Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

The Future of Law Firm Libraries

I was fortunate to be able to serve on the AALL committee on the Future of Law Libraries a few years back.  At that time, we produced a report called Beyond Boundaries after concluding that much of the work being done by the library would be done outside the library walls.  In fact, the walls no longer existed if you considered that a portion of the library is online.  We created scenarios about the library as the knowledge management center, the library with distributed staff and services, the global library and more.  You can see more about the scenarios at http://www.aallnet.org/committee/scenarios.asp

One scenario that I suggested we do that did not make the cut was the Law Firm Library as a business.  The law firm library as a business is a bit different from the libraries of old where many librarians took up the profession because they loved learning and they wanted to be of service to the common good.  The work that went on in the library supported the firm’s needs but often the work was done answering today’s needs without thought to tomorrow.  Just like the practice of law, no one saw it changing.

When I started at my last firm, I took time to get to know the lawyers, administration, practice groups, administrative departments, etc. before deciding what the library’s role would be.  I conducted an information audit, done by survey and interviews, asking about goals, pain points, current use of the library and more.  I asked lawyers to talk about their practice, what resources they currently use, what resources they needed but did not even know if they existed, and what frustrated them.  My job was to gather data and stories that would help me determine what to do next. 

Following the information audit, we developed a strategic plan.  Once that was completed, I took it before the Operations Committee to have it blessed by a group that represented lawyers across groups.  Then the real work began.  Looking back, I was operating the library as a business with plans for the future and measures for success.

What I learned through this exercise was that the expectation of what our role was similar to the past but shifting.  In addition to traditional library work, our clients (the lawyers) wanted us to help them make sense of the information bombarding them.  Current awareness was more important then ever but now they wanted it filtered to reduce the materials they needed to read.  Non-legal research was more important than in the past especially research for marketing purposes.  The role we played changed with that audit and continued to change as the years went by. 

Today, our roles as firm librarians and the libraries we work in are very different.  What is consistent, though, is that the role should align with firm strategy and may be very different from firm to firm.    Those roles, defined by services, could include: 

Marketing & Sales Support — Many law firm marketing departments and lawyers are looking to their libraries as a source for competitive intelligence and marketing research.  Librarians are being invited to participate with industry, practice, and client teams where their role is to help prepare the teams with targeted information.

Contract Negotiation and Cost Recovery — Where librarians used to purchase print with one or two contracts for online services negotiated on a 3-5 year calender, today contract negotiation is an ongoing process.  Large law firms need many resources and the terms of most of the resources being purchased in law firms are negotiable.  At the same time, the cost of the resources are being recovered through chargebacks to clients.  It isn’t unusual for a law firm library director to spend more than 50% of their time on this work.  This requires an indepth understanding of the market and sharp business skills.

Non-Legal Research — Generally speaking, law firm librarians do little legal research.  In my experience, the bulk of that type of research done by librarians includes legislative and regulatory research.  What librarians excel at is non-legal research and that’s a good thing since the medical, scientific, technical, business and other types of research have grown exponentially as more resources become easily available.  In the past, we had minimal access to this type of information as compared to today’s standards. 

Knowledge Management — Librarians are best suited to work with knowledge management in their firms because the profession is all about managing knowledge.  In the past that knowledge was external in the form of books, databases, etc. and was used for internal knowledge generation.  Today, it makes sense that we would use the same skills to support the knowledge management function for internal knowledge.  Yes, there may need to be some adjustments in how we work, but librarians have the skills needed in this area.  Additionally, because of the contact they have with the lawyers and paralegals in their firm, they understand the business better than most administrative departments.  Their firms should tap these skills if they haven’t already.

In addition to these services, librarians are working to manage or support records, conflicts, professional development, IT management, training, litigation or practice support, and more.  Still, the key role for librarians is supporting the research process in their firms.  The additional roles depend on the skills individual librarians have, the time available to add responsibilities, and their willingness to take on more than the traditional library. 

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