Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

Planning for the Law Library of the Future

Planning for a law firm library that meets the needs of its users may seem like a very large task in this age of new technologies that have and continue to drive change in the legal profession. Actually, the planning, if done proactively (rather than responding to needs as they arise), is the easy part. The implementation of that plan is the most difficult challenge – especially if the needs keep changing.

To simplify planning, library directors and the people they report to, could break the whole into parts and address them in a consecutive order. The image below outlines the parts of a law firm library plan and the order in which to do the planning. The parts, in order, are Lawyer Needs, Resources, Services, Staff, Processes, and Technology.

Lawyer Needs:

Before beginning to plan for a new or reinvented library, the needs of the users, generally lawyers must be assessed. This can be done with an information/knowledge audit where the lawyers are interviewed individually or in groups and/or surveys are distributed to garner needs. Information/knowledge audits can be done by library staff but it may be a good time to hire someone from the outside to take a fresh look at what’s needed. Alternatively, if the leadership of the library is new, that fresh look could be done in-house.


While this part of the plan is not a plan for all resources, it will provide a starting place for determining what print or electronic resources need to be purchased or subscribed to in order to support the law firm’s practices. The information/knowledge audit should assist the firm in learning what the basic sources are and what format the users are willing to use for those resources. At the same time, there are options that reduce the shelving space needed for the library and bring both efficiencies and effectiveness to lawyer research that should be considered for phasing in over time.


The information/knowledge audit will also point out services that the lawyers and staff need. Follow-up interviews with those who indicate they are interested in a new service or in changing an existing service, will garner more information for planning services. Traditional services include:

  • Reference
  • Legal research
  • Collection development
  • Cataloging
  • Processing materials
  • Purchase of resources and payment of same
  • Management of the physical library
  • Current awareness (routing of newsletters and periodicals)

Less traditional and new services taken on by library staff in law firms include:

  • Business research
  • Marketing research
  • Competitive intelligence research
  • Technical, scientific, and medical research
  • Knowledge management
  • Intranet management
  • Conflicts
  • Records management
  • Training on research resources
  • Evaluation of electronic resources before purchase
  • Current awareness (electronic delivery that is not limited to the newsletters and periodicals subscribed to by the firm)


Staffing the law firm library at the appropriate level is not often understood by firm management. If the information/knowledge audit uncovers unmet needs, it may mean resources and services that require additional staff. Many firms think that the library staff can be smaller in size with the availability of electronic access to information. If anything, the opposite is true. The addition of electronic resources generally increases the workload of library staff.

In the past, a book was a book. Those who needed to use a book, were trained from childhood. Electronic resources bring new challenges. The need to train is greater as is the complexity of evaluating resources for purchase. In addition, more information is available that was not available in the past. As the information has grown exponentially, the need for using that information has grown as well. Lawyers are trained to do legal research. Librarians are trained to research within any source or subject area. Their training makes them experts in finding information where ever it may reside and in whatever format. It also makes them the likely candidates for providing cost effective non-legal research.

Every firm’s library needs will be different depending on their practice and the lawyers expectation for resources and services. This makes it difficult to continue to use the ratios that have been in existence for 30+ years. Those ratios of lawyer to library staff are for a library that no longer exists. Trying to hold on to those ratios will not serve the firm well. Determine staffing levels by reviewing firm needs and expectations of resources and services and planning accordingly.


So far, this discussion has been about the “what” and “who” of planning for the law firm library. Processes are about the “how”. How will the specific tasks needed to provide resources and services be done? What are the most cost effective means and tools for completing these tasks? For example, ordering, receiving, processing, and shelving or delivery of resources must be proceduralized in detail to be done effectively. Additionally, the most effective way to manage collections is done using a library management system. The high-level plan does not need to include the detail of each process but should lay out a roadmap for creating the processes.


The plan must have a technology component that is a high-level look at the processes to determine how and what technology should be used. It should include plans that outline what technology to purchase and what vendors to consider for those purchases. It also would outline the process for reviewing and selecting vendors. Yes, this is Information Technology’s purview, but library staff needs to be involved as users of the products that will be used to manage the library, and as users and advocates for users of the electronic research resources.


The image above is circular to denote that the planning process is never done. As the world changes, so does law and the lawyers who practice it. Those changes will continue to change the needs of the lawyers and their staff and those needs will mean changes in the library. During the last 10 years, significant change worldwide has had a dramatic impact on law firms and their libraries. No one could predict back then what would happen and be correct. Planning is that type of exercise. You create the plan and make changes to it over time to adjust for new needs.
Note: While there is no discussion of budget in this post, the plan will create a need for a budget. A follow-up post will discuss the budget process.

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