Remember your law school study group? Unless you were doing your best to recreate the cutthroat world of “The Paper Chase,” you probably recall it fondly. Every member of the group took responsibility to canvass a series of cases or understand a particular legal concept, prepare readable notes and instruct fellow group members, seminar-style, on what they needed to know.
The benefits were profound. You could learn four or five different topics for every one that you had to figure out yourself. You were obliged to become an expert in your designated area, because nothing challenges your knowledge more than having to explain it to a group of smart, critical people. You learned first-hand the direct value of collaboration with colleagues and came to appreciate their skills and talents. Your average study group, quite accidentally, was one of the most practical lessons you learned in law school.
Then most of us forgot it. After graduation, when it came time to brush up our legal knowledge or otherwise stay updated, we defaulted to CLE sessions—recreating the law school lecture that few of us ever enjoyed. We chose to go sit in desks again, listen to a presenter again and take notes again, bringing home reams of materials that, without exams this time, we could file safely on shelves and forget.
Revive your law school study group. I don’t mean literally—your original classmates have long since moved on to other practices and careers. I mean, set up a private study group with between five and 10 other lawyers whose practices overlap, but don’t completely coincide, with yours. They’d be in the same general practice area and the same basic jurisdiction, but their specialties and focuses would differ slightly from each other’s.
Use technology this time. Create a secure extranet like Google Docs where you can upload articles, blog posts, links, videos and podcasts of your own or others’ making. Each member contributes and updates what he or she knows or learns in a designated area, and each extracts what he or she needs from the resulting knowledge collective. Draw up a simple yet enforceable assignment schedule and agreement for giving and receiving information. Once a month, schedule 45-minute optional Skype calls where group members can talk about new developments, ask questions about others’ content, or just shoot the breeze.
Your private KM team. Collectively, the group would constitute a collaborative knowledge assembly project. It would be like a 24/7 CLE program in your chosen field, only you get to approve the panelists and the other attendees. Alternatively, it would be like getting a subscription to a specialized online multimedia trade journal where you’ve approved all the contributors (and you’re one yourself). Every contributor would have to meet high standards of content and presentations because, just like in law school, you’d have to explain things to a smart, critical audience, but the payoff would also be commensurately high.
You don’t have time? You might be thinking: “I don’t have time to fulfill my CLE requirements as it is; why would I want to add more?” The answer is that this is a different animal altogether: personal professional development, undertaken to improve your competitive advantage in a tough marketplace. Private knowledge management teams like these are a complementary resource to mandatory CLE, but one that offers far more upside and practical impact.
How to begin? Take a look around your practice community and identify two or three colleagues with whom you’d be comfortable collaborating on this sort of knowledge enhancement project. (Forward to them a link to this article for a quick description of what you’re up to.) It’s a good way to start importing one good lesson from law school into your practice.
Jordan Furlong addresses law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He blogs at Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink, honored three straight years by the ABA Journal as one of North America’s 100 best law blogs.