Law Firm CTO Peter Ozlin on Knowledge Management (KM)

Peter Ozolin is Chief Knowledge & Technology Officer at Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker, where he oversees the technology process and selection for user applications, as well as the management/development of web based applications. Peter was a co-founder, CEO and Chairman of AchieveOne, a provider of legal services automation software, which recently merged with DealPlanner. Prior to AchieveOne, Peter was the founder and President of Legal Anywhere, a provider of extranet solutions for the legal market. Niku Corporation acquired Legal Anywhere in 2000. Post acquisition, Peter served as Niku's Vice President and General Manager for the Legal Vertical. Peter has published numerous articles and has presented at nationwide conferences and tradeshows. Peter holds a joint degree, JD/MBA, from Willamette University.

1. How do you define KM?

There's ten different definitions you can have. I don't spend a lot of time prophesizing KM to the partners in the firm. It's more of a strategy that we incorporated at the technology committee level that we think is important for guiding our investments as it relates to technology and systems. What is the asset that we have? Our knowledge as attorneys. And to the extent that we can leverage that to provide more effective client service, and have clients access that knowledge base, then we're doing a better job of leveraging our knowledge base. Our definition of KM is really getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

2. Chief Knowledge Officer - that's a relatively new title. What are some of your functions?

Some other folks are taking a similar role at other firms, like Eugene Stein at Shearman & Sterling. You're seeing some combination of the two roles CKO and CTO. For us, it's really just an emulation of the structure that we have in place. I take on a couple of functions. On the technology side, it's mainly user-oriented applications, like the things we do in litigation and practice support, aspects of Web development, portals, extranets, and IT training in different products that face outward. The KM side of that is obviously the strategy of leveraging the knowledge and assets that we have and bringing it through in some of the technology offerings.

3. Does your department function and interact with all other areas of the firm?

Yes, we like to get out and meet the different department heads to get their input in terms of prioritizing projects and where they could really benefit from sharing and accessing knowledge. It's definitely critical to have this kind of involvement with the partners.

4. Are law firms buying into KM?

Yeah, I think they're tentatively going down this path. West Coast firms are hiring these types of positions, Chief Knowledge Officers and so forth. But I don't see KM as something that you buy into or don't buy into. It's kind of a strategic decision to say, "We want to be better at utilizing the knowledge we have." For example, Paul Hastings has a large lateral practice. We need to be able to assess quickly who knows what in this firm and their expertise and have access to that knowledge. So, from this standpoint, it's not a difficult thing to buy into. Probably the difficult buy-in is the issue: "What does KM mean in terms of investments we make as a firm?" From our standpoint, it's not the investment of new and additional resources, it's just the way that we appropriate those resources. How do we focus and prioritize some of our technology investments? Ultimately we prioritize by asking, "Do the tools make me more effective? Is this something that allows me to access knowledge easier? Will this technology tighten the relationship with the client?" Things of this nature...

5. How long has the KM been a strategy in law firms?

It wasn't called KM in the late 80's or early 90's, but it probably began around there. And it definitely was going on in corporations at that time. Perhaps one of the things that's really accelerated KM, around 1996, was the technology available through Web applications and the ubiquity of Web interfaces. Plus, you have information available in so many different places now: Email is its own knowledge base; there's document management systems; different practice group collaboration areas; extranets. Aggregating all of this information has become increasingly difficult.

6. What technology do you absolutely need to survive?

I definitely think there are some base technologies that you should have. Databases, extranets, and portals should be critical to any firm's knowledge strategy. I think that the danger with something like a KM strategy is to go out with those types of services initially, especially if your culture is new to KM, to say to the attorneys, "Look at this great Knowledge deal. Now all I need is 100 hours of your time to tell me which are the important documents and pieces of critical information."

There's a lot of low hanging fruit (for lack of a better term) that a firm can access through plug-in tools that have quickly recognizable benefits. For example, there are search engines that let you look at all the firm's different knowledge sources and quickly assimilate what's in there. Another thing you can do on the knowledge front with technology is change the way you structure and organize your information and access to these resources, whether it be through a portal or some kind of specific knowledge site for a practice group. That's a good place to start, places where you're not asking attorneys to invest a lot of time, but yet they're seeing benefits. Then, I believe, as we move down the KM path, the firm will be willing to invest in the more time-intensive systems. So that's how we're approaching the program.

7. Does the effectiveness of KM vary by firm size or firm focus?

Yes, definitely. There are different types of knowledge applications that will apply to different practice groups and departments. For example, knowledge drafting tools are more applicable to transaction groups, whether it is real estate or corporate. Another example is knowledge tools for litigation settings with volumes of documents and discovery processes, which may be a whole different set of technologies than transactional tools. There are some that are universal, of course, but there are definitely practice-specific areas, and I think one of the things that is consistent with a lot of firms in this area is that they're really trying to get people who are running their KM programs to have a legal background. To implement a knowledge strategy, you do need to understand the practice, at least on a broad level. KM can't be a pure technology play.

8. Generally, how are attorneys responding to KM initiatives?

Generally, I think it's pretty good. I avoid prophesizing on the subject too much. They don't need to know that it's a KM initiative when you drop in a tool for them to utilize. It's more a matter of are they finding it a benefit? And yes, they do find these things to be of value. The real test will come in the future to see if there's further investment in structural support.

9. What does it mean to an attorney to work with KM in mind? Does he/she have to stop what they're doing to attend to KM concerns, or is it integrated into their natural workflow?

The latter. There's a hierarchy in which you want to adopt KM applications. That first level of hierarchy is stuff that is integrated into your daily routine, in that you don't necessarily have to take a lot of time to learn it. The challenge in law firms is in investing in training and requiring that training. I see it as something where the investment won't be great out of the gate, but if they see the value in it, then they'll be willing to invest more. You kind of have to start in this low-impact way.

10. Where/how can a firm measure its return on KM investment?

For the "where," you shouldn't make a KM investment without applying any standard type of ROI process. So there should be a look at the investment itself and the expected profit. And there are some objective measurements, like access, how the system is utilized, and different surveys you can put in place. And there are those subjective measurements: how are groups responding in terms of increasing the quality and value of their practice. So ROI does apply, and in some cases where it's on the client development side, a standard ROI is more discounted. It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to look at it purely on a financial investment basis, because the other thing you're trying to increase here is value. The value of the team working together, the value of a tighter client relationship, these kinds of things that often times are immeasurable.

Another thing to ask yourself at the beginning of a project: "Is this investment an upgrade to something we have, like a document management system. Or is this more of an R&D project where we haven't tried this before, but there may be value in just trying it."

11. How do clients fit into KM?

There's no doubt that clients should be the beneficiaries of KM. When we take on a project, we want to be able to extend some of the knowledge out to the clients as well, either through an extranet or tapping them into some knowledge base -- or just better service, more immediate information about that client at the disposal of the attorneys that are addressing their problems. A good illustration of client-focused KM would be a successful CRM integration. If you can bring to bear your expertise as you taken on an engagement, it just makes you that much more polished as a firm as you make a presentation to clients.

12. What are the top challenges you face?

With a lot of knowledge projects, you want to integrate knowledge and present it in one view, and the sources of knowledge may be in a lot of different places and structure sources. So it can be pretty tough to pull those together, especially since it involves a high level of cooperation among administrative and legal departments, which may have their own initiatives.

13. Is there any affinity between your prior career (running a legal technology company) and being a CKO within a law firm?

I was founder of Legal Anywhere, which built client extranet sites for law firms and corporate legal departments. This was in 1996, and over the course of four or five years, we were in about 100+ law firms and a number of corporate legal departments nationwide -- American Airlines, Safeway, Verizon, and Caterpillar were a few. That experience was very helpful to bridge legal experience with technology, because as much as we understand that it would be helpful to leverage this knowledge, technology needs to be put in place to make that happen. I use the technology skills from my past job quite a bit in my current job.

Probably the most important thing that I've appreciated about this opportunity is the support at the management level to take on some of these programs. And they don't just say, "Yeah go for it, here are some resources. Make it happen." But they structurally support it, with respect to having different people, like Web developers, available to make these things happen. As opposed to that person operating on an island, pontificating about the benefits of KM. The other firms that have had success in the KM area kind of have a similar approach. It all goes back to prioritizing your investments as a firm, and are you making investments in technology that helps you leverage your assets because you see that your knowledge is a strategic asset. The places where I've seen it less successful - again, it's in the early phases of KM, so it's tough to draw a conclusion yet - seem to be where these folks are on an island, and they have a lot of good ideas, but there's no real resource support to execute on them.

14. What kinds of data or information does KM include?

Well, the first step of getting to electronic documentation and records is important, whether that be documents, emails, images -- and finding a way to centralize that information, perhaps around client matter. The other area that falls into the KM area is expertise - who knows who and who does what in the firm. And so CRM packages fall into the KM area.

The toughest types of information to extract are the stuff senior partners have in their head from years of practice. Getting this knowledge really occurs in later stages of KM where you have to sit down with them and somehow pull that out during their daily routine. The investment in time is always a question. And then publishing this knowledge to the rest of the practice area or group. Some of this can be done via collaborative sites and communities that are set up within our portal. The other part will be putting tools in place to follow and capture their processes-- but I see that as a little down the road.

15. Where will KM be in 5-10 years?

For some firms, KM will be in the later phases of development. To me, KM may not be one of those things that you talk about, sort of like the equivalent of "Business Process Automation" or "Total Quality Management" of the 80s - the trends in the 80s that corporations and law firms adopted. It will not mean that KM won't exist. It will be part of the fabric of a law firm, part of the way a firm makes decisions. That's really what I see happening. I hope it goes that way, because you don't want it to be a flavor of the week; you want it to be a lasting type of a discipline. And it will be all about benefits and execution and making some mistakes, but hopefully the benefits outweigh the downsides that are experienced.