The Golden Age of the Knowledge Management Lawyer

The COVID pandemic heralded massive changes in the legal profession but perhaps none more than a renewed respect for the knowledge management lawyers who were pivotal in the transformation to the all-remote practice. Some may even say the last two years have been the golden age for unsung knowledge management lawyers.

“What was incredibly significant is how our profile and how people’s need for our services … just shot through the roof,” said Ginevra Saylor, the director of innovation and knowledge programs at Gowling WLG in Toronto.

“I think that COVID has demonstrated that focusing on core KM will stand you in good stead if you have to pivot at any given time,” said Adriana De Marco, Stikeman Elliott’s senior director of knowledge management, education, and innovation.

Stikeman Elliott had a “mature” knowledge management program, said De Marco, but during COVID they took many of their library and electronic resources and “repackaged them to make them more accessible for lawyers because we knew that that would be an evolving need.”

Sukesh Kamra, the chief knowledge and innovation officer at Torys, a Canadian Global 200 firm, said the need for knowledge management lawyers was “heightened” during the pandemic. Previously a law clerk or junior associate would have provided most of the legal support but knowledge management lawyers are being called upon more and more.

Knowledge management lawyers are now being asked “to educate the lawyers on substantive law topics, on the legal tech and process improvement methodologies to create efficiencies in the practice,” he said.

And coming out of COVID into an “agile, hybrid work scenario,” Saylor said she expects her team will continue to be working flat out as lawyers “have discovered” and better understand the value knowledge management teams provide. She said she expects that going forward “we’re just going to constantly be on call, which is fantastic!”

Kamra said the number one change he saw during the pandemic was a change in lawyers’ mindset that created an environment where the knowledge management and innovation teams could flourish.

Lawyers were “basically looking at this and saying, we need to start thinking differently. We need to start changing some of our behaviors to accommodate for new working styles,” he said.

That meant accessing and sharing knowledge in different ways than prior to the pandemic, he said. Managing deals efficiently became super important as the number and size of them grew over the course of 2020 and 2021, which required greater usage of specific transaction-type tools such as Closing Folder, which made it possible to manage transactions remotely from any number of locations.

Necessity, of course, required lawyers to adopt new practices and ways of knowledge sharing that also led to more creativity and “an openness” to the broader use of legal technologies and software, particularly by more senior partners, said Kamra.

“Prior to the pandemic, there was always this sort of unwritten rule that associates are going to leverage the knowledge management function more than partners,” he said.

The growing importance of the knowledge management team was not just internal. Saylor said clients became aware of her team’s process and technology skills and started to ask the firm to build them “solutions.” In-house clients “already know the law” so they could help deliver and communicate it, she said. “It’s a really exciting new twist on the kind of work we do.”

Delving deeper into the trusted advisor role, Kamra said he often meets with general counsel and chief legal officers who are also going through digital transformations to compare notes and see how his team can help with their “struggles.”

De Marco said she saw her role as also ensuring her firm’s lawyers had quick and easy access to up-to-date information, such as all the changing and complicated legislation surrounding COVID, so they would be able to disseminate it to clients.

She added that the higher profile of knowledge management is great but in order to provide the services the firm now expects, the team must have the people and technology tools in place to facilitate a quick pivot. At Torys, Kamra said the mindset of the partnership is that investment in knowledge management is necessary because it’s “the wave of the future.” He hired two new lawyers just last week. Gowling’s Saylor said her four-lawyer team is maxed out and she’s planning to hire support in non-lawyer roles.