Legal knowledge management is about making legal information usable and findable. Generally, the term has been used for describing the activities carried out within a law firm – but nothing prevents us from talking about legal knowledge management with regard to a legal website, a legal marketplace, a legal app, or anything that concerns legal information.
Why Legal Knowledge Management?
In a law firm, information is pivotal. Sure, that’s true of every company, but evidence and reports that are relevant for a lawsuit or an investigation are probably even more critical – finding or losing that kind of information can make a significant difference during legal proceedings. Most of this type of content can’t be reproduced because it’s unique. It needs to be found fast, and easily, because in legal proceedings time is of the essence. Oh, and there’s a lot of it in every law firm; as Kate Simpson – one of the first at embarking on the delicate task of legal knowledge manager – put it, because lawyers know that information is important “they are loathe to delete anything (just in case)…”.
In addition to critical, time-sensitive information, there are briefs, precedents, regulations, templates, and agreements. There is also content that is produced externally and internally, legal content and content which is not strictly legal, like quotes, pitches, and internal emails. There can also be content produced across several offices of the same firm, or according to multiple processes, duplicated content, and so on.
So what does Legal Knowledge Management entail?
Elements of Legal Knowledge Management: Taxonomies
Legal knowledge management is certainly much indebted to information architecture and law librarianship. We don’t hear them mentioned too often when we review the area of legal knowledge management, but they are there. Indeed, Legal KM is also designing the strategy behind the way we order and categorize legal information, it’s about creating and developing taxonomies.
Taxonomies are indeed, one of the first strategies that lawyers use to organize information. Before search engines became fashionable and information could be digitized, legal taxonomies played a role in making legal information searchable and retrievable.
They also played a role in legal education. The common lawyer may not be acquainted with the history of Roman Law as much as civil lawyers are. They may have heard, however, that the taxonomy behind many of the European Civil Codes – persons, property and obligations – is much indebted – and quite similar – to a taxonomy originally developed by the mythical legal teacher Gaius, and then used by Emperor Justinianus in his Institutiones, a book written not for lawyers but for law students, the cupida legum iuventus – young people eager to study the law, and make sense in the tangle of Roman Law.
In the U.S., common lawyers certainly are acquainted with another kind of taxonomy: the West Key Number System, a tool for finding case law which was developed in 1908 and can be navigated in two ways: using headnotes from a case to find similar cases or by browsing the West Key Number System, where each number corresponds to a legal topic. There are more than 100,000 individual key numbers, grouped in 400 topics and themselves grouped into higher level categories: 1. Persons, 2. Property, 3. Contracts, 4. Torts, 5. Crimes, 6. Remedies, and 7. Government. Since it’s about case law, it keeps on growing and developing and each new relevant precedent is fitted into the existing taxonomy.
Today, search engines make the task of retrieving information much easier – more on this later – but taxonomies are still very much alive and not only for organizing case law or regulations.
Actually, the divide between the way lawyers organize laws and case law and the way they treat their own material can be surprising. As Marc Lauritsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, put it: “For a profession that grew up with intricately (some might say compulsively) structured treatises and case reporters, it is ironic that practicing lawyers devote so little energy to organizing the materials and tools with which they practice. Taxonomies need to be front and center as we move into an era of greater knowledge tool use.”
Taxonomies require subject matter expertise and information management expertise, but they also need to be built on a consensus: not everyone gives the same meaning to the same categories; it depends on the culture, the training, and experience. Lawyers trained in different legal systems can call the same things by different names. In this sense, leveraging user research is pivotal when building a legal taxonomy, and there is much to learn from the methodology of user experience design.
It’s not just about taxonomies. It’s about other classificators like tags, facets, and metadata that add information and complexity to the schema and facilitate efficient retrieval.
Elements of Legal Knowledge Management: Systems and Tools
Old law librarians had to rely on categories and paper. The modern legal knowledge manager can count on a number of IT tools, at least since LegalTech has entered the field.
Legal Search Engines
Legal search engines are the first, most obvious application of technology to legal information retrieval. Indeed, IT legal databases have come into fashion with the rise of personal computers since the ‘80s, while web browser interfaces have been used in legal search since the late ‘90s. In the last 10 years, natural language processing and machine learning have enhanced traditional legal search technologies, making it possible to figure out users’ intent and provide more detailed, richer and precise answers.
EDiscovery involves looking through the sheer amount of information that is exchanged during the first phase of a litigation procedure. This information may include important evidence – and it’s therefore pivotal that it’s done right. Machine learning and predictive coding heavily enhance this area as well. It’s possible now to train the technology behind Ediscovery to teach it what to look at on the basis of previous documents that were classified before as relevant or irrelevant by the lawyers.
Creating information, as much as finding it and sorting it, is part of a legal knowledge management strategy. And because a good part of creating templates and agreements in law firms can be replicated and repeated – this area has proven to be ripe for automation. Document automation software is certainly part of a KM system. Not only because it improves and speeds up the creation of new information, but because it enhances the process behind the creation and allows a clear trail record – no more back and forth of legal drafts in word documents – all the drafting, editing and signing can be done using the same platform.
Automated Document Review
Document research takes on a new significance with automated document review software. This is certainly a constitutive part of a legal knowledge management strategy. Think about it as legal search on steroids. Machine learning document review technologies allow for identifying key pieces of information in a large number of legal documents – agreements or regulations -and extracting it. The system can be trained to identify only information that is considered relevant in a particular sector. For instance, if the process to be carried out is due diligence, AI-powered document automation tools can be trained to identify clauses and provisions that are the most critical in a due diligence process, like liability, indemnity, force majeure, and change of control. If the documents that the legal team is looking at are lease agreements, though, the focus can be shifted toward identifying and extracting key information like terms, rent, renewal, base rent, and maintenance obligations. The system can also recognize and detail the level of severity of each clause, intuitively telling lawyers where they should focus.
Machine learning document review technologies also allow for automated extraction of key clauses, redlining, or comparison with documents previously approved by the legal team – to identify differences and in doing so, potential criticalities. Most advanced systems also provide for automated neural translation of documents from various languages.
All these technologies can work together in a legal knowledge management system; the task of the Knowledge manager is to choose the right set of tools, selected on the basis of the firm’s needs, map the processes and mostly, integrate all these tools in a coherent process. I said it. The keyword must be integration.
For instance, if a document is processed through a contract review system and then is edited, it has to be possible to refeed it into the system and reprocess it, seamlessly.
All these technologies should be able to work together and integrate with the existing document management system that the law firm is using. They must fit into the firms’ lifecycle processes of creating, storing, publishing, and finding documents.
Modern legal knowledge managers have the responsibility of bringing together the past and future: sourcing upon centuries of taxonomic expertise, and combining it with the latest advancements in legal technology to finally distill it into a unified, seamless picture.