UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Meghann Barloewen of Littler Mendelson
Meghann Barloewen is a seasoned litigator, knowledge management (KM) professional, and strong advocate for designing with empathy in the legal industry.
From her experience of working over a decade as a litigation associate at Haight Brown & Bonesteel, FordHarrison LLP, and Littler Mendelson P.C., working for over nine years as Knowledge Management Counsel at Littler, and now as Littler’s Director of KM Projects, Meghann has a deep well of experience in the knowledge management space and is a leader in moving the pack forward as the lines between traditional KM and legal innovation continue to blur.
We enjoyed getting to speak with Meghann about her career path into the courtroom as a litigator, her transition into the world of KM, and why emotional empathy and design thinking are critical for KM teams at law firms. We hope you enjoy learning from Meghann’s insights as much as we did!
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Meghann Barloewen: My professional story begins in college while studying business administration at the University of Illinois. A degree in business administration required me to select a focus, and mine was organizational administration, which was essentially human resources. I always had an interest in the interpersonal side of business, so it was a good fit for me. What could be more interesting than studying how people interact with each other and work together? I also come from a family where education is valued, so even before I graduated with my B.S., I knew I wanted to one day pursue a graduate-level degree and was leaning towards an M.B.A.
Law school had never even crossed my mind – I was never one for debating or watching Law & Order and I’m not sure I’d ever even met a lawyer until that point in my life. However, after taking a required business law class, I was hooked and pursued my J.D. I attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles as a Midwestern transplant to sunny Southern California. Throughout my law school experience, my interest in organizational administration continued, however, I admit that I was torn. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a litigator. I toyed with getting an M.L.S. and becoming a law librarian. However, before doing that, I decided it would be best to first dip my toe into the practice of law and see what I was made of in the courtroom as a litigator. That toe dip lasted 11 years in the world of litigation.
Besides employment law, I’ve practiced in several areas of law, including professional malpractice, general insurance defense, and products liability. I joined Littler Mendelson in 2008, and almost immediately, I was intrigued and impressed by the Knowledge Management (KM) department. I wanted to be part of a team that made our vast amount of knowledge and resources useable across the firm. I have been in our KM department since 2013. One of my first projects in KM was working on an expert system with our Employee Benefits practice group, helping employers determine their risk under the Affordable Care Act. That project started me on my current focus and passion in utilizing technology to solve legal problems. It’s a perfect marriage of all of my interests – legal analysis, problem solving, and decision trees (self-professed nerd here). I love it!
UC: How has your experience working as a litigator at Haight Brown & Bonesteel, FordHarrison LLP, and Littler Mendelson P.C. shaped the way you approached your role as a Knowledge Management Counsel and your current role as the Director of KM Projects at Littler?
MB: I really am so grateful for my litigation and advice and counsel experience, which I lean on and use daily. Having “been there, done that” in terms of what our practicing attorneys experience is an invaluable perspective, not only in knowing the pressures that the job brings, but also having had the opportunity to be up close to client demands and pressures. It can also provide a basic level of trust with the experts on a project design team if they know I’ve experienced similar challenges.
UC: As someone who has been in the Knowledge Management space at a large Am Law firm for a little over a decade, how have you seen KM evolve in the legal industry? How has the more recent growth in the number of new technology solutions brought forward new opportunities and challenges for KM teams?
MB: There has been tremendous change in KM in the last ten years. More firms, even small to mid-sized, are seeing the value that KM plays in innovation and thus are devoting substantially more resources. I’ve also seen a blurring of the lines between traditional KM and legal innovation. The available technology has skyrocketed. It’s therefore more important than ever for KM professionals to keep themselves educated on the latest technologies. I find it exciting that the challenges we face are never stagnant. Just when you think you’ve mastered one technology, along comes another one to solve the problem in a unique and interesting way. Even if a KM professional is not directly involved in a firm’s data initiatives or technology selection, we will always have a role to play in finding opportunities to utilize the data and technology because we understand the practice of law.
Another interesting movement I’ve seen recently is there are more law school graduates going directly into legal technology as their first and chosen career path. Many of these students are being exposed to this pathway in law school in ways we haven’t seen in prior generations. I think we will see that alternative pathway continue to increase. While they don’t have the prior work experience of being in the litigation trenches, their combination of being tech savvy while knowing how to think like a lawyer makes them valuable.
UC: You recently participated in an excellent, interactive panel discussion at ILTACON 2023 on “No Code Document Automation – Finding Success and Overcoming Roadblocks.” What are some of the key takeaways you can share from the panel discussion?
MB: We discussed both what you need to keep in mind in selecting a no-code solution as well as how to create successful applications, once you have a solution in hand. We also reviewed the definitions of no, low, and pro code and how it’s a continuum. The most important takeaway in terms of selecting a solution is that you need to have it revolve around the people you have in place. Involve those people in the selection process and make sure that the technology matches the abilities of the team you intend to have using it. Also, pay attention to the amount of training that is required to get up and running on a tool to ensure that your team will have success in their document automation builds.
In terms of actually developing solutions, you should to ensure that you understand the problem you are trying to solve and revolve your features around that. For example, can your solution be a simple “fill-in-the-blank” form, or does your audience require more expert guidance to help them with their decision points? Also, as with all technology builds, sustainment must be a part of the conversation from the get-go – don’t automate a document if your team doesn’t have the bandwidth or resources to keep it updated. There is a great expectation with an application that it is maintained properly compared to, for example, a static template where you can put a “last updated” note on the top of the page.
UC: Why are emotional empathy and design thinking critical for KM teams at law firms, and how can they help KM teams better serve the legal professionals at their firms?
MB: I start every project by asking two questions: (1) What is the problem we are trying to solve and (2) Is this a problem worth solving? The first question is really about designing with empathy, while the second is more about whether it makes business sense to solve the problem, at least at the moment. I am a huge believer in designing all of my projects with empathy. This requires me to leave my preconceived notions at the door to really understand the problem I am trying to solve for the future product user.
As humans, we make so many assumptions on a daily basis, which is dangerous in solution design because that assumption could translate into a fatal flaw in your attempt to solve a problem. I must remind myself of this all the time, and I think it becomes more difficult the more life experiences you gain. I used to be self-conscious about looking like I was asking too simple of questions, but I embrace that role now because asking those basic questions helps me to better understand the problem and make sure my assumptions aren’t causing me to miss something. In my experience, KM professionals are helpful people by nature – I think you go into the field if you want to make people’s lives easier. That is a great philosophy, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question whether the person coming to you with the idea has nailed down the problem or whether they’ve analyzed whether the problem is worth solving.
In terms of design thinking, our KM department has held a few full design thinking workshops over the years, but in general we like to pick and choose from these concepts and use what works for us. We have attempted to move toward a “develop fast and test often” process with simple prototypes to collect user feedback. That has worked well for us. Quick prototyping with simple builds also helps to keep projects slim and to keep your problem statement at the center of your project as your North Star.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? What are some real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
MB: One phrase that sticks with me and that has served me well in keeping close is “you don’t know what you don’t know.” It seems very simple, but it’s something that I often think about when designing a new solution. It is important to bring a multi-disciplinary team together and to do so earlier than you may assume is necessary.
Also, while it’s not a saying, I also have a particular mantra I like to remind myself of when it comes to public speaking, or generally in any situation where you are putting yourself “out there” and may feel a lack of confidence. When I was younger and particularly nervous about a public speaking engagement, a trusted friend told me to remember that everyone in the audience actually wants me to succeed. It helped me shift my mind to not worry so much about what people were thinking about me and see everyone as a friend, or at least not an enemy (Caveat: if there are any litigators reading this, I don’t think that advice works so well in an adversarial situation with opposing counsel!).
UC: What are your goals for the rest of 2023? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the law firm, KM, or legal tech space we should know about?
MB: Like so many others, we are looking toward how we can use generative AI in our solutions. For example, I’m looking at it for a particular use case to determine if it will work as a substitute for building a complex document automation tool. Since gen AI is new to so many of us, it’s exciting to be on the forefront of looking at all of the ways we can use this technology, as well as the ways in which we need to tread carefully. Some of our other projects include a redesign of our KM intranet set and an internal marketing campaign, expert systems for internal firm use, improvements to our existing tools, and supporting content development for our joint venture with Neota Logic, ComplianceHR.
In terms of events, I’m particularly excited about the SKILLS conference in January 2024. I’m also excited to say that I’m joining the Membership Committee with ILTA, where I hope to have the opportunity to continue my contributions to the legal technology community.
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
MB: Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn!
Knowledge Management as a Force for Good in Law Firms
As Meghann shared, most KM professionals in law firms are “helpful people by nature,” looking to be forces for good by making the lives of their colleagues easier through equipping them with the right tools, data, and intelligence they need to provide better legal services to clients and increase firm profitability. KM pros are problem solvers extraordinaire and often are the backbone for legal innovation initiatives, data integrations, and modernizing firm infrastructure for the future.
We loved hearing Meghann’s perspective on all things KM, and are excited to see what she’ll do next to move the field forward in the legal industry.