Focus On

Precedent databases boost productivity

Thursday, January 26, 2017 @ 7:00 PM | By Michael Benedict

Here’s one way a tech-savvy millennial helped a law firm become even more efficient and provide better client service at a lower cost. “One Monday morning, this first-year lawyer walks into my office with four large binders,” recalls Eugene Cipparone, director of professional support at Goodmans LLP. “They were full of proxy-contest precedents, research and related materials. As a junior lawyer in the securities practice group, he had been assigned to maintain and update them.

“When a client issue came up over the weekend, the lawyer had to come into the office to use the binders, rather than work from home. ‘That’s crazy,’ he told me. ‘Why can’t it all be digitized so everyone can access it from just about anywhere?’ ”

Cipparone readily agreed, and those binders are no more, at least physically. But all the relevant material, now annotated with input from senior practitioners, forms part of Goodmans’ extensive precedent database, an increasingly sophisticated and vital part of the firm’s knowledge management system. And it is, indeed, readily accessible from home or anywhere else.

Providing a better work-life balance is an unintended benefit of creating a firm-precedent database. Much more important is the cost savings that can be passed on to a client when a lawyer quickly provides a tailored document or the answer to a legal question. “At our billing rates, clients expect that we are not working on any given document for the first time,” says Cipparone, whose responsibilities include knowledge, risk and records management. “Our precedent database boosts both productivity and efficiency, with the client getting the same high-quality results in less time and at lower cost.”

But there is something else. “With regular updating and refinement,” he adds, “the system ensures our documents are up to date and at the leading edge — and that our lawyers are comfortable with them. That’s critical to risk management.”

Precedent databases are a relatively new development in the legal world, no more than 15 years old at most firms although lawyers have always relied on past documents to fashion new ones. The Internet, particularly customized search engines, has transformed precedent databases from often-scattered files into an essential and easy-to-use tool for everyone. With electronic databases, documents can be organized in multiple ways allowing multiple access points.

Approaches vary. To build and maintain a precedent database, some firms have established dedicated knowledge management lawyer teams while others rely more on input and co-operation from practitioners.

The transition from closely guarded personal paper templates to widely available electronic documents can cause culture shock for some. “We had a strong knowledge-sharing ethic so the shift to electronic databases was not painful,” says Heather Ritchie, chief knowledge and business development officer at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie.

Still, Ritchie, a trained librarian as well as a lawyer, says that knowledge management is ultimately about change management. “People have to consider what is in it for them,” she says. “Starting off, keep it simple so people will use it. To build credibility, start small, prioritize and don’t try to boil the ocean.”

Once reliability is established, it must be nourished. Says Ritchie: “Partners should acknowledge lawyers who help build and improve the system. In fact, it’s part of our review process for associates.”

For its part, Dentons Canada LLP provides non-billable credits for lawyers who help to keep model documents up to date and provide annotations that make it easier to adapt a particular document for myriad purposes. While precedent databases were originally intended to help juniors and associates jump-start their learning curves, subsequent annotations make them useful as well to more experienced practitioners. Dentons’ knowledge management national director Ginevra Saylor likes to tell the story of the senior partner who wondered why there was no model document on a particular subject. “I not only showed him that we had such a file, but that it was part of a suite of documents dealing with just the sort of transaction at issue,” says Saylor. “He replied, ‘This is fantastic, why doesn’t anyone know about this?’ and I had to tell him, ‘Actually, lots of people do know and use it.’ ”

Clearly, one of the leading firm-precedent databases is housed at Gowling WLG, which boasts some 1,700 documents and five dedicated precedent lawyers, each with a specialty: securities, real estate, corporate, litigation and Quebec civil law. Recalling his early years as a practitioner, Mark Tamminga, now Gowlings’ leader of innovation initiatives, says precedent databases free lawyers from “mind and soul-destroying” line-by-line analysis in order to provide complex advisory services. “That’s better for the lawyer and the client,” he says.

Going forward, Tamminga intends to develop an “automated file-assembly environment, suitable for transactions that might entail up to 30 documents.” In its simplest form, he explains, a lawyer has to only once input a name and address, or whether a transaction involves a fixed or variable interest rate, and that information is then reflected in all the relevant associated documents.

Starting a firm-precedent database can be a “daunting exercise” for small and medium-sized firms, says Toronto-based John Gillies, a former practitioner and now vice-president, content with software provider KMStandards. His company, just a decade old, offers a library of standard contracts, checklists and clauses that are particularly suitable for firms that don’t have the resources or time to establish and maintain an electronic precedent library.

Gillies, like others, stresses the importance of plain language templates for ease of interpretation as well as for the client’s benefit. “Some lawyers like to rely on court decisions for interpretation,” he says, “but the reason the document went before a judge is that it was unclear to begin with.”

For her part, Toronto consultant Connie Crosby, a former law firm librarian, has some tips for those embarking on building a precedent database. “Start with a knowledge audit,” she says. “What documents do you use and what documents do you want?”

If the firm has a folder system, Crosby says that’s a good start. “Build on that,” she adds.

But the folders likely were developed by different people who may have used different labels. “Make sure there is a standardized and clearly understood naming system,” she says.

One other caution. Says Crosby: “It’s a mistake to come in and reorganize from scratch. That could cause a rebellion.”