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Information systems should allow networked thought


Knowledge is at the very heart of the practice of law. Lawyers need to be acquainted with a wide variety of laws—what they contain and how they are actually implemented. Given the complexity of our commercial interactions, the range of laws we have to deal with, and the unique requirements that each of our clients demand, lawyers need to have this information on their fingertips so that they can immediately provide clients with advice when they need it.

Before digital systems, practitioners used to carry this knowledge around in their heads, augmented by a prodigious memory or their own bespoke note-taking systems. But this approach to knowledge management (KM) is not scalable and therefore useless to an integrated law firm. What is required is a KM system that everyone can use—to which each fee-earner can upload data so that every other fee-earner can access and derive value from it. There are dozens of KM systems in the market. Unfortunately, none of the products I evaluated (including the sophisticated artificial intelligence-enhanced ones used by some of the world’s big law firms) delivered on my expectations of what a KM system should do. Since they all depend on lawyers accurately uploading information into pre-arranged file-folder hierarchies with all this duly tagged and annotated, the slightest mistake in data entry would mean they can’t pull up the information that is required. Not only is the data entry process time-consuming, it demands a lot from lowly associates who simply do not have the context such a system demands.

There has to be a better way. The human mind is remarkable for its ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. It is precisely because we can make these connections, because of our ability to associate disparate items of information acquired in unrelated contexts, that human intelligence is still, far and away, superior to machine intelligence. Unfortunately, most KM systems, designed as they are based on traditional hierarchies, inhibit us from making connections between data in a way that will result in meaningful insights. As a result, these expensive KM systems are nothing more than glorified filing cabinets into which information goes to die.

Over the past few years, a number of personal knowledge management systems have been built on the idea of networked thought. These systems encourage users to distil their knowledge down to its atomic components and offer them tools by which these nuggets of information can be stored, so that they can be intuitively connected with each other. This facilitates the development of complex, well-founded ideas with minimal friction. Since each atom of information is capable of being bi-directionally linked with every other nugget of information, it enables an infinite number of connections between hitherto unconnected thoughts. And since every related thought leads to further layers of nested information, serendipitous connections abound. The more you use these systems, the bigger your knowledge graph becomes, and then a point arises after which finding insights and developing new approaches to solving problems could become both easy and intuitive.

I have mentioned in a couple of earlier articles how I’ve been using one of these systems for my own personal knowledge management. For more than a year now, I have used it to write academic papers, review draft legislations, and even taught an entire seminar course at the National Law School using its networked thinking features. Every single Ex Machina article that has featured in these pages over the past year-and-a-half started out as an outline in its pages. It is here that I have accumulated sources, tussled with arguments and evolved ideas until the resulting work product was an article I was comfortable submitting to my editor.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that tools like this are the future of legal knowledge management. They are ideally suited for developing the sort of big-picture, holistic thinking that lawyers need to be able to develop nuanced opinions and thoughtful advice. The manner in which they allow for concepts across industries, sectors and practices to be connected are ideally suited to solving the complex commercial problems lawyers are called upon to solve. From personal experience, using these tools to review information—statutes, case law and other jurisprudence—can reveal nuances that would otherwise have remained hidden.

There is no need to restrict this just to lawyers. Everyone who deals in knowledge will benefit from an ability to store ideas in a database that encourages links between various pieces of information. It takes a while before these new tools begin to generate the results I’ve described above. For most novices, the learning curve stays flat for a long time and progress often feels glacially slow. But once you have crossed this initial hump and filled your knowledge graph with a critical volume of information, the benefits become tangible and, very soon, exponential.

For longer than we can remember, we have stored information in files, folders and filing cabinets. Today, even though the wonder of networked computing allows us the liberty of expanding our thinking beyond the traditional, the way we think about storage and retrieval of information has stayed skeuomorphically stagnant. It’s time to break out of our path dependence and re-imagine information management in its entirety.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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