We have reached the point where it is increasingly difficult to draw any meaningful boundary between law practice knowledge management and law practice itself.
In the quest for better systems, it is time to devote greater attention to the subject of the knowledge classifications that drive them.
Why? Because the core of a knowledge management system is not the technology but the conception, the knowledge itself and how it will be used.
The process of classifying ideas produces a taxonomy. A taxonomy is a little universe of ideas that fit together in a logical fashion. Taxonomy building is an eminently practical, if highly abstract, undertaking.
Ideas & Concepts
The ideas or concepts in a taxonomy can include such things as areas of law practice, client goals, available legal answers, or just about any other group of related terms.
Taxonomies are the intellectual skeleton around which a knowledge management system is assembled. They must be built by humans, using distilled human intellect and a good deal of discipline. The process of building a taxonomy must precede its use to organize other parts of your knowledge system.
As Jeff Rovner, of Clifford Chance, observes: "Practice-oriented taxonomies are important because they enable us to browse for knowledge by subject, rather than forcing us to search by keyword, just as a book needs both a table of contents and an index."
Marc Lauritsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, finds the profession's relative lack of focus on taxonomies surprising. "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."
Scientists fit animals and plants into taxonomies. The government fits industries into a taxonomy. But while law has a taxonomy, law practice does not. Even building something as fundamental as a taxonomy of the various major and sub-areas of law practice is itself a complex undertaking.
What are the terms to consider for inclusion? What do they mean exactly? Are some terms simply variants on others? How do they all fit together?
The process of taxonomy development is harder than it seems at first blush. You may be able to use someone else's taxonomy. But it may not suit your particular needs.
Individual firms, practice areas, and even individual lawyers may see the world differently and therefore want customized or unique taxonomies for their practice. After all, lawyers historically have a hard time unanimously adopting any universal conventions for their practice. But there is a real premium on coming to a consensus about acceptable taxonomies.
When one starts studying, or better yet, actually building taxonomies, one finds a common pattern. Taxonomies tend to start simply as a list of major fields, actions, or goals.
As they grow larger, they tend to turn into outlines with main points and sub-points. And then the builder may find that some term just will not fit into the growing outline comfortably.
For example, in a taxonomy of law practice areas, what is the parent term of criminal tax law? Is it criminal law? Or tax law?
Struggle as you might to find a "right" parent, neither one is to be preferred over the other. Criminal tax law has two parents, not one. Welcome to polyhierarchical knowledge structures.
Conventional database designs do not handle polyhierarchical structures well at all, even though they are found all around the real world.
Fortunately, librarians have a tradition of analyzing the intellectual foundations of information organization and just such things as polyhierarchical structures.
Building better, practice-centric taxonomies will allow practicing lawyers to deploy more sophisticated practice-oriented knowledge management systems. These taxonomies take the form of a thesaurus of broader and narrower and related terms.
It takes both subject matter expertise and information management expertise to build taxonomies. Either you need cross-disciplinary minds or a team of people committed to the task. The reward is the core of a system that better reflects the way your firm operates and lawyers actually practice law.
LaVern Pritchard is the founder of Minneapolis' Pritchard Law Webs, and publisher of the LawMoose.com legal Web portal.
Web: www.priweb.com; www.LawMoose.com.