The information cycle (filing!)

Quite a bit of my example user stories post was focused on records, document, and knowledge management - the legal information cycle. As lawyers, it’s what we know that is important. At a very basic level, we use our knowledge to generate documents. The documents form the basis of records. And the records inform our future knowledge:

Legal information cycle

Legal information cycle

But lawyers generate a lot of documents and therefore a lot of records. Most of us aren’t great at filing. We all know we should manage this stuff better and it’s usually a lingering source of guilt that we aren’t up to date.

Some background terminology

I think of records management as managing what’s happened in the past. Everything to do with a particular matter should be recorded so, if necessary, the full circumstances of that matter can be recreated. These are the execution versions of documents, your file notes, and your emails.

Document management is managing what you are working on right now. The drafts of documents you exchange for comments and review by your clients and counterparties. Ideally you want to be able to control and compare versions, manage access and of course, store documents securely and reliably.

Knowledge management involves managing your knowledge for future reference. Knowledge management is all about being easily able to access your templates, search your previous opinions and share useful information.

This is the thrust of my first set of example user stories. A lawyer is tasked with producing a document. He looks for a template (knowledge management), prepares some documents and circulates drafts (document management), finalises the documents and files them and all the surrounding correspondence (records management).

If there is one thing you can do to make your life easier as a lawyer, I would suggest it is looking at your records, documents and knowledge management systems. As I say, there are some example user stories about in the materials, but there are a few easy steps you can probably take right now without any new software or systems.

Keep it separate

First of all, keep the systems separate. The easiest way to make your life hard is to try and do too much all at once. Having one big folder that mixes up email records, working drafts and execution versions means that you cannot find anything. Or at least, not without clicking 27 times and running 3 separate searches. An issue I have confronted at various organisations is the signal-to-noise ratio. If you are looking for a particular bit of information or a specific document, there’s nothing more frustrating than 20, 30 or 40 pages of search results to work your way through. There is a joke about where is the best place to hide anything on the Internet? Page two of the Google search results. The same holds true for document management searches.

So keep it separate.

Records and document management

Records and document management is relatively easy. It will vary by practice or legal department, but one simple method I’ve found to be very effective is adopting a simple starting point of filing everything by matter. Each matter then has subfolders for Correspondence, Execution versions and Working drafts. You use the working draft subfolder to keep the stuff you’re working on right now. It’s not getting cluttered up with emails which get filed in a separate correspondence subfolder (if you file as you go and I know it’s not always possible or desirable). Finally, the signed or final versions of agreements (and ideally their editable equivalents) go in the execution subfolder.

Compare and contrast:

Where would you put an opinion on the Fencing Act 1978 that included a sample contract related to Project Tango? If you intuitively know where to file a document, odds are that someone else looking for the same document can find it later. I think the approach on the right is far more intuitive than the left.

When documents and records management are kept separate - even if it's just separate subfolders - it’s relatively easy to look back and recreate what happened if you (or another lawyer) ever need to look back at a file. At the same time, you’re not burdening yourself by not being able to find the draft document that has one typo you need to fix in among hundreds of emails.

Even if you don't have a document management system, this is something you and your team can still achieve yourself using a shared network drive (and Windows File Explorer is a surprisingly capable email management system if configured the right way).

Knowledge management and wikis

So you can keep your records and documents separate inside the same system, so long as they are separated by subfolder. Knowledge is a bit harder. You might have a separate templates or precedents folder for things like contracts – and save template agreements in both places or include links. But things like opinions are trickier. I’ve seen lots of opinions databases and no-one has yet really cracked it. Either the fields to be populated are so numerous and detailed that no-one bothers, or else there are too few and everything (if anything) gets crammed in to a notes field.

And this is where wikis come in. Wikis are a particular favourite of mine. For those that aren’t familiar with the concept of a wiki, it is essentially a type of website that anyone can edit. The best wiki systems have tools that help you create dynamic links between pages and categories of pages, facilitating an organically growing network of knowledge. We work in a knowledge business; it’s what we know that sets us apart from others. Wikis are an incredibly powerful tool for harnessing that knowledge.

The world's best-known wiki. Manages quite a bit of knowledge.

The world's best-known wiki. Manages quite a bit of knowledge.

A properly-designed wiki can act as a skin or set of sign-posts to the legal information and documents that are most important to you and your legal teams. The advantage of a wiki is that it is incredibly free-form and can adapt to the unique way you and your team work; you are not forced to adopt particular meta data or file taxonomies. A well-designed wiki will also not affect your corporate document management system.

Document management is not the same thing as knowledge management. Using a wiki to manage your knowledge enables you to use your document management system to focus on what it is good at.

Again, there are lots of different ways of arranging wikis and you really need to work out something that works for your practice. One method I’ve found very useful in government and regulated industries is the idea of an annotated statute. Under this approach, your wiki simply provides a link to the full opinion (stored in its appropriate records management folder) along with a brief free form summary of why it might (or might not) be useful. It is arranged under the section(s) to which the opinion applies.

So, for example, you might have a wiki page for the Fencing Act. Subheadings on the page would refer to parts or sections of the Act. Each of these sub-sections would contain links to actual advice, opinions or important documents (stored in the records management system). Brief summaries (that can be repeated as necessary) describe each link and why it might be relevant, along with any warnings about its use. Think of a version of Laws of New Zealand but with all the supporting material being derived from your documents and records.

Under this approach, you are not asking your team (or yourself) to sit down and download the information from their head on to a page. Instead, you are indexing information that already exists elsewhere in document form so that others can more readily find it. I wouldn't even recommend that people spend substantial amounts of time back-capturing information produced a long time ago. But if you do find yourself wading through your document management system for a particular historical precedent or opinion, put a link to it on the wiki when you do find it. If you needed to go looking for it, someone else probably will probably need to go looking for it too. Proud of a particular piece of work? Put it on the wiki. Completed a major contract? Put it on the wiki.

Wikis are a really power tool to shift information that once only existed in people’s heads to a freely shared and dynamically indexed knowledge management system. While the tool used is critical, as important is the cultural buy-in that the legal team will actively record its knowledge using the wiki (or any other knowledge management tool).