A Survey of Knowledge Management in Law Firms in Botswana

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Introduction

Knowledge intensive organisations such as law firms have always intuitively appreciated the value of knowledge management because their competitive advantage lies in the expertise and knowledge of the lawyers and their firms. Buckler (2004) notes that some of what is now called knowledge management have been with lawyers since the time of the manual typewriter. Lambe (2003) posits that from the Code of Hammurabi, almost four thousand years ago, to modern law reports and Lexis Nexis, the practice of law has been one requiring the effective and objective acquisition, creation and use of knowledge. In recent years, as law firms have learned that acquiring and leveraging knowledge effectively within the client organisations can propel the firm to become more adaptive and innovative, knowledge management is becoming an imperative as these firms continue to expand and tackle the challenges in the changing legal environment.

Botswana has most of what it needs to be fully integrated in the knowledge economy--the financial means, political stability and a very liberal economic environment. During the 1990s, it had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. With the rise in the knowledge economy in the last decade of the twentieth century and the recognition of the importance of knowledge as a critical resource for sustainable competitive advantage, the Botswana government has continuously tried to mobilise the business sector and organisations in the country into the knowledge economy. In this respect, country's Vision 2016 spells out its desire to be involved in the knowledge economy and to have a globally competitive knowledge-based information society (Presidential Task Group for Long Term Vision for Botswana, 1997). In spite of the moves by the government to promote a knowledge economy, there are indications that law firms in the country are yet to institutionalise knowledge management in their practices. Those indications motivated a doctoral thesis that investigated how knowledge was being managed in law firms in Botswana (Fombad, 2008). The discussions in this paper summarise aspects of the findings of the thesis.

Lawyers, Law Firms and the Knowledge Environment

Lawyers are knowledge workers who have gained knowledge from internalising valuable information gathered during legal studies and research (explicit knowledge) and through expertise and experience from learning on the job (tacit knowledge). Even after qualification from the law school, lawyers continue to develop their intellectual capacity and professional skills by acquiring specialised knowledge in particular areas of law and legal procedure and by solving legal problems. Law firms are learning organisations because lawyers are always in need of accurate up-to-date information and "snapshots" of law at particular points in time. If a lawyer ceases to learn, he/she would not be able to provide precise, unbiased and expert advice to the client or present the client's case convincingly and confidently. This may explain why lawyers tend to address each other as "learned friend", "learned colleague" or "learned lawyer".

Knowledge in the law firm resides in many different places, such as databases, filing cabinets, print material and the intrinsic skills and experiences of the lawyers and their staff. Legal researchers have classified the knowledge in the law firms into different categories. For example, Rusanow (2003) defines the broad category of knowledge used in the law firm as knowledge of the law, knowledge of the firm, client information, commercial markets and specific industries, staff skills and expertise, past projects, and knowledge about third parties (judges, opposing counsel, or external consultant). According to Kay (2002), knowledge in a law firm includes knowledge of the law, knowledge about clients and their industries, marketing information and financial information. Edwards & Mahling (1997) used a slightly different subdivision by categorising the different types of knowledge involved in the practice of law as administrative data, declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and analytical knowledge, a classification that was adopted by Gottschalk (1999, 2002). …