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.