Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

Using Strategy to Stay Relevant in 2009


This is the first article in a series that  will cover how to handle what is predicted to be a less than easy 2009.

If all the naysayers are correct with their predictions for 2009, we are in for a wild and sometimes unhappy ride.  I tend to be more of a “glass half full” thinker so have had a tough time believing that things should get as dire as “they” are saying.    That said, a discussion that I had with the investment counselor recently really made me feel better.  His company is predicting that we will see a turn around starting by mid year.

This time last year, I decided to get through the recession that was coming by ignoring it.  Since that approach didn’t work and since it is still a few months off from mid year, it would make sense for me (and you) to think more strategically to get through what lies ahead.  Here are some strategic actions to think about:

Find out how the firm’s strategy has changed.  In the past the firm may have been in expansion mode.  This may still be true but with variations.  I would ask for a meeting with your manager or both your manager and the person she reports to.  Invite them to lunch and ask the simple question, “How does the current economic situation change the firm’s overall strategy?”  If you don’t know what that overall strategy is, ask for that information as well. 

In preparation for this meeting, call a meeting with any lead staff to discuss what the answer to the previous question may be, and whether there are any ideas about how to support new strategies.  If you are a solo librarian, do your own brainstorming or gather a group of solos together to discuss what each of you can do within your firms.  However you do it, arrive at the meeting you have arranged prepared to suggest actions you can take to support new strategies the firm has formed.

Demonstrate that you are a leader and a strategic one at that.  For those of you who think that the last suggestion of action would be an impossible task, that no one would accept a lunch invitation, least of all tell you anything, you’ve got to start thinking that nothing ventured is nothing gained.  Step out of your comfort zone and take a chance.   Not much get’s accomplished as a leader without that leader believing in herself.

Ask, “What can I do?” or “What can my department do?”  Now is not the time to think protectively about what you’ve built while in your position.  If your firm is trying to move ahead with the same strategies, just at a slower pace, the services you provide may not change.  If the firm’s strategy has changed, you need to think about how your services will change to meet the challenges ahead.

Involve your staff.  Whatever the answer is to the previous question, invite staff to a brainstorming session to discuss the future, any suggestions from management, and how you, as a team, can support their ideas or the actions you agreed upon at the meeting.  Involving staff helps them to know what to expect and calms them.  Disappearing behind closed doors to develop a plan of action, will increase any anxiety they already have, given the economic situation at hand. 

Do less with less.  You will hopefully have had the discussion with your manager before your administration calls you with orders to downsize, or worse yet, with the names of the individuals who they’ve decided need to be laid off and have developed a plan that includes current staffing levels.  If you have input into what actions you need to take, start discussions about what services are really necessary and what you can eliminate. 

If you have the same experience as me in law firms, you are already being asked to do more than your staffing levels can reasonably support.  So, if the worst action your firm takes is to freeze the hiring of new staff or positions opened through attrition, don’t try to keep up the same level of staff output as before.  Yes, you will need to reassign tasks but, before doing so:

  • Spend time talking with staff about what tasks are really necessary
  • Look for ways to reduce steps/tasks currently being done to provide a service
  • Review your services to determine which services are being used the least and eliminate them if possible
  • Talk to lawyers and staff to find out what services you provide are the most important to them
  • Consider how technology can reduce workload
  • Determine what special projects can be postponed

If your meeting proposal wasn’t accepted or you chose not to meet with management, and the downsizing is ordered or done without your input (and hopefully, you are still there – which is a good reason to set up the meeting with management in the first place),  do the same thinking about what you can accomplish with the remaining staffing level.   Doing more with less may work but will surely create more angst (although using technology may actually help you do more with less).

Assist your staff during any transition.  The staff that remain after layoffs, need your support.  They are most likely frightened that they are next and feel over worked and under appreciated.  Unless you address their feelings and manage their workload they may leave, or worse yet, leave in spirit but stay in body.

Make your services and staff relevant.   Whatever actions you take to get there, make sure that you are providing the most relevant services you can for the situation at hand.   Again, this may take you outside your comfort zone but you will be stronger and more strategic for your efforts. 

Consider using a consultant to assist you with determining the actions you need to take.  Shameless plug:  Nina Platt Consulting provides information audit, staffing study, and integration services.  The goal of these services is to assist libraries and their firms to determine the best equation in terms of services and staffing.  Previous projects that we’ve undertaken have helped identify:

  • What library/information resources and services are most appropriate for the firm’s goals
  • How tasks should be distributed between staff
  • What tasks can be automated or made easier with technology
  • What tasks can be made self service through integration of technology (leaving the more complex tasks (mainly research) for the library staff to do)
  • What tasks can be outsourced/outtasked

We also offer training on these topics as well.

Tomorrow’s article will focus on managing expenses.