Thursday, July 12, 2007

Expertise from the Outside In

Finding the right expert in a professional services organization

Expertise identification is a serious challenge and a focus of our KM Committee's interest at the moment.

Looking For Our Experts From The Outside

From the outside, I imagine that people without prior contact with the firm looking at my firm's web site find someone to contact for help with their legal services by drilling down into a particular legal practice area, such as antitrust litigation or mergers & acquisition, and simply call the head of that practice area. Another way, that our external site also supports, is to run a keyword search of the attorney's biographies to identify relevant experience. At the moment this search is a simple full-text search of the attorney biographies. It would be great if our web site intelligently combined the bios with the relevant practice area names and leading individuals, such that a search for "antitrust" would highlight the leader and members of the Antitrust practice area, as well as identify those attorneys with substantive experience in antitrust law (who could be patent attorneys).

(Of course, the idea that someone would hire a firm like mine based on the web site greatly oversimplifies the situation, since a significant majority of any professional services organization's new clients come through referrals from existing clients, with the referral being made to specific individuals at the firm that the existing client trusts).

Another way that people outside the firm can identify who's working on what is to view regular newsletters, like our Financial Services Alert, or the periodic press releases about significant litigation victories or deals.

Looking For The Inside Expert

Internally the situation is a little more complex.

One problem is the unwilling expert. While any lawyer should be happy to hear from a prospective client as a result of these sorts of indications, that is not necessarily the case about internal expertise. Picture the very senior litigation partner who, although he has very strong expertise in a particular area of law, may not look kindly upon being interrupted, especially by a very junior attorney on a very basic question in that area of knowledge. My point is that you don't just want to know who is the expert, you also want to know who will quickly (& ideally happily) answer your questions. That may be a better definition of what an expert is, as pointed out by Jack Vinson last year.

Another issue is the overeager expert. While the market (and the marketing department) presumably checks those who undeservedly exaggerate their credentials, attorneys rating themselves for internal use face no such limit. Picture the up-and-coming senior associate who would love to gain experience in a new and exciting area of law. Expertise identification by that person might be more aspirational than reality-based, and the person who calls that person for advice based on the system's recommendation may leave disappointed, never to use that system again.

Conversely, some people, even attorneys, are inherently shy and modest. Such people may identify their relevant expertise far more narrowly than is actually warranted.

Guidelines and Structure

So what would an expertise system that can avoid these issues look like?

In their ILTA article, "KM and Expertise Location" Tania Daniels and Mark Horn make the excellent point that the design of any expertise capturing system should be driven by a primary business need, be it identifying cross-selling opportunities, encouraging associates to stay by helping them build their internal network, or something else. What you quantify will drive how well your system functions for one of these business purposes. (Apparently, the Horne Daniels Group is no longer in business as such, but Tania very kindly answered some questions for me about the article from her new perch at The Walt Disney Company.)

Another troublesome aspect of an expertise identification system is listing or developing that particular areas of expertise you wish to track, in other words, developing and maintaining an expertise taxonomy. The difficulty here is finding the right level of granularity. With too little specificity, the system points to too many people in each area and is of little use. With too much granularity, if attorneys must participate by choosing their level of expertise in many dozens of possible areas, the cost of implementing the system for the firm as a whole rises, and may become too great. And it cannot be abstract--there is no point in having a system that identifies one person as the only expert in both a top level and all of the sub-levels of a general topic area.

Perhaps a system combining some real metrics, like hours billed in particular types of legal work, with self-selection would work best. Any professional firm has information about the type of work that its professionals do--it's a question of how to expose that information without exposing other information, such as total hours billed, that may cause personnel difficulties or concern in a sometimes competitive environment.

This year-old article on the "holy grail" of expertise location suggests that solutions are not coming out of the woodwork yet. I've looked at Kanda. Any other decent expertise solutions out there?

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