Developing a Global Law Firm Taxonomy, Inside-Out

"Taxonomy" is a hot word in legal knowledge management circles these days. Struggling to deal with the information boom, and exploiting the opportunities that new technologies have provided, many large law firms have embarked on global taxonomy projects in the last few years. And why not? A good taxonomy can help us organize and manage information effectively. In a business built on a foundation of classification, storage and retrieval of documents, improving our lawyers' access to know-how and work product with an agreeable global taxonomy can help a firm best use its knowledge. A global taxonomy sets the foundation for knowledge management in a law firm.

Baker & McKenzie, one of the world's largest law firms, is in the process of developing and deploying a global taxonomy to support our global practice groups. This taxonomy consists of the following core classifications: practice group, sub-practice group, topic, jurisdiction, office, language, and document type. It is the basis for storage and retrieval of our firm's best practices legal documents - precedents, know-how and work product (along with business development, professional development and administration documents).

In the course of our project, we had the opportunity to speak with and read about other firms that have attempted similar taxonomy projects, usually as part of a global knowledge management initiative. We were impressed with some of the successes at other firms, and paid equal attention to problems they have encountered. We were interested to note that for some firms, the difficulties a global taxonomy project entails are causing them to focus more energy on other aspects of content management - search, information architecture and workflow. A global law firm taxonomy though, if accepted and adopted, can provide tremendous benefits to working lawyers, not only by helping them find needed content, but also by helping organize activities and content development efforts. The following is a comparison of two approaches-what our Firm terms as "Outside-In" and "Inside-Out", and an argument that developing a global law firm taxonomy from the "Inside-Out" is more likely to produce a taxonomy that works well for the lawyers in a global firm.

Outside - In

At the point when a firm recognizes the need for a global taxonomy, there are a few basic options. One option is to look outside the firm for a place to begin. Lexis, Westlaw and others have been classifying legal content for years - why not evaluate their systems and leverage (or modify) such an outside legal taxonomy for internal use? The idea is an attractive one; so attractive that there have been starts and stops at creating standard cross-company legal taxonomies for a number of years. Vendors and consortiums supply legal taxonomies in any number of areas. A true legal taxonomy will account for legislation, regulations, rulings, business sectors and a whole range of very specific legal markers. The Outside-In approach is an attractive option, primarily because it ensures that internal firm content is always aligned to the right area of law and can be linked to external content effectively and efficiently.

However, there are a number of drawbacks to this approach. For a global firm, a key drawback is dealing with multi-jurisdictional complexities - there is no out-of-the-box taxonomy to work from. Additionally, the elaborateness of an outside taxonomy almost guarantees that there will be many classifications of little or no use to a firm - no firm practices in all areas of law. Finally, the Outside-In approach can involve substantial up front costs and resources, the return for which is only available when the whole project is a success.

To address these challenges, firms usually dedicate expert knowledge management personnel who work in close collaboration with the library function. The KM group undertakes a comprehensive review of most, if not all, of the possible areas of law, jurisdiction-specific systems and established external taxonomies. From this review, they create detailed categorization schemes. They apply their best available expertise in a focused project and produce very thoughtful taxonomies. Nevertheless, they are likely to encounter some resistance when these detailed taxonomies are deployed. This is typically because:

  1. Partners do not accept the categorization and topics;
  2. Partners do not understand where to store or locate content; and/or
  3. Terminology proves irreconcilable across jurisdictions.

Some firms overcome these hurdles. In others, the taxonomy project is delayed, derailed or forgotten. Using an Outside-In approach is attractive for many reasons. For single-country firms, or for those with practices in only a few jurisdictions, it may be the best approach. However, for a global law firm taxonomy, the results may not justify the effort involved.

Inside - Out

An alternative to the Outside-In approach is to begin development of a firm taxonomy by focusing on the firm itself. This taxonomy, while it contains legal topics, will not be a true "legal taxonomy." Rather, it is designed and developed as a global law firm taxonomy, and its intended use is to support the activities and knowledge-sharing of the firm itself. Such a taxonomy is initially based on a firm's practice and geographical structure. Though it must ultimately account for a broad range of legal topics and jurisdictions, its basis is in the operation and practice areas of the firm, and more importantly, the practical and logical determinations of the people of the firm.

At Baker & McKenzie, we adopted this Inside-Out approach. We completed classification schemes and deployed our global knowledge system (and content) with a number of our global practice groups. Some remaining practice groups are at various stages in the process. Along the way, we set some expectations and learned some key lessons. What follows are lessons and recommendations, based on our experience, for developing a global law firm taxonomy from the Inside-Out.

1. Start with groups who must or wish to work together

We work with our lawyers to understand the areas in which they most need to work together. Successful categorization schemes - taxonomies - depend on a need for the users of them to organize their storage, sharing and retrieval of content. We focused our efforts on working initially with those practice groups and sub-practice groups that will benefit most from sharing their know-how. With the Inside-Out approach, how the people fit together is more important than how the topics do; our taxonomy reflects the alignment of people in our firm, and our project priorities follow the need of our groups to share knowledge.

2. Develop the taxonomy with the lawyers

Our method for developing taxonomies with practice groups varies according to the group. Some groups have existing extranets, intranet sites or other tools with existing categorizations schemes. For these groups, we built from the existing information. Some groups wished to receive a proposed topic list to mark-up. We provided one. Other groups wished to create their own topic lists. For these groups, we helped them as needed and recommended certain principles. In all cases, we tried to provide as much expertise, research and balance to the approach as possible. Practice groups are ultimately responsible for ensuring that topic lists are up-to-date, and that when any adjustments are made, they are communicated to the lawyers in the group.

3. Establish basic principles and guidelines

Many taxonomy projects suffer from too much effort and detail. For us, a topic represents the end-point - the "end-node" - in a taxonomy. One realistic measure for how detailed to be is to estimate how many possible documents might end up being stored in a given topic. If it's less than five, the topic is too narrow. If it's more than 500, the topic is too broad (or some approximate measures like this). A topic list that is too long or deep is difficult for lawyers to use, especially when introducing a new system. For our global knowledge system, we provide written guidance in addition to ongoing support. We recommend that for any sub-practice area, there should be no more than 30 topics or so.

4. Adjust as you go

It's impossible to foresee all combinations of jurisdiction, language and practice group needs for a taxonomy. For a global law firm taxonomy to be successful, adjustments have to be made along the way. Often the same term can mean two different things in different jurisdictions. When this occurs, either a compromise topic name must be added or instructional language supplied to the system and training. The issues are typically not conceptual. They are most often a combination of nomenclature and habit (tradition). With compromise and training, most lawyers will be able to adjust their work to take advantage of the opportunities a global taxonomy provides. As the content in the system grows and the taxonomy gains wider use, we expect to always be finding areas for adjustment or clarification. Eventually, there are technical options that can be considered as usage expands - options such as implementing an automated thesaurus - a tool that translates terminology across jurisdictions. However sophisticated the systems though, the need for ongoing modifications will remain.

5. The project does not end

Based on #4, we assume that there will continue to be a need to develop and refine our global topic lists. New offices, new practices, new laws (Sarbanes-Oxley is a good example) and the evolution of the Firm will require continued attention to the undertaking. We are creating editorial boards within practice groups to address not just the topic lists, but also the content in the systems, and the standards and policies of the group. A global law firm taxonomy, especially one developed Inside-Out is a continually evolving project. We can, and should, expect to commit less energy to maintain it over time, but the project will never have a distinct endpoint.

By adopting the Inside-Out approach, Baker & McKenzie hopes to meet our goals for overall adoption and usage. We expect our global knowledge system to be the first place our lawyers look for information. More importantly, we are aiming for our lawyers to better find the content they require to serve our clients most effectively. Thus far, developing our taxonomy from the Inside-Out seems to be the best path to get there.

Jason Marty it the Global Director of Knowledge Management at Baker & McKenzie Global Services, LLC.