In this week’s podcast Ari Kaplan, legal industry analyst and LEGALTECH MATTERS host, talks with Catherine Hanley, Knowledge Management Lawyer, Sidley Austin. They discuss the pathway from e-discovery to knowledge management, the increasing deployment of practice support lawyers in law firms, the skills necessary to succeed as a KM lawyer, and future opportunities in knowledge management. Read transcript
Meet Our Host and Guest
Attorney and legal industry analyst
Ari Kaplan is an attorney, author, and leading legal industry analyst. As the host of his own long-running Reinventing Professionals podcast, he has interviewed hundreds of leaders in the legal profession since 2009.
Knowledge Management Lawyer
Catherine works as a Knowledge Management Lawyer at Sidley Austin. She previously worked at Mound Cotton Wollan & Greengrass.
Welcome to LEGALTECH MATTERS, a Litera podcast dedicated to creating conversations about trends, technology and innovation for modern law firms and companies big and small.
00:00:13:18 - 00:00:28:02
Welcome to Reinventing Legal. I'm Ari Kaplan, and I have the privilege today of speaking with Catherine Hanley, a knowledge management lawyer in the Insurance and financial services practice at Sidley Austin. Hi, Kate, How are you?
00:00:28:20 - 00:00:31:23
Hi, Ari. How are you? I'm great. Thank you for having me.
00:00:32:07 - 00:00:40:18
I'm really honored to be speaking with you today, and I look forward to our conversation. Tell us about your background and your role at Sidley Austin.
00:00:41:13 - 00:00:58:11
Well, in a nutshell, I grew up overseas and I came back to the U.S. for college in New York. And after that, I moved around a couple of different states and came back to New York in 2002. I role at the Austin is as a knowledge management lawyer for the insurance transactional group.
00:00:59:05 - 00:01:06:01
You spent a little over a decade as a vendor before practicing law. Tell us about that transition.
00:01:06:19 - 00:01:38:16
As a vendor, I worked for a company that was a patent annuity payment service, and they made patent and trademark docketing systems. It was a company with very strong views and policies on marketing and customer support. So I did marketing there towards the end, like hotel demos and on site demos. But before doing that, I started out as a trainer installing systems configuring systems, and I was able to also do some data conversions from clients’ docketing systems to our systems.
So the marketing was kind of grounded in a deep and comprehensive understanding about how clients use the systems and the different stages from sales to marketing to installation to training and support. And what was interesting is that we provided unlimited on-site support for our systems and clients just paid the travel costs. So we had a great client base that it was made up of very knowledgeable expert users of our systems and our clients were very loyal because we had the time to craft tailor trainings for attorneys and other legal professionals to take the time to sit with people while they're using the systems and to really work through any issues they had. I don't come across many companies that offer that support to their clients these days, and it also made it pretty easy to do marketing.
00:02:33:03 - 00:02:37:21
How does your experience as a vendor affect the way you approach knowledge management?
00:02:38:07 - 00:03:05:24
Some of those skills in terms of training and implementation configuration kind of play into the way I look at CAM, which is how to evaluate where the institutional knowledge and data set and how to tap into that data in ways that will benefit my practice group.
So I'm not tied to a specific format or technology in doing that, and I think that vendor role affects that.
I not look at kind of the basics rather than a programmer application. So there are other projects that are talked about I find in knowledge management like form banks, clause banks, Internet sites, dashboards, things like that. But I realized over the last couple of years that some of these projects can only work if there's a solid technology infrastructure to support the development maintenance of those types of applications.
And they'll only work as well as there's a real examination of the underlying processes. And if the terms you're using like precedent forum clause are defined by the parties before you map things out. So I don't believe in building something just to say it's done or getting a program or app just to say we have it. Any program, project or initiative, it really has to be relevant and useful.
So, there's no cookie cutter approach. And in my work as a vendor, I got some really good experience as well working with databases. And while I'm not a programmer engineer, that makes my focus very data driven. And one of the things I look to do is kind of how can I build the database that leverages the information and data already in the organization to the benefit of my practice group.
00:04:22:08 - 00:04:45:22
You mentioned the value of customer service that you learned when you were a vendor and now your knowledge management, which seems like a more technical role. Is it something of a hybrid role where technical acumen and customer service are really combined to create a successful approach to that particular discipline?
00:04:46:20 - 00:05:12:16
Yeah, it's interesting having that background. I mean, I think you really do have to work closely with people and understand what they're trying to do. The thing is, I don't think it's 100% necessary because people have a lot of different skill sets and backgrounds that just happens to be mine. But I find it useful in being able to talk to attorneys and communicate ideas to them and in a way that they understand.
00:05:13:13 - 00:05:20:03
What inspired you to pursue a legal career and then what prompted you to switch into knowledge management?
00:05:20:22 - 00:05:44:07
Well, as a vendor, all my clients, I worked exclusively with attorneys or legal professionals. And then I started working and I lived in San Francisco for many years, and then I moved to New York. And at that point, after maybe seven, eight years in the company, I wanted to look to doing something more challenging and interesting. And I had observed that there seems to be a lot of longevity in the law.
People practice for many years and they can shift focus or practices across a period of time or when. I'm also a little bit of a late bloomer because I started law school in my thirties and I went to the Fordham Evening Division, so I went to law school at night.
So it was a different experience than your typical law student.
After that, I worked at a midsize firm for many years, but coming from sort of a technology background, the environment felt years behind technology wise and I found over time that having that expertise and comfort level working with technology wasn't particularly valued except in the context of eDiscovery, which can be a thankless job. So there were a lot of situations where I'd be brought in on cases where there is complex discovery or even where had already been stipulated that no metadata would be produced during discovery.
So things like that and brought in to clean it up were like handle a complex case and it became less fulfilling over time. And also the eDiscovery experience really got me interested in looking about how data was managed and in changing and improving the workflow and process. And in the larger cases I worked on was handling the discovery.
I found it was about building a system of processes that work together like a machine or an assembly line. There have to be so many checks, balances, workflows, processes in place because when discovery starts rolling in from multiple custodians or defendants or plaintiffs, there has to be a system in place to manage the ongoing collection, processing, review and production of data.
And it has to be a strong enough structure in place. So, it kind of not runs by itself. But there's momentum in that process. That's one of the things I want to bring to knowledge management. How can I build a system of different processes and workflows that capture, categorize and log work, product or precedent on an ongoing basis?
How to introduce momentum into that process? And most importantly, how can I use leverage existing data to provide context and information that I need to be effective? So, e-discovery model of building a system that keeps running is one thing I like to do. And knowledge management.
00:08:07:02 - 00:08:13:19
A number of my peers have moved from roles and e-discovery to positions and knowledge management. Is that a common pathway?
00:08:14:13 - 00:08:33:06
I can't say if it's common or not. I've met a few people who've done the same, but I think it makes sense to me. I think e-discovery has been grappling for longer on how to manage and process and review data. So I think as a whole, lawyers working in that area are probably a lot more comfortable working with data and thinking about data.
And e-discovery is also an area with more mature technology. So for reviewing and processing documents and discovery and there's been, you know, over the last ten, 20 years an evolution of different document review protocols, different technologies used to review and analyze documents. So I think the level of knowledge and experience with technology is very high in eDiscovery practice compared to other practice areas.
So it makes sense that that skill set would lead to a role in knowledge management.
00:09:03:21 - 00:09:10:11
You started at Sidley in April 2020. How were you able to acclimate remotely?
00:09:10:11 - 00:09:33:10
The interesting thing is when I started, everybody was going through the same thing at the same time. So there was a really nice camaraderie there where if you're talking to someone on the phone for the first time or having Zoom meetings, the first question was really like, How are you? Is your family, okay? Rather than diving right into work, I found that there was a real sense of people looking out for each other.
We're all in this together. And so that was like a good experience kind of in the first month in terms of acclimating remotely. You know, I did my best like everybody else. But I do find back in the office, not full time, but maybe three or four days a week for most of the year. And I find I can be more effective when I'm working around other people and I'm physically in the same place as them.
00:09:59:13 - 00:10:08:22
You describe your role at Sidley as a practice support lawyer, or how does the firm leverage practice support lawyers differently than it does other attorneys?
00:10:08:22 - 00:10:34:04
Well, I know that the role can be defined differently in different firms, but at my firm, you know, practice support lawyers are non-practicing attorneys. So we're not working on assignments, client matters, and we don't bill our time. Practice support. Lawyers are also different because there's usually one, maybe two practice support lawyers for practice for every practice group. So the ratio of practice of court lawyers, practicing attorneys is very high.
We're embedded in the group, but we do completely different work from the attorneys as a whole. For me, I think as a practice support lawyer, like, the important thing is to maintain independence and impartiality, keep the focus on the needs of the practice group. There's only one of me in my practice group, so the way I look at it, I'm the only person in the firm with a focus on solving problems and making it work for that particular group, using the tools at our disposal today and evaluating technology processes without necessarily having an outcome in mind or specific program or technology.
So the questions I'm asking are different than other attorneys. I look at is the technology fit into an attorney's day? Is the use case actually relevant to this practice group? Lawyers are smart, wily creatures, and if they find a program or workflow creates confusion, it takes a long time to implement or just they don't like it, they won't use it, they'll find a workaround.
And that workaround is not going to be particularly effective. KM lawyers are also in a role. Their position to communicate the benefits and risks of a particular process to other attorneys. Lawyers respond to smart, reasonable arguments. So, it's more about crafting reasonable, persuasive arguments for adoption or use of a new technology or workflow, then trying to market or sell something most lawyers will get on board if I raise specific issues or drivers in their practice and can show that that tech and workflow is advantageous to the firm.
And so I think that it's a unique role because you're there to advocate for and within the practice group, but you're not practicing law.
00:12:12:03 - 00:12:16:02
Are there advantages and disadvantages of being a lawyer in a practice support role?
00:12:16:20 - 00:12:39:11
One of the things I think can be a disadvantage, and when I started working as a practice support lawyer, one of the things I had to focus on was intentionally not approaching it with the mindset of an associate. So, I had to kind of unlearn that impulse because as a knowledge management lawyer, I think you need to take a longer view and look at workflows process and technologies in a larger context and over a longer timeline.
Because my work is an assignment or matter specific, I have the time to map out and analyze underlying processes, understand the drivers and genesis of a project or assignment. So I think it's a slower approach and it takes more time, but it provides an opportunity maybe to surface problems and discover insights that a regular associate's workload would not allow.
One of the advantages you are really embedded with the practice group, so you develop very strong relationships and I find that community is a good thing.
00:13:16:05 - 00:13:21:00
What specific skills do you find necessary to succeed in a role as a lawyer?
00:13:21:21 - 00:13:51:08
There's so many different backgrounds for KM lawyers, so I would say, you know, one skill they have in common is being an attorney. Other than that, I've met many KM lawyers from widely different backgrounds. And I think in a way, the skill sets that are leveraged really depend on the structured department at their firm as well. But across the board, game lawyers need to be flexible and adaptable because there are a lot of external forces that can impact their work but that they have no control over.
Any technology, infrastructure changes can trickle down to systems and programs used by the attorneys, and you also need to be able to navigate the hierarchy of a law firm and work with other departments to advocate for what the practice group needs. Law firms are also places where there's a constant influx and outflow of people. There are new classes coming through, associates leave, laterals, join and so on.
So you have to be very good at communicating relevant information about critical systems and processes to new faces on an ongoing basis. So there's a constant process of education and reeducation going on. I don't think KM lawyers need to have any formal qualifications in technology, but it certainly can't hurt. And I've definitely met some lawyers with technology backgrounds. By that I mean like kind of degrees or starting a technology company.
I have a technology background, but I'm not an engineer, programmer or anything like that. However, an affinity and comfort level with technology is important as well as a pragmatic, realistic view of what it can actually do for people. There are a lot of shiny toys and new technologies and products out there, but I think you have to be able to ask whether and look at whether that particular product or technologies tried and tested, whether it would serve an actual purpose rather than a hypothetical use case.
And would it actually be used by the practicing attorneys.
00:15:19:15 - 00:15:25:09
How does a knowledge management lawyer differ from a knowledge management professional who is not practicing.
00:15:26:03 - 00:15:52:16
The practice of court lawyers? Very specific role within KM. And while a non-lawyer and KM professional could fulfill many roles and do under the same umbrella, I don't think they could do that Practice support lawyer role. I think the KM lawyers boils down to being able to approach and evaluate systems, programs or processes from the viewpoint of a lawyer and specifically from the viewpoint of a lawyer in my practice group. And part of that is understanding the workflows and drivers for attorneys. Being an attorney is a difficult job. It's an often adversarial role, and in the practice of law is very deadline driven, ad hoc and often subjective. So having practiced, it gives me kind of an insight into things such as like why partners or associates impose tight deadlines on work that, you know, maybe to other people might appear arbitrary and unnecessary.
I see it as a way lawyers have a constant rolling hard deadlines, and I see imposing tight deadlines on it or rethinking course. The board is kind of a system that attorneys have come up with to manage everything by keeping everything to a tight deadline.
Whether critical or not, it keeps work and assignments coming back on a rolling basis.
But there's some wiggle room for unexpected delays or issues. So I look at that as kind of a machine or system that attorneys set up to keep everything kind of on a momentum on a track.
00:16:56:19 - 00:17:03:09
Is it a skill set or a mindset that leads individuals to a professional role in KM?
00:17:04:01 - 00:17:31:02
I want to say I think it could be both KM and lawyers really need to look at things through the eyes of the lawyer and also call on their experience practicing law to inform their work. So I think important thing too is KM employers are going to look closely at whether that initiative or technology, any initiative or technology could be a distraction or how it would fit into an attorney's practice flow or whether the set up this time consuming.
And so I think the mindset is really looking at things through the eyes of a lawyer, and the skill set is having the ability to set parameters and walk through pre-defined processes to evaluate and use technology.
00:17:47:16 - 00:17:52:17
What types of projects do you work on and has that changed in the last few years?
00:17:53:10 - 00:18:28:24
It has changed a bit because I started work during a pandemic, so my focus in the first couple of years, while for the most part working remotely, was on sort of an ad hoc make it work type projects to fulfill specific needs, some of that was driven by the pandemic. So, for example, tracking changes to insurance regulation in different states, that type of short term projects was unavoidable, not just because of COVID and remote working, but also because I think it's difficult to get a long term project off the ground when you're doing everything remotely and you're also a new person.
I found it pretty hard to get traction on longer term projects. Now I'm at the point where I'm shifting to thinking about more longer term strategic goals. You know what I can create or build that will be a useful resource for the practice group one or two years from now. So given my background, what I look at is like, how can I create a data set and a system of processes that will be able to respond to ad hoc deadline driven workflow by providing a reliable resources to the practice group with meaningful data and organized in a way that makes locating information simple.
Building that kind of data set and a system of processes is the opposite of short term work. It's a long term, ongoing project that requires an understanding of the larger context, a methodical approach to process and design. So identifying data, looking at processes or technology for automation, designing an interface or system that allows attorneys or partners to add context or information in a way to map or link to other information systems in the firm.
So it involves multi-step workflows or processes in an ongoing involvement from the practice group. And I look at it the way a KM lawyer practices slow law because the focus is very different. It's on long term projects and putting systems in place that are designed to last and generate momentum.
00:19:56:20 - 00:20:00:13
Where do you see future KM opportunities in law firms?
00:20:00:13 - 00:20:23:14
Gosh, you know, there's so many different roles that now that I think are coming out of KM. There's like legal technology roles. I can't really tell you what specific roles that I think will be developed or come out of this, but I just I see a lot of movement in knowledge management, of a lot of different skill sets, and I think that contributes to different roles and different focuses are developed quite quickly.
00:20:24:11 - 00:20:31:11
This program is called Reinventing Legal. How do you see your work ultimately impacting that objective.
00:20:32:07 - 00:20:55:04
In the legal technology space? Just being involved in it. There are a lot of great initiatives going on now to access to justice type initiatives. I think being involved in knowledge net knowledge management and technology helps kind of raise the water level across the board. The other thing about knowledge management is I've talked a little bit about looking at things from the viewpoint of a lawyer.
Part of that is also being in a place where we're not selling anything to attorneys or not trying to convince them to do anything. It's a very unique role in the ecosystem of a large firm because the camera's in a place to look at whether and how technology can be a distraction or hindrance. We as a society, we've talked a lot.
We've learned a lot in the last few years about how distractions and interruptions can destroy focus. And I think the practice of law requires periods of deep work, uninterrupted work, and part of the knowledge management role is sort of shifting that into focus as a priority and providing increasing opportunities for attorneys to be able to have that time for deep work, reflection and decreasing distractions on the practice of law.
00:21:47:10 - 00:22:00:24
This is Ari Kaplan. And for this episode of Reinventing Legal, I have been fortunate to speak with Catherine Hanley, a knowledge management lawyer in the insurance and financial services practice at Sidley Austin. Kate, thank you so very much.
00:22:01:14 - 00:22:03:15
Thank you, Ari. Thank you for having me.
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