Is it time to shift focus? ‘Old school’ standard precedents vs process mapping

When I started in knowledge management it largely revolved around creating and maintaining ‘standard precedents’ for all practice areas of a law firm. The idea was that creating such documents in respect of high-volume, repetitive tasks, enabled lawyers to prepare documents faster and more efficiently, which in turn enabled a law firm to offer quicker turnaround times and reduce costs to clients. And that much is true.

While that theory still holds up well for certain legal practice areas, its application in the litigation area appears to have become largely limited to court form precedents (customised for the law firm to speed up the process of drafting and filing). In my experience, in a top-tier firm, old school standard precedents don’t have a strong appeal to litigators, with the exception of a few obvious examples, such as settlement deeds and confidentiality agreements in litigious matters or deeds of company arrangement and appointment kits in insolvency practice.

This development appears to be a consequence of the trend over the last few years whereby clients have become reluctant to brief top-tier firms on high-volume, repetitive work. The explanation for this trend is largely rooted in economic reasons as companies tighten their budgets in response to the ongoing economic crisis circling the world, and attempt to shift such work to second-tier or boutique firms in search of lower rates.

However, top-tier firms continue to be briefed in matters that can be best characterised as complex, unique matters that require significant legal grunt and innovation … thinking outside the box, so to speak.

Unfortunately, by their definition, such unique matters do not easily give themselves to be resolved by the use of ‘standard precedents’ as we have come to understand that term. Consequently, to remain relevant to our litigation lawyers from a knowledge management perspective, I also had to think outside that proverbial ‘box’. What the new legal landscape requires is the merging of project management tools with process maps, and precedents to create an integrated legal matter management portal offering a whole new level of efficiency and productivity.

After talking to many of our litigation lawyers and senior associates, who are the main users of knowledge management, it has become clear that there are two particular knowledge managements ‘tools’ they desire and value over and above old school standard precedents and other knowledge management resources:

  • project management tools overlaid by practical ‘process maps’ that help planning the conduct of a matter and clearly lay down the steps that need to be taken over the life of a matter generally and, in particular, to achieve various specific outcomes, be it the filing of an originating application, defence or interlocutory application, a subpoena for documents, the preparation of an affidavit or obtaining an expert report; and
  • practical, recent examples of a (not too large) range of documents, supporting the process map, to assist lawyers in conceptualising (and drafting) the product they are required to produce, using the appropriate court form precedent (or standard precedent where relevant).

Admittedly, at first, the concepts of project management and process mapping may seem as quite a departure from (or extension to) what knowledge management has traditionally done in law firms. However, I see this shift as merely the maturation of the knowledge management function in the legal environment over the last decade and as a natural extension and evolution of our role as legal knowledge professionals.

Interestingly, as I see it, this extension and evolution is nothing more than just a further illustration of the need for knowledge professionals to be flexible and proactive in today’s business environment.

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