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A world of wisdom -Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Print
Written by Leanne Tilbrook   

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has been widely regarded in the legal market as among the leaders in knowledge management (KM). It has had a long KM tradition in the London market, dating at least from the early 1980s, and this tradition had been enthusiastically embraced by all of its offices, throughout its global expansion in recent years. With these foundations in place the firm decided, in 2003, to commission a six-month strategic review of its KM activities by a small group of senior partners and KM leaders.

Image The review group’s brief was to formulate the firm’s next-generation KM strategy, examining and thoroughly testing the firm’s existing KM philosophies and practices by reviewing its existing KM infrastructure (culture, people, processes, technology and measures). Its objective was to identify the developments that would be necessary to help the firm achieve its business goals, and specifically the technologies that would help make the new KM strategy actually happen.

The KM review group re-emphasised that KM is very important to the firm and its culture. It concluded that KM is fundamentally about delivering the right information to the right people at the right time so that they can work more effectively.

In strategic terms, the review group found that KM gives the firm a competitive advantage: it improves risk management and profitability by ensuring timely access to up-to-date information and by the continuous investment in developing leading edge know-how. In particular, KM is a significant contributor to providing more client satisfaction and to maintaining the firm’s high standards. It also helps to make the firm’s lawyers more effective and to develop faster whilst creating a better working environment.

At the same time as identifying the importance of KM to the firm, the review group concluded that there had been a significant shift in the type of work that the firm’s clients require, from the traditional jurisdiction-driven work to a heavy demand for cross-border product-driven work.

Pre-review KM technology

When the review group commenced its review, there was a view that KM technology was not a priority for change. However, once the review was completed, this was no longer the case. The review group found that the firm’s three existing KM technology platforms (one each in Germany and Austria, France, and the rest of the world) were a potential barrier to the firm in achieving its KM vision.

Although the review group found that the firm’s existing KM systems contained large quantities of valuable know-how in the form of precedents, standard forms, current awareness, opinions and so on, it was not optimising the use of this material in the service of its clients. This was because the fragmented KM systems prevented lawyers from easily accessing knowledge resources on a firm-wide basis. They also forced them to rely too heavily on KM staff to retrieve information and perform other KM work on their behalf. There was no existing way lawyers could personally search across each KM system to find all relevant information on a specific topic. This meant that the firm’s internal KM processes were insufficient to support fast and efficient delivery of know-how to lawyers to support the new client-led trend for cross-border product-driven transactions.

Further, the different systems created significant cost inefficiencies. The KM systems were labour-intensive both when inputting and retrieving information and, as they were mostly paper based systems, there were storage costs. There were also the operating costs associated with maintaining three separate systems, as well as the costs associated with the training and support of lawyers and KM staff.

Future KM technology requirements

This led the review committee to conclude that the firm needed one know-how system that fully integrated its network of 28 offices in 19 countries, together with the introduction of a package of standardised, firm-wide KM working practices and procedures. The new know-how system had to be easy to use by lawyers, allowing for simple Google-like searches, but sophisticated enough to allow the firm’s KM staff to carry out more complicated searches. Furthermore, content submission had to be as simple as possible so that every lawyer could self-submit, while allowing KM staff to control quality. Finally, the new system had to give lawyers access wherever they were in the world, whenever they needed it.

The review group carried out a full-scale review of off-the-shelf KM technology products, and found that none would fit the bill. It was therefore decided that it was necessary to build a new technology solution combining applications already in use in the firm with new search software, and to develop the accompanying working practices and procedures in-house.

The review gave rise to ‘Athena’, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom. An international team of three partners (Edward Braham from London, Nikolaus Reinhuber from Frankfurt and Machiel Lambooij from Amsterdam, joined in September 2005 by Michael Hertz, the firm’s new chief knowledge officer), who had been involved in the KM review, sponsored the project. The sponsors’ role was to report to the firm’s management committee on Athena and to provide high-level support for the project, including decision-making on Athena’s design and development from a business perspective.

A business process review within the firm initiated the design of Athena. This led to best practice discussions and revealed the need for new policies such as copyright and confidentiality, as well as working practice guidelines. Once business processes were agreed, a joint KM and IT design team formulated functional requirements that were again carefully validated by the firm’s lawyers. Once the basic functional requirements were agreed, and to ensure the design addressed the needs of the two primary groups of users – lawyers and the KM community – the firm then established two advisory ‘super user’ groups (SUGs) that included partners, associates and KM lawyers from among the firm’s practice groups and offices. The latest design and development ideas for Athena were presented to the two SUGs on a regular basis, so that their comments and ideas could be fed into the design and implementation processes. Athena was to have a strong business focus.

The firm’s IT staff adopted a development methodology to incorporate continuous feedback. User interface design – the primary intersection between lawyers and Athena – received much attention. The firm employed a design analysis manager – an expert in user psychology – to ensure that the interface was as usable and ergonomic as possible. Athena developed as a web-based program that indexes and stores all of the firm’s know how in one place. In simple terms, as long as a lawyer has an Internet connection, they now have access to all of the firm’s know-how, in any office, at any time of the day or night.

Thanks to Athena, lawyers can now find information using either simple or advanced searches. Lawyers can create personal preferences, and use filters to limit search results. They can also use navigation aids further to help them quickly narrow search results to a short list of highly relevant results. As well as saving and sharing searches, lawyers can tag and save individual search result items in ‘results baskets’, similar to shopping baskets found in commercial websites. Athena also includes on-line help to supplement traditional training and orientation materials.


During development, a migration team worked to image the firm’s legacy, primarily paper-based information. Data were translated from the old KM systems into the new data structure created for Athena. The team migrated data from about 50 legacy databases. At the same time, KM lawyers reviewed existing collections to ensure that Athena included only content that was both useful and relevant.

The project team further expanded to include a full-time change management/learning team of KM, library and training personnel from across the firm. That team delivered intensive training sessions for the firm’s KM professionals, ensuring they thoroughly understood the new policies and working practices and how to use Athena technically.

Lawyer training was completely different. Knowing that Athena needed little traditional IT training, the project learning team invented the concept of ‘know-how stories’ for lawyers. Lawyers were divided into around 40 groups, aligned with their practice groups and location. A lawyer from each group became responsible for creating and delivering that group’s ‘know-how story’. KM worked with that lawyer to develop a real-life scenario tailored for that group, showing how Athena would make specific know-how-related tasks easier.

Using ‘know-how stories’ took a lot of time, but feedback suggests that this peer-to-peer approach has been very successful in building lawyer awareness, understanding and adoption of Athena. Between February and November of 2005, Athena was rolled out to about 75% of the firm’s lawyers around the world.

The firm is now in the middle of the design phase for the next major release. It will contain new features, based mainly on the systems in use in its Austrian, French and German offices, including more sophisticated multilingual support, improved content submission and better browsing.

Meanwhile the Athena team is busy with a detailed adoption and integration programme. This will include taking user statistics and performance reporting to provide KM leaders with best practices to encourage them to improve Athena content and to use that content more efficiently to service the firm’s clients.


Athena is a huge improvement over the firm’s previous systems. It now contains more than 175,000 know-how items in a unified database. At least 400 lawyers use Athena every week to perform thousands of searches, which provide up-to-the-minute data from the entire firm, and the KM professionals use Athena daily to manage their know-how content more efficiently.

Athena is now a main part of the foundation for the firm’s next-generation KM strategy and its introduction and the working practice changes that will evolve from it will ensure that the firm achieves its business goals as well as remaining at the forefront of legal KM. 

Leanne Tilbrook is a knowledge management lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.



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