Toby pointed me toward Ron Friedmann’s post Slashing BigLaw Libraries where Ron reviewed the AmLaw Law Librarian Survey and asks whether law firms and librarians are “fundamentally” rethinking the way the library works and delivers services. I shared the following response with my good friend Mark Gediman, and Mark gave me back some comments and an alternate view. I thought I’d put both of these together to offer a couple of views on how law libraries are changing the way they service the law firm in a fundamental way. My thoughts focus on some of the problems I see with how library services are being changed to increase the overall efficiency of how the library works, while Mark’s views are more positive and lay out some specific examples of how services are changing, but continue to focus on the value that each individual contributes to the firm.
[Greg Lambert]
The “fundamental” change in library services that I’ve been seeing is one of organization. The structure of library services is changing in a way that fits what the Administrative leadership of the firm views as the most efficient method [think of “The Bobs” from the movie Office Space.] Here’s a breakdown of some of the fundamental “structural” changes in the law firm library:
  1. Library services are adopting the “IT” model of the centralized help desk.
  2. The Administrative leadership of libraries wants all of the researchers to be “generalist” rather than “specialist”. a. That way each researcher can handle any question. b. This makes scheduling easier (since every researcher is basically the same) .
  3. Attorneys still want “specialists” that are their “go-to” people on particular issues. Obviously, this creates a conflict between the “efficiency” that Admin is being asked to design, and “effectiveness” that attorneys desire when calling upon the research staff to assist in their matters
There is a conflict between what the Administrative Leaders of the firm are being tasked to do with the library and the desires of the attorneys that use the resources found within the library. The administrative side is focused on cost cutting and reducing overhead of the library. The cuts range from physical space, to electronic and print collections, to staff. The attorneys within the firm want a library that responds to their needs, on an as-needed basis.
This is not a new conflict between the Admin and the Attorney sides of the firm, but we’ve reached a point now where the Admin side is winning. My fear is that the resulting economically efficient library will no longer effectively handle the needs of the attorneys it serves.
[Mark Gediman]
I think that too little has been said about the significance of Greg’s points #1 & #3. We have adopted the helpdesk approach to wean the attorneys from calling only their go-to people as well as leverage our far-flung staff. The helpdesk approach addresses the following issues:
  1. complaints about lack of service when the attorney’s favorite person is not available.
  2. Staff located in peripheral locations are not fully utilized
  3. a frustration factor sets in as the attorney works his/her way down a directory looking for someone to assist them.
I think having everyone with basic reference skills is necessary in this time of “lean and mean” staffing. But I also feel that having specialties can enhance the quality of the library service. For example, having a legislative specialist on staff enables the firm to take costs that were originally “pass-throughs” from contract services and add them to the firm’s revenue stream. In fact, these specialists can generate revenue in excess of their salary which allows the library to provide additional admin services without being a drain on resources. Members of the library should also be liaisons/specialists to specific practice groups. Combining a helpdesk with allowing (and encouraging!) the library staff to specialize is similar to the law firm IT model where everyone provides level 1 (help desk) support, including the level 2 specialists/engineers. It also allows the firm to ensure that help is always available without making a large investment in staff.
The Library as a department needs to make itself indispensable to the firm. Performing unique specialized services that add to the success of the firm, like Competitive Intelligence / Business Development and practice specialists, serves to emphasize that fact. Most law firm decision makers believe that actual costs, while important, are secondary to perception when it comes to budgeting decisions. The Library manager needs to constantly remind the firm of why they exist and the services they provide. This is accomplished by offering to present at retreats and attorney meetings, visiting each office regularly and putting on regular CLE programs in each office taught by various library staff members. This elevates our visibility, puts a face to a voice and showcases the individual skills of the library staff as well as reminding them that we are here and we perform a valuable function.
  • Tracie

    I think you both have valid points. However, it's frustrating when you are someone on the receiving end of the new paradigm shift and are out of a job at a firm where allegedly librarians were valued and revered for their knowledge and expertise. I recently was laid off in May by my firm which had a staff of 18 and decided to cut its staff by 40%. None of us saw such drastic changes coming and were constantly being told by management that we weren't anywhere near a point of having to let staff go. We were told to slash our budgets by a certain percentage and we met that goal. But after everything we did, it was completely shocking to find out that in the background, that was all prep work for a department wide reorganization of library services where whomever decided the firm didn't need to have staff in each of its offices. Instead, all of us solo office librarians were laid off and the ones remaining in the multi-staff larger offices were tasked with doing triple the work. That very well may be efficient monetarily speaking but the attorneys in those offices without librarians are not getting the same quality level of service and immediate assistance that they had before.

    I realize I am still angry at my own situation but it is frustrating to see this shift across the board regardless b/c at the end of the day, I don't see people in key positions articulating our value to holders of the purse-strings. I agree that the economical situation can inspire more efficient methods for providing resources and doing cost-effective research. But when does it end? It seems like more and more libarians are losing their jobs b/c we aren't valued in those environments as much any longer. Mark is right that library departments need to do more.

  • I feel your pain Tracie. One of the things that I've learned in my career is that most "business decision makers" are always looking for ways to decrease staff.

    Staff = Overhead
    Bad Economy = Reduce Overhead
    Reduce Overhead = Cut Staff

    Mark has some good thoughts on how to keep the library staff from immediately being seen as "overhead".

    In BigLaw, if you are 'out of sight', it can mean you are first on the chopping block. I think that is why you've seen a lot of cuts to resources that are outside the firms' main offices. It may be referred to as "centralization", but somewhere along the line those solo librarians in the "outer offices" became viewed by the decision makers as a luxury rather than a necessity.

    I'm afraid that we may never get back to the focus on the service that is produced by these solos (effectiveness) over the efficiency that is produced by the centralized "IT" method. To give an even more "doomsday" view of things, I'm really worried that the "IT" method may create a worse situation in the future by making it harder for the expertise in the library to be seen by the attorneys. If we don't get out in front of the attorneys, then there will come a day when attorneys forget what valuable "people" resources they have in the library.

  • Tracie

    Greg … exactly, you hit the nail on the head. It didn't help that my firm's library department was on the same level with the IT department but under the broader umbrella of a CIO that headed both IT and Library Services who had no clue about libraries and librarians. He was of the mindset that one could just "Google" his/her way out of most legal research situations which was a huge slap in the face to our dept b/c he didn't understand us.

    I really fear that we aren't doing enough to put ourselves out in front and articulating the the points we need to be making. And that this will continue as you said and we'll find ourselves unable to go back.