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Rare Knowledge: Managing Relationships in the Information Economy

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Rare Knowledge: Managing Relationships in the Information Economy

This article was published in Legal Week, 14 July issue.

The last decade has seen the mass adoption of social media and a fierce debate on the value of content. Yet few are grappling with what this really means for the legal profession. Social media are opening up new ways of communicating and are part of wider changes in how the professionals of the future will share their ideas.

In March I spoke to Tim Bratton and his legal team at the Financial Times on legal wikis. Tim wrote up his views, which you’ll find on his own excellent legalbrat blog and in 12 May’s Legal Week. Our discussion shifted towards whether firms should make wikis available to clients.

Many firms are now using quite innovative knowledge management tools from knowledge databases to wikis, blogs and search engines. This is becoming quite essential in larger firms with  big teams. Share knowledge, and you will gain from shared experience.

In other professions such as consultancy and outsourcing, significant emphasis is given to knowledge capture in assessing a professional’s contribution to their business. In my team, we are therefore looking at how to make our wiki a democratic space which encourages and rewards contribution by lawyers at every level.

Tim wants to encourage firms like mine to open up their wikis and allow clients to join the collaboration. However, Tim’s article also hints at an altogether different issue which has occupied me - why do people come to external law firms and what they should expect from us? When I began in law this was easy to answer: Clients expected first class technical skills, great practical ability and putting client relationships first. There was nothing else expected except perhaps the occasional erudite seminar. Look now though. There are newsletters, posts, tweets, alerters, forums, white papers... lawyers are pushing much harder to get their messages across.

Just when I was asked to write this my good friend Mark Smith posted on his site, Intelligent Challenge, a piece called “The crowd is the cloud.” Mark is quick to point out that knowledge is not enough to stand out. His advice is to communicate in a way which matters to your clients.

Mark quotes Carl Shapiro - information tends to free. Law firms have embarked on the great give away. We spend time producing a variety of information distributed for free. And we are doing this because we need to demonstrate our capability before anyone is likely to entrust their important work to us. 

I happened to get on a red eye train to Manchester a couple of months back and had the good luck to sit with Amir Hannan for the journey. Amir is a GP and has put his patient records online and ensured they can book appointments, get repeat prescriptions and find information on their maladies. People in their eighties use his site. His patients arrive informed and with a strong sense of trust. Amir has discovered that for a good professional, arming his patients with knowledge encourages them to come to him and to come to him when they really need to. He is evangelising to NHS colleagues on this very issue.

Might lawyers learn a lesson? We could also offer their clients more information, more training, more advice in order to ensure that clients who arrive at their doorstep are seeking out advice they know they need and they know their lawyer can deliver.

I am suggesting we need to work out how to invert the pyramid: How to go from a little knowledge shared in return for a chance to deliver a lot of advice to a world where a lot of knowledge is shared in return for more focused expert advice. I think law firms want it- we want to concentrate on premium advice at the best rate. I believe our clients want it - they want to pay for uncommon knowledge and ability that adds value.

The array of digital media lawyers can deploy is bedazzling and bewildering and the chances are high that if we all push out the same message we will become part of the great undifferentiated. Tim’s reason my firm should externalise its wiki is for kudos. Strangely, this doesn’t do it for me (at least not on its own!) But what is on offer if we can work out how to share nicely (in Tim’s words) is the opportunity to produce and maintain high calibre communications with a set of strong followers who will know who to turn to when it really matters.

I am grateful to Amir, Tim and Mark for sharing their thoughts. They are all people who would spark a few billion neurons in a Neanderthal within a moment’s conversation. I am lucky to have inspiring colleagues including Huw Beverley Smith and Jane Bradbury who have contributed to the ideas in this article. But I have no doubt that while serious media players like News International and the BBC are still debating how content should be shared, it is a tough ask for law firms to rapidly convert these ideas into actions. Nevertheless, it is not simply the PR opportunity of social media which will characterise the way lawyers communicate in the future. It is the more fundamental question of relationship and trust which will shape how we inform and share with our clients.

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