The days of budgeting by determining what was spent last year and adding a percentage of that amount to each line item are long gone in the law firm library world. We’ve all heard about the many law firms who have decided to downsize (I like to think of it as rightsizing) their physical library in an effort to get control of expense or in a move to using more online resources. Some of you – no doubt – have experienced one or both of these firsthand. If you haven’t, it won’t be long.
I’ve also worked on these types of projects as a consultant where I’ve gone through print collections and online subscriptions – making recommendations for cancellations, withdrawals, and at times, even purchases of print material if deemed necessary. This experience combined with managing collections in law firms in the past has given me some insight into best practices for the task. I’m guessing that most of what I share below will be steps you are already taken but I also hope you find something new to use as you take on budgeting and collection management in the future.
- Don’t go it alone
- Think of rightsizing/budget cuts as opportunities.
- Consider what you can get from other sources and cancel/withdraw items that get little use
- Be resourceful in finding other ways to reduce costs
- Create a collection development policy/plan for the future
1. Don’t go it alone
Having a liaison in each practice group or in each office if they are small, gives you someone who you can communicate with when you need decisions made. They have more opportunity to speak to their fellow practice group members and will get more attention paid to the issue than most of us “non-lawyers” can.
The liaison should be a partner as an associate may be ignored when making decisions others don’t like. Once you have buy-in from your management, approach group leadership with the request that they assign someone to the position. Other ideas to consider:
- Make sure the group head and liaison understand that they aren’t there to make decisions on their own (especially when it comes to cancellations) – they need to talk to other members of the group to be able to make good decisions.
- Don’t accept the group head as your liaison if you can do it. He/she may think this is an easy assignment that they can do along with their other administrative duties. Disabuse them of this idea as experience has taught me that they will not have the time to do the work or may not be as available as you need them to be.
- If the individual the practice group selects to work with you is less than effective, try to get the position reassigned. Getting a partner assigned to this type of work will be a lot easier if you go to the group leadership with an idea of who you think would do the best job. Have a few names selected as the group’s managing partner may have reasons not to agree with you. Be prepared.
- Work to develop a relationship with each of them where they see you as an asset to their group and they have a “we’re in this together view of the assignment.”
- If you aren’t already doing so, modify your annual budget to allow identification of library purchases by practice group and/or office. I would suggest the following:
- Office – Practice Group – Type of acquisition or payment (new purchases, serials, standing orders, electronic subscriptions, etc.) OR
- Work within the confines of your firm’s budgeting process and general ledger accounts and your firm’s needs depending on size. The advantages this type of budget is that it makes the offices and practice groups (or whatever divisions you have) responsible for the library collection the firm has purchased on their behalf.
- Develop a job description and procedure manual to use when talking to leadership or the individual selected to work with you. It will also help build some consistency in how this position works from one practice group to another.
- Following the rightsizing process, meet with the liaisons regularly to review possible cancellations, etc. At best you would meet quarterly. At least, conduct an annual review.
2. Think of rightsizing/budget cuts as opportunities.
I think I’ve mentioned this before but it is worth mentioning again. I worked in a library where the management would ask us to reduce the collection budget by 10-20% every other year. While this sounds like a problem, I learned to view it as an opportunity as there were always materials that had been purchased for a certain case or looked like they would get use when they were purchased but, in reality, got little use.
To meet the challenge, we would create a report that listed each title in the collection along with the cost (whether we purchased it by subscription or standing order). In other words, that report had total cost per year for each title and each copy of the title.
For example, if we received four updates for a title that was updated by pocket parts, the report would add up each payment made during the year for that title to create the total cost of that title.
4 updates @ $220 each = $880 total cost for the title
The report included both subscriptions and the titles where the payments were made per receipt of the updates. You may be able to generate this using your library management system if it allows you to attach payments at a copy level.
Once the report was created, we would send it to the practice group liaisons for them to share with their group to make the decision of what to cut. The report makes it easier to have this discussion because they can see the titles in relation to what they cost and then determine if they use the resources enough to keep them. Also, if they can’t make the % cut that has been asked for, they will have better information for supporting keeping the materials regardless of the budget cuts the firm is seeking.
3. Consider what you can get from other sources and cancel/withdraw items that get little use
While the process I described above made it easier to manage costs, electronic resources have made it more difficult because of the expectation that firm leaders have that print materials are no longer needed. We all know that we haven’t reached a point where the electronic only library is a reality. Until we get there, there are ways to manage the size and cost of your print collection while seeking to meet firm goals of reducing library size.
Start with the type of report that I described above but add a few more columns as follows.
- Available on Westlaw
- Available on Lexis
- Available electronically from Bloomberg BNA
- Available on HeinOnline
- Available on Cheetah
- Available at a local library where the firm has borrowing privileges
- Available on any other electronic resource you may use
While this list is being worked on – you may be able to get your vendors to work with you by providing you with a report that indicates the various formats the titles come in.
Chances are if the books that are currently updated are always on the shelf when you or your staff file new pages, they are not needed in print if available in another format. Alternatively review the collection for items that are never on the shelves because of high use. I’ve asked library clerks to work with me on this since they knew what was on or off the shelf more often than me.
Note what looks like the lack of use on your collection cost report with the pricing, etc. Now you have a list that will tell you and your liaisons what titles cost, whether they (anecdotectally) get used or not, and where they can be located should there be a need. This gives you good information for making recommendations and the liaisons ideas for discussing the collection with the other lawyers in their groups.
4. Be resourceful in finding other ways to reduce costs
There are many more strategies/techniques librarians have been using for years that can assist you in better managing the cost of your collections through out the year. Some of them listed briefly, include:
- Charge the client for the purchase of materials being used for individual matters and not added to the firm’s collection. Keep records that will assist you in canceling and withdrawing the materials when the research on that matter is completed.
- Quit routing print materials. If you have access to the titles through online sources you already subscribe to, route the electronic instead.
- If you are still routing print subscriptions, ask your users if they still want to receive materials that are routed or distributed to them. This includes subscriptions and the desk sets that can be so costly.
- If you continue to have the need to route print, keep track of how many individuals are on each routing list (for routed materials). If the lists drop below 3-4 individuals, cancel the copies you no longer need.
- Track usage of electronic subscriptions via vendor reports or by using counters available from vendor tools like Research Monitor, Lookup Precision, OneLog, etc. but remember that lack of use might also be due to a training problem so don’t cancel titles indiscriminately.
- Purchase all new materials in electronic format if possible but if you are asked to purchase a print title, see if you can borrow the new title before purchasing it to see if it is something that would really be used and to determine how much duplication exists from this new title to others you have in the collection.
- Use your library management system to reduce the time it takes for staff to order, receive, process, route, pay invoices and other tasks.
- Analyze how you can reduce overall costs on an annual basis if you have the staff to work on these types of tasks.
- Remember that making these changes will take time. Don’t think you can accomplish them all at once but, alternatively, don’t be defeated before you start.
5. Create a collection development policy/plan for the future
You will find that going through the process outlined above will result in a number of decisions you can record that will become, at least, part of your collection development plan for the future. Following are three examples of those decisions for subscriptions:
- What format do you use for routing. For example: It seems to make the most sense to route online resources rather than printbecause routing the print materials has always been fraught with problems.
- What types of resources are available in online only format. For example: Depending on the preferences of your firm’s lawyers, you may decide that all practice materials now available in print (think office copies or desk books) will be accessed online rather than paying for a print copy for each lawyer who wants one. If you’ve added practice materials to your online services contracts, you might find that it is less expensive then you originally thought.
- How long to keep print materials on the shelf. For example: Each material type will have their own retention guideline. You may keep subscriptions that are indexed but not available via online collections for a few years. On the other hand, if a publisher hasn’t indexed articles and the publication hasn’t been picked up by an indexing service, the value is limited and you may decide that those materials get discarded in 6 months or so.
These few decisions are just the beginning. In fact, you will be amazed at how many decisions you’ve made that will allow you to create your collection development plan/policy without much further effort.
Take heart and stay as positive as you can be about reduced budgets and a dwindling physical library. It is much harder to get lawyers to make decisions about canceling materials that aren’t being use when times are good. A dictum to downsize/rightsize will assist with rightsizing your collections and reducing expense that may no longer be needed. Better yet, don’t wait for the word from management to start the process.
If we approach managing costs by thinking strategically and being proactive, law firms may very well start to understand the value of spending money on libraries and the staff who keep them relevant for the firm’s practice.