We've been talking to lots of law firms and organizations since we started introducing ThreadKM this summer. Most of the people who contact ThreadKM already recognize that lawyers need better tools to communicate effectively across their teams. When those same people see ThreadKM, they see the how their teams could be working together better than ever before - and much happier, too.

But a couple of firms have raised a question: "Dan, we really like this product. But isn't this just one more place that attorneys have to go now? We're already failing to get attorneys to our SharePoint site or to use our document management system. How are we helping our attorneys by giving them another place to go?"

That's a great question.

Attorneys have no shortage of electronic "places" to visit. The battle for their attention is waged every day. There are dozens of tools inside each law firm that are supposed to help the lawyers and staff. Many of those tools have value at some point in the day or week or year of an attorney. But few - if any - of those systems provide continuous value to the users. Many need only occasional reference.

When we talked to one firm about its intranet usage, for example, they explained the traffic in terms of the percentage of attorneys who visit the intranet dashboard at least once per year.

"Once per year?", I thought. That's how often I visit the DMV's website! If you are only connecting with your users through the intranet once a year, do you really even need a website at all? How much value is it adding?

While the average firm intranet is worth its own blog post, let's take a look at what's happening in most law firms and whether "too many places" is really the problem.

Wow, there really are a lot of places

Legal IT departments know that attorneys live in their email inboxes - everything else is secondary. I wrote in a previous post about why email isn't the greatest tool for internal collaboration. But apart from email, most firms host lots of other "places" that attorneys need to visit. Here are just a few:

  • Document management systems. The DMS is typically one of the most-hated tools at the firm. That's unfortunate, since it's often the most expensive. Lots of attorneys we speak with avoid the DMS whenever possible. Some use network drives as an alternative (another "place"). Some firms buy software that brings DMS functions into Microsoft Outlook to get better user adoption, with mixed results. And searching the DMS often involves going to a different "place."

  • Firm Intranet. The "mega-place." Everything is here...somewhere! Carefully pieced together, these portals often end up looking like a grab-bag of dashboards, directories, and out-dated reference information. Some intranets aggregate live matter information across the firm, which is helpful. But as discussed above, the lawyers aren't checking in - they aren't coming to this "place."

  • Case Management and Deal Rooms. Usually separate from the DMS, these tools introduce yet another place for information to live. Another database that has to be curated? Ugh! Overwhelmingly, we find that responsibility for maintaining case management and deal room applications falls to a single, unfortunate associate or staff member. Other team members log in infrequently and only out of necessity. If the content isn't updated, it becomes even less useful.

  • Discovery Applications. Interspersed among thousands or millions of other documents, the most important information in a case can often be found here. Whether hosted in-house or with a vendor, key team members at the law firm are frequently intimidated or frustrated by trying to use the discovery software themselves. (Truthfully, it's not really designed for them.) But it's another place to go, and so another challenge awaits with these applications.

  • Time and Billing. Tracking time requires going to another "place." The timekeeping and billing software used by law firms is critical to revenue. Understanding how much time is being billed, the value of each matter, even just entering time are all important pieces of information. But it always feels like a chore to open up these programs. And when it comes to running reports and visualizing the data, you better know your way around this "place," too.

What really matters about these places

So lawyers have many places to go - and lots of them are important. But what about them is important?

That's simple: It's the content. Users are only visiting these places to get and share information.

Think about other websites. Why do you visit Facebook? Or LinkedIn? Or Yelp? Because that's where the information you want is. Whether it's photos, status updates, restaurant reviews or contact information, you go to these sites because they have the content you're looking for. For those websites, it's very important to bring users to these places - that's how they monetize their content.

But for a business or law firm, that's not important at all. Actually going to these "places" doesn't matter. The firm doesn't define success by driving traffic to its SharePoint site. It defines success by helping attorneys deliver value to clients.

So what matters is getting the information from these places to users as fast as possible and with the least amount of headaches.

Information should flow, not wait for discovery

The problem with all of these "places" is the assumption that the user will go there to find the information they need. Typically, though, the user doesn't want to do that. Lawyers are making micro-calculations all day long, asking "Is this worth my time?" They are trained to do it for their clients. Often, the easy answer is "no."

So after building impressive repositories of information, many firms are then waiting for their lawyers to show up.

People want information to come to them. Tracking it down yourself is often frustrating, especially when that information is trapped inside of poorly-designed interfaces or systems that require extensive training. But when something appears in front of you that you didn't even know to look for but are suddenly glad it's here, that feels like magic.

So the key to spreading information isn't about "places." It's about push.

Pushing what matters when it matters

Here are some examples of how systems work better when they can push their content to you:

  • Your colleague Janet just saved a new version of the contract.

    What normally happens here? Either a) nothing - nobody actually knows that Janet finished the contract; or b) Janet sends out an email, "Please find the attached new version containing the changes we discussed." It's a pretty manual process, and it happens hundreds of times a day in many law firms.

    But with push, Janet's team is notified about the new contract state automatically. You and your colleagues get a link to the document so they can check it out right away. That's instant, relevant knowledge about the status of your files.

  • A document reviewer uncovered a new hot document.

    Awesome, right? This document is gold. You can't wait to drop it on a witness during a deposition. The problem is, you might not see it for a few days, or a few weeks, or even longer, because that document is siloed away in the discovery application.

    You want to see "hot" documents immediately. How about a link pushed to your attention and ready for your review? That let's you give feedback to your review team in real-time, improving the quality of the review going forward.

  • Andrew, an associate, posted a bad time entry to your matter.

    2.4 hrs. Research regarding the validity of electronic signatures in California.

    California? That's the wrong jurisdiction. You asked Andrew to write a memo by the end of the week and you almost got a memo about the wrong state.

    But since you are getting updates from the timekeeping system in real-time, you can correct the problem immediately. Communicate with Andrew, minimize the write-down of time, and deliver excellent work product to the client.

In the three examples above, you'd have to go to at least three different systems to track down what you need. And that assumes you already know the information exists - most of the time, you don't.

We spoke with one firm that significantly improved engagement with its intranet's matter analysis tools simply by pushing the updates out to attorneys via regular emails. Suddenly, relevant information was in front of them, easily accessible, and relevant to their workflows. By pushing information to you automatically, you suddenly become aware of things you didn't know existed. You don't have to visit one "place" after another to find out. The content comes to you.

We think that's a big part of solving the "too many places" problem, and we're excited to be working on the solution at ThreadKM.