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Practice Innovations — Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
July 2016 | VOLUME 17, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
Sustainable KM
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Sustainable KMBy V. Mary Abraham, Above and Beyond KM, New York, NY
Many of our current knowledge management (KM) practices are work-intensive and tend to flame out once our attention or energy shifts. What if we adopted a more sustainable approach to KM that is in a similar vein to sustainable business practices or sustainable agriculture? What would a more sustainable approach to KM look like?

On good days, our KM efforts make everything else work better in our firms: people get the support they need in the critical moment to help them make better decisions and, generally, work more efficiently and effectively. On bad days, we feel like Sisyphus pushing a huge boulder uphill with very little at the end of the day to show for our efforts. And, to be honest, on the day after a good day we are sometimes forced to admit that the sheer effort required to produce a good outcome was exhausting. We feel utterly depleted. But then we have to do it all over again and again.

In the face of these realities of law firm KM life, I set out to find some relief in the form of guidance from others who have struggled against the challenge of depletion and have identified some ways to preserve precious resources. This journey led me to the sustainability movement, which addresses the negative impact on our environment of our way of life and the associated business practices. After years of trying to turn back the clock on environmental damage, sustainability advocates have come up with some key concepts that help every one of us contribute to the conservation effort. While other variants on the sustainability theme exist, this article focuses on four key ideas: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink.


Obviously, the most reliable way to avoid depleting a resource is to stop using it altogether. However, in many circumstances that simply is not an option. So the next best thing is to reduce the demand for the declining resource. If the resource is a component in another product, this may mean finding a way to do without the component or to replace it with another more abundant resource.

Of the many resources we use in law firm KM, perhaps the most critical resource is the people involved, both in the KM department and among our internal and external clients. So how do we preserve people? By eliminating unnecessary demands on their time and energy. In practice, this means eliminating from every KM process or interaction any wasteful steps that require someone to do things that could be done better by someone or something else.

A good way to smoke out these wasteful steps is to watch someone try to perform the process and note the points at which that person becomes annoyed or frustrated. That is a sure sign that they feel put upon. And when you make too many demands of this type on the same person, you lose their goodwill, support, and participation. Another way to identify problems is to put yourself in the shoes of your clients and map their journey. What do you experience and how does that make you feel? If you feel depleted when you already know and understand the process, how much more depleted will your client feel?

Once you have identified the points of waste in your system, you need to find ways to eliminate them. Sometimes, it is an issue of designing a better user interface. Sometimes the problem lurks in the background and needs to be addressed through better architecture or smarter processes. Consider whether targeted education delivered just in time might help reduce the sense of depletion only after you have dealt with the design and structural issues. But a word to the wise: never fall back on education to provide a Band-Aid for poor structure or design. The client always knows when they are being asked to shoulder too much of the laboring oar. And they will resent it, and you.

While the preceding discussion has focused on the depletion of your clients’ time and energy, it is also important to track and address any wasteful steps in your internal KM processes that lead your KM team to feel depleted. Once they lose their energy, their client-facing work will suffer. As one of the clients I consult with told me recently, “Our team is feeling beaten down and that makes it hard to bring any enthusiasm to our work.”


In a world of disposable K-Cups, it is tempting to use things once and then move on to something new. However, when you have a mindset of sustainability, you actively look for ways to reuse what you have so you do not need to deplete additional resources in the creation of something new.

While a lot of law firm information management and KM practice is focused on reusing the intellectual resources of the firm—and there certainly is a place for that—I would invite you to consider the most important asset you have that ought to be reused without fail: your lessons learned. Do you have processes in place to ensure you elicit the learning from every client engagement or internal project? Then, do you have processes in place to ensure what you learned is incorporated into your current practices and services? Finally, do you have processes in place to ensure that people are actually following the new practices? As you can see, when you implement this approach you create a virtuous cycle in which the firm is constantly learning and, through effective feedback loops, constantly reflecting that learning in improved practices. In this manner you create a rising tide that lifts all boats. This is an amazing outcome given that all you wanted to do initially was forestall depletion by reusing what you have.


The process of recycling converts waste into usable materials. There are at least two variations of recycling: downcycling and upcycling. Downcycling “involves breaking down an item or substance into its component elements to reuse anything that can be salvaged.” This process usually results in products of reduced functionality or lower quality. Upcycling, on the other hand, “involves adding value to an item for reuse.” The resulting product often is of higher quality or functionality than the original product. For example, plastic soda bottles are broken down and then come back to consumers in the form of clothing or carpeting. Or, consumer electronics are refurbished and resold.

In the context of law firm KM, we speak of recycling precedents from one client matter to another. But do we have the necessary processes to make this simple and routine? Can people easily find the precedents they want? Better yet, is there a way of serving up the recyclable material at a lawyer’s moment of need?

Moving beyond mere recycling, have we found ways to upcycle our materials? Are they embedded in process maps and checklists? Have they been automated or otherwise enhanced? Have they been bundled into resources for continuing legal education for lawyers within the firm or for clients? All of these methods create products of greater value than their source. This is the benefit of smart upcycling.


If you go to a drugstore to buy over-the-counter pain medication, you are likely to get a cardboard package containing blister wrap, or a plastic bottle with a plastic safety seal, cotton wool, and enough tablets to fill barely one-half of the bottle. This is hugely wasteful. Unfortunately, this approach to packaging is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry. Just think of all the over-packaged products you have purchased during the last year.

In response to growing pressure for reduced and sustainable packaging, consumer products companies are rethinking their approach to packaging. Now they ask, do we need packaging at all? If we do, what is the minimum possible amount of packaging necessary? And can that packaging be made from recycled materials?

This rethinking mindset is every bit as valuable in law firm KM as it is in consumer-packaged goods. While you may not be producing packaged materials, it is worth asking if your channels of service delivery—both internally and externally—are streamlined and efficient. Are your products and services easy to find and easy to use? Are your communications straightforward and effective?

Taking one step back, ask if your processes are designed for reliable long-term service or short-term bursts of effort. In my earlier article advocating Infinite Energy KM I noted the difference between various KM projects:

  • Treadmills are projects that happen only through the diligent application of human effort. When the effort is interrupted the project dies.
  • Windmills are projects that are powered by existing firm processes and do not require a special application of human effort. However, there are times when the wind is still. Then what do you do?
  • Watermills are projects that are blessed with a relatively steady supply of energy, barring a drought or an upstream dam.
  • Infinite energy projects are self-perpetuating in that they create enough energy to keep themselves running.

As you rethink your projects and processes, consider the following proposal from Infinite Energy KM:

“The question KM professionals should ask themselves with respect to every project is this: are we setting up a process that relies on brute force (treadmill); periodic external energy (windmill); or near constant energy, barring intervention upstream or climate change (watermill)? Or have we set up a system that will of its own accord create the energy necessary to make it self-perpetuating? If we can design projects that are self-perpetuating, then we will have found our KM equivalent of the infinite energy generator.”

To identify or create an infinite energy generator, first look at the workflow related to your project. Then ask if the incentives to use that workflow, supported by its ease of use, are sufficient to generate a return to the user in time and effort invested, such that the user will voluntarily participate time and time again. Better yet, is that return high enough to change that user into an evangelist?

Finally, while you are in rethinking mode, go back to basics. Do an inventory of all the KM activities conducted by your team and ask the following critical question: are we spending our time and energy on the right things? This is the most fundamental and, perhaps, most valuable form of rethinking. When you get this right, everything works better.


Sustainability is more than a buzzword. It is a key to the long-term success and survival of a law firm KM program. In fact, if you and your colleagues want KM to thrive in your firm, make it a priority to reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink. Taken together, these four elements of sustainability will create a healthier KM program and happier KM professionals in your law firm.

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