KM, Attrition, and Greedy Associates

Good thread on institutional memory and attrition at law firms:

I imagine it’s very frustrating to spend 5-7 years somewhere building up a set of tools and having to leave it behind when you go. Not an easy job. I happen to think that the tangible things like documents and databases, while valuable, pale in comparison to the knowledge gained from working with peers and senior people over a period of time. You can’t capture that in a system. – Christopher Smith, 10:33 PM

And Denise’s comments on the same issue:

Christopher has written a thoughtful post about law firms as law schools ( yes, the learning does continue – in theory) and where knowledge management systems fit into the equation. He observes that a large investment walks out the door when an attorney leaves. This is true whether the person is let go or decides to seek greener pastures (attrition is incredibly high in this profession). As our firm and its technology grows, I find myself considering the flip side: technology harvests a great deal of knowledge from us as we work. As anyone who has changed jobs can tell you, it is not all that easy to take it with you when you go, and even then, you’re simply copying information that will stay behind in your absence. [via Bag & Baggage]

(Ernie contributed to the thread as well, but I only have a link to the article; I’m writing this on a plane.)

Side note: This is the single biggest minefield that a vendor can walk into. Either answer to the “what happens when people leave the firm” is a trap. One answer – that “no problem – we keep all the info” – is just fodder for the attorneys who don’t want to share anything… “See? You’re taking my data!” inevitably follows. And the fact that the information’s available means that theoretically anyone walking out the door could take a lot of data with them. “We can’t share – somebody might take it!” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Chris nails it – attrition is a big problem. I co-authored a chapter to an ABA book (”Changing Jobs“) a few years ago, and I remember a statistic from the book that talked about associates jumping firms. The authors suggested that it costs a firm on average about $200,000 every time an associate walks out the door. (Factor in lost billable revenue, added training time, recruiting costs, ramp-up before the replacement is operating at 100%, etc. and that number is probably conservative.) Denise is right: by capturing some of the knowledge created by these individuals (associates or partners), the firm is hedging its bets. Chris says that the tangible things “pale in comparison to the knowledge gained from working with peers and senior people over a period of time.” True, but the cost of attrition would be far higher if the firm didn’t capture it.

That said, I don’t think this is a binary issue. If a firm commits to capturing best practices – in effect, capturing the experiences Chris refers to above – then the cost of attrition goes down. In fact, one of the reasons associates leave (certainly not the only, or even the primary reason, but a reason nonetheless) is that they don’t feel like they’re able to learn enough, that they’re simply a grunt worker churning out memo after memo, brief after brief. (Want proof? Take a gander at Greedy Associates.) If they could start to assimilate the experiences of the more senior attorneys, while benefitting from the work product at the same time, it’s a win-win situation.

To make this happen, you need two things: a commitment from the senior members to contribute, and a straightforward way of capturing information once they decide to share. The first is purely cultural (and can be helped along by strong management, something far too many firms lack), and the second sounds suspiciously like a K-log (a knowledge-oriented weblog). More on that topic later.

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