UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Elisabeth Cappuyns of DLA Piper (US)

on Topics: Future Law | Influencer Q&A | Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Elisabeth Cappuyns of DLA Piper (US)

Elisabeth Cappuyns is a knowledge management leader with an expansive, global perspective on the growing role of KM within law firms. 

As a corporate lawyer, turned KM attorney, who went on to create and lead the KM program at DLA Piper, Elisabeth has an incredible breadth of experience as to what knowledge management could and should look like for law firms. In addition to her current role as the Director of Knowledge Management for DLA Piper (US), Elisabeth’s experience working as a corporate lawyer focused on capital markets and M&A and private equity transactions at King & Spalding, Clifford Chance, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, has given her a deep understanding of the key function KM plays in supporting lawyers and delivering legal services. 

We enjoyed getting to speak with Elisabeth about her journey into KM in the legal industry, and hearing why pro bono legal work is important to her, advice for staying up on the latest developments in KM Legal, and what projects she’s working on at DLA Piper. We hope you enjoy learning from her keen insights as well!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

Elisabeth Cappuyns: I’m a corporate lawyer and practiced for over 15 years before I switched to knowledge management (KM) in late 2013. In my corporate practice, I mostly focused on capital markets, M&A and private equity transactions, plus general corporate advice, depending on the market and where I was located. I mainly worked in New York City, but I was fortunate to live and work in London and Abu Dhabi as well. Over time, and once I had two small children, I was ready for a different challenge that would also allow me to better balance the demands of work and the time I wanted to spend with my family.

About ten years ago, I had the chance to take on a KM attorney role at my prior firm, which was a new experience for me. At that time, KM in the legal industry was still developing and finding its proper place in the industry, with some amazing early-adopters and mentors who I was lucky to meet and have been connecting with ever since. One of the main things I enjoy about KM in legal is that it facilitates the evolving practice of law, and involves a fascinating combination of legal experience, tech savviness, business awareness, plus creativity. It also requires ongoing learning, strategy, innovation, and adapting to new circumstances, and I have embraced an expansive view of what KM encompasses.

When I had the opportunity to create and head up the KM program at DLA Piper, our new knowledge department was able to define what a KM program in a large and diverse law firm could and should look like. Basically, KM programs optimize the collective knowledge of an organization, and at DLA Piper, we frame this as helping our attorneys practice smarter in a variety of ways. Since I joined in the fall of 2019, it has been a very rewarding and exciting experience, with several twists and turns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in the economy, hybrid work, and recent developments in generative AI. During this time, I’ve been able to build an amazing KM team with seasoned KM attorneys and other KM professionals, to create various resources (like our knowledge platform), manage a range of projects, and implement a number of practice-specific technology tools for our attorneys.

UC: How has your experience working as an associate at King & Spalding (NYC) and Clifford Chance (London and NYC) and as a counsel and then partner at Akin Gump (NYC and Abu Dhabi) shaped the way you approach KM in your role as the Director of Knowledge Management for DLA Piper US (NYC)? 

EC: Having worked at a few law firms (two of which with the same attorney team that moved), in offices of different sizes and in a few countries, has given me a helpful perspective on how different firms and offices have their own approaches and best practices. There are variances in culture and training methods between U.S. and U.K. firms, with benefits in both, and there are differences between sharing knowledge in small and large offices and between different practice groups, often driven by the partners and their clients.

In addition, before going to law school in NYC, I grew up and studied in a few countries as well: in Antwerp and Louvain in Belgium, outside London in the U.K., and in New Jersey in the U.S., so I am used to a range of styles and cultures.

All these experiences have been a valuable foundation to be more flexible and adaptable to different situations, preferences and demands and to adjust to changing circumstances, which comes in particularly handy in a KM role, especially as the legal industry (and the world) is constantly changing at a faster rate.

UC: Why is it important for law firm knowledge management teams to stay up to date on what’s happening in the broader legal industry ecosystem? What are some of the best ways they can keep up with what’s happening?

EC: Since KM teams support attorneys and their legal services, it is both useful and necessary to stay up to date on the developments in the legal industry, our clients’ main sectors and the general economy. It not only helps us understand the issues our attorneys (and their clients) are facing, but also to anticipate needs for effective resources and to shift gears when necessary. For example, when certain banks became distressed in March 2023, our KM Counsel started preparing and collecting helpful resources in anticipation of the issues that would arise in their practice area when the banks actually collapsed.

Some of the most effective ways of staying up to date for me are: reading relevant publications, blogs, and article aggregators (anything from general legal news to specific KM and AI publications); informal conversations with others in the legal KM world, including other KM professionals and vendor contacts; and attending KM conferences or legal industry conferences with a KM and legal technology emphasis. In addition, we have great relationships and partnerships with several of our main legal tech vendors, where we provide ongoing feedback on their products and get early access to some of their new products. This allows us to continuously review and improve our tech tool offerings for our attorneys.

UC: You recently participated in an excellent panel discussion at ARK National Summit on “Future-Proofing Your Firm—Preparing for Recessions and Boom Years.” What are some of the key takeaways you can share from your panel discussion, and why should KM professionals constantly be reviewing their tech stack?

EC: That was an interesting and fun panel to be on! As we were preparing for the discussion, we agreed that one way the KM function can help a firm or organization prepare for ups and downs in the market, is with the ongoing review of the available tech tools and resources to make sure you are optimizing them, plus staying on top of developments in the legal tech space. During good times, that includes identifying any gaps in the tech offerings and investing in the best technology to cover those gaps. During down times, that includes an increased effort to leverage your available tech tools by focusing on further adoption (for example by showcasing the technology’s functionality in attorneys’ daily practice in workshops) and by repurposing the technology outside its intended purpose for other use cases.

Some other takeaways were: (1) offering differentiated trainings to meet attorneys where they are and for what they need, when they need it; (2) providing value to clients through client consultations with their legal departments or their business people; (3) using any extra attorney time during down times for KM projects; and (4) generally being flexible in your approach and initiatives, so you can adjust course as necessary.

UC: Tell us about your work with the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation. Why do you think it is important for lawyers to give back to the community through pro bono?

EC: Lawyers are in a unique position to provide specialized services that can benefit a wide range of organizations and individuals without the means to pay for those legal services. Not only is there an enormous need for legal expertise across a range of areas, it also allows us lawyers to expand our own horizons and skill sets. As a corporate attorney, in my pro bono practice, I advised a few educational non-profit organizations, including as outside legal counsel on a variety of day-to-day and board matters, and in a merger between two non-profits.

Instead of just advising boards and non-profits, I thought it would be interesting to sit on a board myself, and a few years ago, I was able to join the board of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation (TODASTW). TODASTW’s 30-year legacy of encouraging children to experience different workplaces and careers has become a common experience in the U.S. and in other countries. When the pandemic hit, we seized that opportunity to expand TODASTW’s reach beyond the physical programs in the workplace by offering a virtual program on the annual TODASTW day, the fourth Thursday of April. In 2021, we offered a comprehensive virtual event with a number of topics and activities, including keynotes by Gloria Steinem, one of TODASTW’s long-time supporters, and Gitanjali Rao, Time Magazine’s first ‘Kid of the Year’ in 2020. They both did an impressive job in their keynotes, each with their own perspective. Since then, we have hosted career-focused webinars on each of the 2022 and 2023 event days in April, most recently in partnership with Junior Achievement, another non-profit organization that focuses on young people and prepares them for success.

In addition, I believe that KM can greatly amplify pro bono efforts, so our KM team at DLA Piper supports a number of pro bono projects with and for our amazing pro bono team by providing KM advice to help our pro bono clients. For example, we have consulted with a global food support organization on their intranet and workflows, and we are supporting a local access to justice initiative on developing a process and database to collect resources across organizations.

UC: What are some of your favorite books? What are some of the key lessons or insights you can share from them?

EC: On the professional side, I’m a big fan of The Checklist Manifesto (by Atul Gawande); Switch (by Chip Heath and Dan Heath); Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World (by Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans Rosling, and Ola Rosling); and The Golden Circle (by Simon Sinek). These books are not focused on the legal industry, and each of them also has applications and suggestions beyond the professional world to help improve pretty much any project, initiative or general understanding. For example, (1) the benefits of using checklists for organizing projects and consistent communications, (2) understanding why change is so hard and ways to switch behavior to make change stick, (3) the need for a reset of perspective and insight to understand information more accurately, and (4) the importance of asking ‘why’ we do something to achieve better results.

On the personal side, I enjoy reading just about anything by Bill Bryson, from A Walk in the Woods, to At Home, and a Short History of Nearly Everything. I am always amazed by the depth of his research and detail, his ability to make a variety of complex topics accessible, and yet somehow also make his books funny and a pleasure to read. It’s a powerful combination!

UC: What are your goals for the rest of 2023? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the knowledge management or legal tech space we should know about?

EC: Our firm has been very involved in the use and implications of AI, and now the various developments relating to generative AI tools. We are an early adopter of these tools, which is both exciting and challenging, so we will be spending a lot more time on the implementation, training, adoption and management of those tools, including the various related considerations. In addition, believe it or not, there is still a lot of other more traditional KM work to be done that does not necessarily involve AI, so we are continuing our ongoing projects of core KM resources and practice-specific tech tools, including our knowledge platform, form libraries and precedent collections, trends analyses, matter maps, and differentiated trainings and engagement.

This year also has more KM and KM-related conferences than ever before, and we have been active participants in and attendees at those events, including at Skills in March and at ARK National in May. Later this year, our Chief Knowledge Officer is speaking on a generative AI panel at ILTACON in August, and a few of our KM Counsel are also on panels – one at the Legaltech Hub conference in September and the other at ARK KM in October. So maybe we’ll see you there…

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

EC: You can find me on Linkedin – feel free to contact me with any questions or interesting ideas and topics!

Advancing the Evolving Practice of Law with Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is a foundational function that forward-thinking law firms continue to invest in because, as Elisabeth Cappuyns notes, it facilitates the evolving practice of law and optimizes the collective knowledge of an organization to help attorneys practice smarter and improve the delivery of legal services. 

We loved learning from Elisabeth’s perspective on how law firms are leveraging knowledge management, and we’re excited for what she’ll do next in the KM legal space!