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The Singapore Law Gazette

Q&A with Angeline Poon – What Does It Mean to Manage Knowledge?

Angeline Poon has been in the legal profession for 30 years. She practised corporate law before her current specialisation in risk and knowledge management, where she was the department head for two leading law firms.

We take the opportunity to ask her some questions about managing knowledge and her journey in the legal profession.

How did you move from corporate law to specialising in risk and knowledge management (KM)?

When I was in practice, I often created transaction checklists and workflows to help me work more efficiently. It was a process that I enjoyed. I just did not realise I was subconsciously doing knowledge management work.

The opportunity for me to do KM came in the early 2000s when my ex-colleague asked whether I was keen to assist in curating and creating corporate precedents for her law firm, on a flexible WFH (work from home) arrangement. I accepted her offer without hesitation. This was the “perfect job”. I had just left practice to spend time with my young family. This arrangement allowed me keep in touch with the legal profession, without taking away family time.

The KM gig led to a long and meaningful engagement with the firm. I assisted in establishing KM processes and later regulatory compliance and risk systems when Singapore law practices had to evolve to comply with the constantly changing legal landscape.

What is your definition of KM? How do you think it is viewed locally?

The main objective of knowledge management is to help lawyers practise more efficiently and effectively, by leveraging on the law firm’s collective experience. It is about using process improvement, technology and collaboration to share information, expertise and documents within the firm.

Locally, KM is a mixed bag, depending on the firm.

KM may include:

  • development of precedents;
  • curating and collecting good sample documents;
  • managing the library;
  • dealing with external providers of research tools and products;
  • research;
  • organising professional development training;
  • risk management/conflicts; and
  • any other function that did not otherwise have a home.

Recently, KM has often been roped into the selection and administration of legal technology products.

Having seen KM evolve since the 1990s, could you share about the progression you have seen and been a part of?

In the 1990s, knowledge management was already quite established in UK and US law firms. These firms had dedicated KM departments managed by qualified lawyers who created, maintained and organised precedents. Today, KM in these jurisdictions includes delivering tools and technology to foster collaboration and improving work processes, legal project management (LPM) and alternative fee arrangements (AFAs).

In Singapore, for much of the 1990s, KM was considered a good-to-have but not a must-have. Local law firms acknowledge that efficiency and easier ways to share were necessary, along with a need for standard forms and organised precedents. Yet accomplishing this in a world of billable hour seemed impossible.

Many started by organising precedent collections and disseminating practice advisories and current awareness. Some dabbled in promoting best practices and supporting thought leadership.

Recently, KM has become a client-facing function for some local firms. They adopt legal tech to generate secondary revenue streams by capitalising on the commoditization of legal services.

How then do you see the future of KM continuing to evolve?

In many firms, knowledge management grew organically over the years, evolving into whatever best-suited the firm’s needs and culture at the time and often filling gaps in areas that fell within no department’s mandate.

At one time, it was sufficient if KM could make it easier to locate cases from law reports/conduct research or find precedents. Today, anyone who supports lawyers, whether in firms or legal service provider companies, sees the need to do more.

The “more” is improving how lawyers work, serve clients and how law firms operate as businesses.

KM’s role will shift from merely managing collections of information to leading strategy development by drawing insights from those collections.

KM aids firms in multiple ways, for example optimising efficiency, risk management and even client care. How should legal sector professionals begin to implement the necessary KM strategy?

For any KM initiative to be effective, it needs to be supported by the firm’s senior management.

Since building and maintaining a professional KM system means investing in resources, it is important to develop a KM strategy that is aligned to the business strategy of the law firm.

For example, when designing and building a know-how collection, the specific business factors and clients to be targeted by the law firm must play a significant role. If advising SMEs is one of the main practice areas, then consider setting up a know-how collection on all matters pertaining to SMEs.

A KM strategy must include a realistic outcome of how KM initiatives are going to be structured and staffed. Perform a knowledge audit to identify the biggest issues and pain points.

Understand the problems you are trying to solve, as well as the people and processes governing them, before diving into KM solutions. Be mindful of overzealous marketing by KM solutions providers who tend to make outlandish promises. Do not fall prey to the notion that technology is an easy fix for KM.

Practice groups’ needs vary and your KM strategy must cater to their specific concerns. The same KM content and tools cannot be applied to transactional lawyers, litigators and regulatory advisory lawyers.

For example, regulatory advisory lawyers need to monitor a patchwork of websites and identify advice from past work. They would need search tools beyond Boolean. The user experience focus would be different for transactional lawyers, who need precedents and litigators, who require research resources.

What should legal sector professionals be thinking about when preparing their firms for the future?

The Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap1The Road to 2030 – Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap (Ministry of Law) (2 Oct 2020) (TIR), recently launched by the Ministry of Law should be the starting point. The TIR highlights four key areas:

  1. Global trends that will have the most impact on Singapore’s legal industry from now to 2030;
  2. How business demands for legal services will change because of these global trends;
  3. Technology solutions and operational changes that could help augment and support legal practices in meeting the new business demands; and
  4. The range of government initiatives that will be instituted over the next two years to support the legal industry.

KM professionals are already in the business of creating efficient workflows, data mining and managing tools and processes such as knowledge bank, extranets and matter dashboards. They are a natural fit for implementing many of the technological solutions outlined in the TIR.

I mentioned the need to do more to support how lawyers work and service clients.

KM is perfect for creating and implementing tools that addresses two very important questions – what do clients want and how to deliver legal services efficiently to clients.

What do clients want? Most clients want to be able to answer questions themselves by using tools provided by their trusted law firms, preferably in an easy-to-use, online, searchable format. KM can provide clients with customised electronic to-the-point summaries of legal developments.

In addition, KM can facilitate the provision of automated documents, secure client extranets, and direct web-based training programmes for clients.

How can lawyers deliver legal services more efficiently? Currently, lawyers spend much time logging in and out of a patchwork of unconnected systems to gather information.

A KM tool that is able to strategically retrieve consolidated client and matter information in a single digital workspace, with personalised access to news, research, legal documents, budget information, time and billing, profitability, etc will be much welcomed.

Could you share an example of a challenge to implementing KM that you encountered and resolved?

My first KM project in 2001 was to develop a precedent collection from scratch. This is one of the most time-consuming and daunting core KM tasks.

Where and how do you start?

I started small with a single interested practice group. I adopted a project management approach, consulted all team members and stakeholders, ensured they understood the goals that were established, their respective roles and time-lines for each milestone of the project. Incidentally, KM professionals are a natural fit for LPM (legal project management)2Law Soc x Law Vision LPM e-Learning: https://www.eventnook.com/event/u70818/home , an increasingly important skill in the changing legal landscape.

In this case, we agreed that instead of just curating and compiling documents for IPOs, a transaction guide would be created. This transaction guide would comprise relevant negotiated final documents, work-flow and templates with explanatory notes and hyperlinks to other precedents and relevant resources in the library. Further, this guide had to be easily accessible from a lawyer’s computer.

My role was to extract relevant documents from completed files, draft the work-flow and templates and think about taxonomy and folder structure. The partners contributed their practice knowledge (tacit/implicit knowledge), to be incorporated in the explanatory notes. A dedicated IT personnel supported the technical aspects of the project.

The project took several months to complete. It was a success and we soon had other practice groups in the firm “queuing up” for KM to assist in developing their practice guides.

What was a crucial takeaway for you?

The key to the success of the project was collaboration with relevant stakeholders, across the firm’s practices and support departments.

Many KM projects rely on close working relationships with IT, Business Development and so on and understanding the way business departments interact with one another and building key relationships is important.

The various stakeholders in the project openly exchanged knowledge and experience and this culture of knowledge sharing was also crucial to the success of the project.

Any final thoughts?

KM will continue to be indispensable for law firms.

An effective KM system can lead to productivity in day-to-day legal practice and even competitive advantages.

Implementing and maintaining KM initiatives require a strategic approach by the law firm management, long-term commitment by all lawyers, and most importantly, a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration.


For further reading, please refer to the following articles:

  1. The Competitive Advantages of Strong Knowledge Management for Law Firms
  2. Knowledge Management and Business Development – Luxury Or Necessity?

Endnotes

Endnotes
1The Road to 2030 – Legal Industry Technology and Innovation Roadmap (Ministry of Law) (2 Oct 2020)
2Law Soc x Law Vision LPM e-Learning: https://www.eventnook.com/event/u70818/home

Manager, Continuing Professional Development
The Law Society of Singapore
E-mail: [email protected]