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Meet Sally Gonzalez, Akin Gump’s New CKO. (New What?)
by Wendy R. Leibowitz, for Pro2Net.com
September 11, 2000

"Chief Knowledge Officer” is a term that sounds as if it belongs on a star ship crew member with funny ears, not in a law firm. Indeed, only a handful of large law firms have a dedicated CKO, and frankly, if you were going to name them, Washington, D.C.’s Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, might not be among the first firms that leaps to mind. So Sally R. Gonzalez, who just became Akin Gump’s new--and first-- CKO, has her job cut out for her.

First, Ms. Gonzalez explains, knowledge management is not a technology problem. “Y2K [the Year 2000 software bug] was a technology problem. Knowledge management is a business management issue,” she says, involving the sharing of knowledge and the leveraging of existing information. “It is key to your business future,” she says. “You can’t do it without technology. But it can’t be done only with technology.” Akin Gump, in installing Ms. Gonzalez as its first CKO, is moving to a whole new level of practice, she says. “The firm really feels that knowledge management will transform their practice, and transform their billing model,” she says. “I wanted to focus entirely on that arena.”

Richard M. Gittleman, who heads the CKO steering committee at Akin Gump’s Washington, D.C office, defines knowledge management as “the ability to get the right info to the right people at the right time.” Sounds simple, and the concept is not new to Akin Gump, he says. “But the large bulk of the challenge is to get our partners and associates to function differently than before. We decided to create a separate department, dedicated to knowledge management, and a high-level committee, formed of people who head their departments,” to do a 360 degree implementation. He agrees with Ms. Gonzalez that good technology is vital, but not enough, in and of itself, to change the way the firm practices. “We work hard to make sure we’re on the cutting edge, but none of that makes any difference if our way of practicing law is not as strong as our technology,” he says. So--enter Ms. Gonzalez.

Akin Gump, which has 890 lawyers and 2,200 people in 13 offices worldwide, hired Ms. Gonzalez a year and a half ago as its Chief Information Officer, or CIO, handling the nuts and bolts of the firm’s hardware and software. She had had ten years’ experience in law firms, so perhaps she was braced for poor technology. “We were using Banyan Vines and Banyan Mail,” she recalls with a laugh. The firm was also using Microsoft’s Office 97 software suite, and had robust litigation technologies, so Ms. Gonzalez went with a pure Microsoft platform--NT servers, with Outlook e-mail. She kept Windows 95-- word processing being the most important software to many lawyers, and thus the most difficult to change--and installed a new remote access system and desktop faxing. “We’re skipping an intranet,” she says firmly. “The next step is a collaborative enterprise portal, which we’ll use as a platform for knowledge management.“

The firm’s lawyers were heavy users of the “e-rooms,” or Electronic Team Rooms, which allowed online chats and information sharing with clients. “It was an early product, but the lawyers were happy with it,” says Ms. Gonzalez, so she left it alone. She helped create a Virtual Deal Room--a platform to store all materials related to a particular transaction. “It’s all Web-based, so all clients need is a browser to access the material,” she says. It makes scheduling much easier, and allows all involved to track the deal at every stage. There are fewer phone calls traded to confirm minor issues, such as scheduling matters.

At the end of a deal, there is a review--and that’s where the knowledge management, comes in. “Some of the material is institutional knowedge, we’ll capture it for knowledge management. Some of it is deal-specific. We don’t put it in a big black notebook that sits on a shelf,” she says. How it is handled is being developed with the attorneys in each practice area. Some aspects of every transaction might be worth keeping, to determine how a particular aspect of the negotiation was handled.

But then, knowledge management requires further analysis, says Ms. Gonzalez. “How many deal rooms have been created in the course of six months? How much travel was avoided, how much has the sense of customer satisfication been improved? Are more clients inviting us into second deal without an RFP process? Can we measure that we closed this deal x days or weeks earlier?”

This business analysis is quite foreign to many American lawyers. It is certainly not taught in law school. Each deal or case is unique--how can you compare them? No one has time to review, in an organized fashion, how well something worked--you might lose new business! CKO chair Mr. Gittleman is aware of the challenges. “The simple act of sharing information is difficult, unless you have a culture that changes the way information is input into your database,” he says. (Indexing information must be entered in a standard way, or it’s difficult to find. Lawyers are notoriously reluctant to spend the fifteen seconds needed to tag the information properly.) Once information is entered, physically getting a hold of the best documents and precedents requires an additional level of analysis. Because of the time involved and the general lack of prestige that such tasks have in a billable-hour culture, institutional memory and knowledge in the firm is rarely placed at everyone’s disposal.

Until recently, says Mr. Gittleman, institutional memory of how previous transactions were handled relied on a cerebral database--the memory of the partner in charge. But that is changing. “Now, if you have a transaction in Dallas that’s very similar to one done in New York, you can look at the same things your colleagues already found a year ago.” The usual system is to send an e-mail around the firm asking, “Does anyone know...” This system is still alive and kicking in most firms. “It doesn’t work,” says Mr. Gittleman. “It’s very inefficient, and it clogs your system with e-mails.“

Some believe that lawyers don’t like to share information, especially in large law firms, where they get no “credit” for sharing, but instead get ego points, or boasting rights, in being the go-to guy or gal on a particular point. Ms. Gonzalez disagrees. “There are communities of interest within the organization that are in fact sharing already,” she says, but these might not be supported within the firm. “You can focus on enabling their sharing and their organization. Someone might be tired of explaining the same thing 70 times to new associates. Explain it once, and we’ll tape it.” An aspect of knowledge management is to locate these “subject matter experts,” and the groups of people they work with, to develop a common set of materials. “You can be an associate that draws up a stock purchase agreement, and even if you haven’t done it for two years, you can be brought quickly up to speed,” she says.

There are new tools (and some older tools, like video) that apply developing concepts of distance learning to knowledge management, says Ms. Gonzalez, adding: “Knowledge management is nothing without knowledge sharing.”

But does an emphasis on electronic materials hurt personal communication within the firm? Ms. Gonzalez thinks not. “Lawyers tend to like to mentor, but they don’t have the time to do it for every associate.” The technology does depersonalize things, she concedes, but the reaction from the first electronic briefings has been that the associates are less nervous when they discuss the case with the partner. “They think, ‘I will look better with the partner if I’ve had a chance to get briefed beforehand.’” Providing basic information to younger attorneys needs to be an integral part of an attorney’s entire experience at the firm, says Ms. Gonzalez.

Pooling prized documents and information is not integral to American legal culture, but it is in Europe. “One of the interesting things I’ve seen in Europe is that part of the process of becomng a partner is that you produce materials” that others can use as a model, says Ms. Gonzalez. “Once you’ve done that, you are honored and eligible for partner.” She is working to reward those who contribute to the common electronic database. “We include the authors of documents, and track the usage of the documents and reward those whose documents are most used.” Though some organizations find a “bounty system” a bit crass, Ms. Gonzalez does not. “The people who contribute the most-used documents will get a bonus.” If you want to change your business practices, you have to put your money where your mouth is. Sometimes formal recognition as the subject matter expert is sufficient, but money sends a message. “In Europe, bragging rights are sufficient,” she says.

The focus of knowledge management is not solely internal. The outside focus--on the client--is key. “We want to become an extension of their organization,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “We have a seamless exchange of information, and ideally knowledge. That’s one of our target areas.” Now that the firm has gone through a major technology upgrade, Ms. Gonzalez says she expects them to be saying things like, “I really want to understand what my client needs and wants. I want to anticipate what clients want before they ask.” The questions can become more future-oriented, she says: “Who are their clients’ key competitors? What are clients asking for now, what will they be asking for in five years, who will they be five years from now?”

Moving to a new level of knowledge management will take time. “We must take the time to get a strategy in place,” says Ms. Gonzalez, who predicts it will take six to eight months just to survey the firm and get basic pilot projects underway in a few practice areas. First, she’s going to take time to do the inner publicity within the firm, explaining the benefits of knowledge management. The early projects will be carefully selected. “How will we measure success, and how will we capture and celebrate success?”

The traditional way to measure success in many large firms is by billable hours: the higher the hours, the more money the firm earns, and the more successful the firm is. But if knowledge management works as it could, doesn’t that erode billable hours? “If you’re using the billable hour to measure success, you lose money,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “Your project costs drop.” This, in turn, could please clients, however. If the firm forms a base from which it can predict its costs, it could bid lower on new business, and even project whether or not a particular case is worth taking on. “We should have a muich better sense of what’s happening,” says Ms. Gonzalez.

Mr. Gittleman, the head of the knowledge mangement committee who is a transactional partner, says the firm is exploring alternative billing models. “We would love to bill on a value-added basis,” he says. “We must do better work in less time.” Litigators led the way in terms of using technology to enhance communication with clients, he says, but he thinks corporate attorneys are “catching on to the idea that in order to provide high-quality services to clients, we must think of innovative ways to apply it.” Billable hours have not been as critical on the corporate side, and they may decrease in importance as corporate attorneys get wired to their clients.

Getting Started

First, Ms. Gonzalez is going to start with a formal knowledge management study. “We’re going to identify two or three areas of the firm that are strategic to the firm’s future direction, and could benefit from knowledge management tools and solutions, and whose members are open to using them.” That last element is key--members must be open to evaluation in six months, and ready to use different billing models and different revenue models, and be ready to reconstruct other aspects of their practice.

One promising area, says Ms. Gonzalez, is Akin Gump Technology Ventures, a practice group that serves high-tech start-ups. “There are about 200 lawyers across different offices, and different practice groups,” she says. “There’s a huge need for information about who knows whom and what--because they are spread out,” she says. Lawyers serving high-tech companies, unlike other attorneys, may be readier to reach out across practice areas to find what the client needs. “But they don’t always have the network in place,” says Ms. Gonzalez.

After identifying the areas ripe for knowledge management, Ms. Gonzalez says she’s going to launch a tradition, strategic planning exercise, much as she did at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “It’s a mile- wide, inch-deep business analysis,” she says, which basically consists of talking to every lawyer for an hour or so. What tools do they need? “The answer might be a better laptop, or a better secretary,” she says. She says she asks two questions. “Assume you are all-powerful, with no constraints. What three things would you change that would make your business more profitable and more competitive? And if you had one dollar to spend, how would you divide it a among those three things?” The answers are usually very basic, she says. “More effective staff support, so the lawyer can spend more time with clients. Give me the ability to work anytime, anyplace, because I travel and I can’t lug all this paper around.”

At the end of the interview some say, “but you never asked me about my keyboard.” She’s used to explaining the difference between her old job, which was only technology focused, with her new job as knowledge manager. (For six months, she says, she tried to be both CIO and CKO, but it didn’t work--both jobs are all-consuming.) She’s also accustomed to explaining why a self-described blond WASP is named Gonzalez. “It’s my married name,” she says. And a woman in her position, while not rare, is not common. “When I go to a Microsoft summit, or a Dell summit, I’m one of one or two women in the room,” she acknowledges. But she thinks that knowledge management is an area in which women should excel. “I consider myself a manager of technology; I’m interested in organizational change and managing change. Women tend to be good at that,” she says.

She is optimistic, but realistic, about the pace of change in any legal environment. “Not everyone in the firm, even by month five, will have had the opportunity to benefit from knowledge management,” she says. “In about eight months, call me back and I’ll tell you whether we succeeded.”


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