I was talking with a partner the other day and he told the story of how he, as a young associate, was part of the first batch of lawyers to come in and open the current office. He started laughing because he remembered that the firm was pretty reluctant to open the office, but one of the biggest clients insisted that we do in order to be closer to their headquarters. “We were going back and forth about opening a new office,” he told me, “and, you know what finally made us do it? The client gave us their entire law library collection for us to put in our new office. That sealed the deal.” At that time, the law library was a show-piece of the law firm, and to land a complete collection of the National Reporters, treatises and other legal materials was quite a catch for a firm opening a brand new office.

That was back in the mid-90s. My have the times changed. Could you imagine if a client made that offer today? It could be a deal-breaker.
When I spoke on law library spaces within law firms at an Ark Conference a few months ago, I got some pretty negative comments in my review of how I conceded that library space, for books at least, was a lost battle. A Chief Operating Officer in the crowd backed me up and said that the days of the library being a showpiece of a firm are over. I asked him what is the “touchstone” of a firm these days (some central place where everyone feels connected). Is it the library? Is it the break rooms? Conference Center? Bathrooms?? I think we finally agreed that in this day and age, the touchstone of a firm isn’t something that is based on a physical space. Quite frankly, it is probably the firm’s email system that is now the touchstone of the firm.
As for those books that came over nearly twenty years ago?? Many of them are still on the shelf… like the old abandoned toys from the Toy Story movies… just hoping that someone will find them and not ship them off to the dump. I think I’ll go out and run my hand along their spines today to let them remember what it feels like to be touched.

  • I wonder if this take on books being a 'showpiece' is something that varies from firm to firm. I still see a lot of places putting their books in the limelight.
    I do agree that, in some places, books in law firms are a bit like expensive wall-paper… They've fallen into the realm of the heavy wooden desk with a fountain pen in a stand; certainly not the "touchstone" of the firm, but rather part of the necessary furnishings. A law office without books on 'display' somewhere would be off-putting to me.
    Interesting to note: Do a Google image search for the words "legal" or "law firm" – no computers, iPads, Smartboards but lots of gavels, balances, and books!

  • As a fairly new attorney (a couple of years), I am a part of the generation that has moved past the physical books to the infinitas that is the internet. For case law, electronic searches are indisputably improved over keyword indexes. However, for other research, I love the context that books provide. At times when I am not quite sure what I am looking for, a book is instantly grounding, showing the big picture, instead of pages pieced together by click after click. Skimming a book can provide its own savings in time.

    In the interest of fair disclosure, I am also a Kindle hold-out.

  • Greg, I believe the concept of a virtual library is going to be the next wave. As younger attorneys join law firms, there is going to be a growing expectation of being able to access content online. As we continue to expand our ability to work remotely this is going to become more important. The role of the Library will be a common place to get away from your office, perhaps interact with people, perhaps just escape the noise that is your office. The Librarian will continue to refine his or her search capabilities as well as continue to provide the value add of analyzing the data and curation. I'm not suggesting there will be no more books, but the collection will continue to diminish as demand decreases.

  • It still serves as a visual reference for the credibility of a firm. Clients feel better about lawyers if the directory or partner photos are taken in front of the bookshelf. You're more likely to see "side of the bus" law-firms where the pictures of the partners are not given that credibility cue.

  • I believe that the virtual library can be a showpiece as well. I remember when partners used to bring people through the library pointing out its beauty. Once we built a personalized research portal on our intranet, I would here the partners bringing people through the library but talking about how great the portal was. It was part of presentations to prospects as well.

  • I think there are two different styles here, both of which are a "book", but which function completely differently. That's the reporting series, which make great wallpaper and photo backgrounds, and the single texts. My library no longer subscribes to any reporting series in print, but you'll never get rid of the other books. Even though some of them (not all) are available online, being able to browse in print is a totally different experience, and it can be very valuable.