Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

Current Awareness

We hear and often use the phrase “Information is power” but we’ve probably forgotten who first said it or in what context.  When I started on this post, I decided that I couldn’t use it without first looking up the quote.  I found out that Robin Morgan (child star, feminist, author of “Sisterhood is Powerful” along with other feminist writings, and editor in chief for Ms. Magazine from 1989-93) said it. 

To be exact, she said,

Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.

She was right, information is power. I don’t believe she was talking within the context of delivering information to lawyers.   The great news is that law firms are starting to understand that there is power in information. 

I went to a National Online conference about 12 years ago where I learned about the advances librarians in corporate America were making with current awareness.  It was exciting to see the types of systems and processes that were being set up to manage the current awareness process. 

I came back to the firm where I was employed at the time and suggested that we needed to move beyond distributing newsletters and towards an automated distribution of current news delivered according to profiles that distinguished the interests of the recipients.  No one got as excited as I was.  I had a solution where there was no problem or need for it.

Fast forward to today where competition for clients is a motivating factor for the need for current awareness.  Lawyers want immediate access to news about clients, perspective clients, industries, legal topics and more.  In response, many law firm libraries and marketing departments have or are working on developing the best delivery of news for their firm.

Current awareness systems are generally made up of 5 components:

  1. The database(s) that contains the news and is updated in real time or at least daily

  2.  The topics that are created using some type of search against the database

  3. The profiles that describe the user and what topics she wants to receive

  4.  The topic search results in the form of news delivered in full articles or abstracts

  5. The system that manages the database, topics, profiles and search results.

With millions of sources of information that are very good, not so good, bad and really bad, and the system as complex as it is, delivering current awareness isn’t an easy task.  In this environment, I can’t help but wonder what the strategies or best practices for completing the task might be.  Based on what I learned from the experience at my last firm, I think they would look a little like this:

  • Collaborate with Marketing or better yet, see your role as supporting them in the delivery of current awareness.  They have a keen interest in lawyers becoming more knowledgeable about their client’s and prospect’s businesses and industries and may be the biggest driver of participation.

  • Involve your clients in the implementation of the system.  Ask them what they need and how they want it delivered.  Do one-on-one interviews and focus groups.  Using web surveys might work depending on the culture of your firm, but don’t rely solely on that means of learning about your client’s needs.  A presentation with question/answer time regarding current awareness at a practice group or team meeting can replace a focus group where you may get more participation than asking lawyers to attend one more meeting.

  • Don’t forget administrative staff as potential users of current awareness. 

  • Use RSS and don’t limit your news source to one aggregator.  Since no vendor can deliver all of the news, look for multiple sources.  In addition to fee-based aggregators and publishers, keep track of what government agencies and courts are delivering in RSS format.  They are growing.  Also, consider Google News, legal blogs and other free Web resources.

  • Use aggregators and other sources that provide same day news.  Old news isn’t necessarily good news.  Some vendors have more same day news than others. 

  • Learn about the database indices before starting to set up topics.

  • Consider topics like clients, prospects, industries, legal issues, legislative & regulatory updates, new cases by practice area, new case filings and more. 

  • Look for vendors who have created the system for you.  Their product should:

    • Provide complete indices.  Empty fields do all of us a disservice.  If the vendor has a system, where the assignment of metadata has been haphazard and some metadata wasn’t entered, the results of searches across those indices won’t be complete. 

    • Search across multiple indices.  If the vendor is an aggregator, they should provide results according to their own indices but also provide results based on the indices the publisher of the content uses.  For example, Factiva has its own index.  The best results when using LexisNexis Publisher is to be able to search across the Factiva index along with the LexisNexis index and to aggregate the results.  

    • Deliver the news in a single email regardless of the number of topics a user subscribes to via a profile.  With the focus on the billable hour, delivering the topics in individual emails will only irritate the recipients.

    • Provide the news via RSS feeds.  If you do this, you will need to use a third party system to manage the topics, profiles, and delivery of the news.  Using an enterprise RSS application like Newsgator will do just that but it needs the content in the RSS format.  An alternative is building a custom application to manage and deliver the news, but one caveat, expect maintenance of the application to be a major consumer of staff time.

    • Provide regular updates on their services including what’s new in content and formatting.  A current awareness tool for administrators

I could list more but this post is already too long.  Look for a Part Two on this topic sometime in the future.  In the meantime, if you have ideas regarding what should be added to a best practices list on current awareness, please post a comment. 

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