.

We’ll talk through the history of legal knowledge work in order to help you identify your limiting assumptions. Once we’ve done that, we can move to a more creative knowledge firm design.


Culture Undermining Knowledge

Let me start with a story that reveals our limiting assumptions about knowledge.

I recently spoke with a leader in a large firm. I asked how lawyers in that context work together to create new knowledge. Studies show that collaborative learning often reveals better solutions, so do lawyers do that? Could I walk into big firms and see conference rooms covered with Post-it Notes, lawyers brainstorming possible solutions to clients’ complex problems?

This leader’s response shook me. He said, “That wouldn’t happen because lawyers wouldn’t want other lawyers to take their ideas.”

For an institution, that mentality holds back innovation; for this industry, it holds back justice.

We’ll talk about improving collaboration among knowledge workers in a later chapter, but I hope you’ll consider how amazing that statement is—a firm built on knowledge can’t get knowledge workers to share knowledge because it might hurt their own standing.

Why in an age of information and insight abundance do we hoard our knowledge? What drives that culture?

As you’ll see, it has its roots in the early 1900s.


Law as Science

When Christopher Columbus Langdell invented modern law school education, he focused on maximizing outcomes in a wide range of court disputes. It made sense at the time.

As legal scholar Ray Worthy Campbell explained in his paper The End of Law Schools, Langdell’s ideas were formed in the age of small business and scientific management. In the early 1900s, turning every human activity into a “science” was all the rage. And Langdell was a man of his time.

The Langdellian education came before the rise of the administrative state, corporate practice, and formalized alternative dispute resolution. The lawyers of his time needed a method that could be applied to many—but not very many—situations. So Langdell taught law as a set of scientific principles rather than any specific knowledge.

But, Campbell noted, times have changed: “The role of lawyers evolved from advocates and conveyancers to, at least in some cases, serving as facilitators of business, and finally to specialists in technical niches.”

Increasingly complex corporations operating in increasingly complex regulatory environments required more focused lawyering. The human-brain-sized chunks of knowledge became ever smaller and yet deeper, and lawyers grew further detached from their clients’ “big picture.” As Campbell explained, that puts us at risk of replacement.


Are Clients Driving This?

I recently attended a meeting of legal education stakeholders. We spoke about modernizing legal education to address the new normal Ray Worthy Campbell wrote about. While the context of legal practice has changed significantly since the time of Langdell’s experiment at Harvard, the way we prepare lawyers largely has not.

At some point in the conversation, a big firm hiring director interrupted and said, “But clients want the old measures. They want lawyers who deeply specialize, and they want the best grades from the best schools. They’re driving this.”

Client demand definitely makes for a compelling “why,” but it ignores where most of the traditional legal work has gone. It’s not to other law firms, it’s to other knowledge workers altogether.

Take this quote from Campbell’s piece: “When lawyers are engaged in genuinely broad gauge work, it is hard for competitors without the full set of lawyering skills to compete. When, however, practice becomes effectively limited to repetitive handling of specialized matters, for which legal training outside the specialized field has little application, competitors without the full range of legal training can, if allowed, compete effectively.”

That is, if clients can give True Counselor-like work to someone better trained in True Counselor-like work, they will. It is the way we’ve specialized that creates the risk of replacement. In an age of better knowledge tools, that doesn’t need to happen, but we have too often ignored the opportunity because of fear.


Training Our Replacements

It would be hard to write a “modern law practice” guide without at least passing mention of robots. You can imagine one of those stock photos of shapely white automatons plucking away at office keyboards even as you read this.

Not to get nerdy, but robotics as a field has actually fallen far behind artificial intelligence. In that field, the robot takeover is real, and purposefully sought after.

As McKinsey reported in 2016, companies are employing humans to train their AI replacements using a methodology called robotic process automation, or RPA. In the report, an interviewee said that companies could expect a return on investment of “between 30 and as much as 200 percent in the first year. That makes for a lot of motivation.

In the most basic sense, RPA tools observe a human’s behavior on a computer and turn those activities into repeatable, error-free code. You can even read the entertaining and disheartening account of a failed law student’s experience training his robot replacement.

Greg Lambert, the Chief Knowledge Officer at Jackson Walker, told me that we’ll see similar efforts made in law practice. Any activity that can be taught once and then executed on over and over again is at risk of automation. That justifies existential dread for any knowledge firm built on exclusive ownership of information.

Rather than fret over robot consultants coming over the hill and taking us out, we need to think clearly about a more viable knowledge firm method. As Greg Lambert put it to me, “If we want our current method to be replaced with something better for lawyers, then we have to be really mindful about it.”

These concepts should help you understand the state-of-play in which you’ll begin to change:

  • We can no longer view our practices through the lens of knowledge scarcity;
  • Hyperspecialization creates a risk of replacement as we lose sight of the big picture; and
  • You can’t address that risk without mindful design.

We have the chance to break a culture that was outdated before the time of AI and the internet. But particularly in the current environment, necessity may be the mother of our invention.

In the chapters that follow, we’ll talk about best practices for more innovative knowledge firms. We’ll discuss how you can build knowledge libraries, train employees to develop expertise, and discover methods more responsive to client demands.


Read the next article in the series:
Knowledge Management

All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

  1. The Cheapening of Knowledge
  2. Your Latest Transaction
  3. The Legal Knowledge Business
  4. Knowledge Management
  5. Making Experts Out of Employees
  6. What Clients Want
  7. The Advisor’s Burden
  8. The Modern Knowledge Firm


Tags: The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner


Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

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