One of the bad things about a down economy within a BigLaw library is that you need to reevaluate the way you are spending money on your resources. One of the good things about a down economy within a BigLaw library is that you need to reevaluate the way you are spending money on your resources. In the previous post, Mark Gediman mentioned:

“Most law firm decision makers believe that actual costs, while important, are secondary to perception when it comes to budgeting decisions.”

In reality, the Partners tend not to focus on the actual cost of a resource they need, because they see it as necessary for their matter or business development (or they wouldn’t have asked for it in the first place!) But those on the Administrative side of the BigLaw library have to care about actual costs (because that’s their responsibility!) As I mentioned in the previous post, the Administrative side is generally winning this “actual cost” vs. “actual need” debate.
There is a definite paradigm shift going on in the BigLaw libraries where lawyers will no longer be able to add ‘actual costs’ to the library budgets, without showing the ‘actual need’ for the product. The justification of resources seems like a change that has been long overdue in may BigLaw firms. One of the reactions to the change that I fear is that the pendulum will shift too far the other direction and that firms will create a “slash and burn” policy when it comes to library resources. If the partners do not take the time to justify the resources they need, the Administrative team may set up a method of review where the default answer is “cut the resource.”
The “slash and burn” policy on cancelling subscriptions (both print and electronic) may start out being a good process that will get rid of resources that are not really needed in the law firm. The attorneys in the firm have demanded a lot of resources over the years, and some of those resources were used a few times, then never really used again, or were duplicates of existing resources, because a certain Partner liked the “other” resource better than the one the firm already has. With the “slash and burn” policy, all of those resource have to be defended in order to keep them. Plus, now that firms are using additional monitoring tools (OneLog, LookUp Precision, etc.) librarians and administrative bean counters now have the ability to call Partners on those resources that aren’t being used.
The problems that are going to arise over the “slash and burn” policy is one that is as old as the law firm itself. The firm is not a corporation, it is a partnership. Each Partner believes that his or her work is vital to the survival of the firm. If a $10K research tool is needed in order to help on a $1 million matter, then so be it. The true test is going to be not in the ability to cut resources and identify what is essential and what is not. Rather it is going to be stopping the firm from winding right back where it is in 10 years through placating Partner demands to add new resources. When you have dozens (or hundreds) of Partners to deal with, and each believes his or her requests are necessary expenses, you’ve got an administrative nightmare on your hands. Some firms are erecting barriers to these types of individual Partner requests, such as purchasing committees, but most of us know that it doesn’t take long for Partners to find ways around those barriers.
The reality of the current situation is that creating a “slash and burn” policy is a desperate attempt by the leaders in the law firm (both Partners and Admin) to say “Please save us from ourselves!!” There’s going to be a lot of conflict over the next few years when those tasked with controlling research costs are approached by different Partners that say “I know we’re cutting costs, but this expensive resource is absolutely needed for my important cases.” These exceptions build up over time and tend to be approved more often than not. I’m just afraid that we’re not going to learn from our past mistakes, and all we’re going to wind up with is another bloated budget, and a big stack of “CYA” paperwork to show how we ended right back where we started.