Image [cc] Slippery Tiger

I have found that librarians at law firms walk a tightrope strung over the thorny issues of cost, risk and user demands. We have a reputation of being “gatekeepers” or impeding advances in legal research by holding on to old media at the expense of new media. Although it may be true that there are a few Luddites clinging to the idea of a traditional brick & mortar library, those Luddites are few and far between. Most librarians are actually ready and willing to adopt new ideas, media, technology, user experiences, and procedures, but they are also responsible for advising the risk involved in the adoption to the overall firm in which they work. There are times in which the risk outweighs the cool factor in moving forward.

One of the common themes I’m hearing from vendors these days is that “we need to get our products in front of the attorneys because the librarians are too challenging to work with.” It is a logical thought on their end because librarians are challenging. We look past the “whiz-bang” interface and start asking the questions of “how much does it cost?” or “who can access it?” or “does it work with our current infrastructure?” or “what happens if someone gets into something we didn’t put in our contract?” or “if we bill clients for the use of this product, can you work with us to make sure we follow ABA guidelines?” In other words, we ask challenging questions and won’t move forward until those questions are answered.

There is a reason that law firms hire librarians to manage their external legal research content. We mitigate risk – both ethical and fiscal for the firm. We report up to the powers-that-be in a firm and present the pros and cons of new products, give our recommendations, then implement the decisions that are made. Sometimes the potential rewards are worth the risk, sometimes they are not. Like it or not, librarians do not make the final decision, however we do relay that decision to the vendors (so to them, it seems that we are the problem.) There are librarians out there that never want to bring in new products or technology, but they are rare – and getting rarer.

When vendors successfully do an end-run around the library and get a Partner to sign off on a contract for their product, the librarian spends the next year attempting to undo the damage. Pull any law librarian to the side in at a conference and have them tell you the horror stories of what happened when a Practice Group bought a product (usually somewhere in the vicinity of $25K) only to find out that the firm already had a similar product (sometimes the same exact product), or that the product actually didn’t solve that problem the Practice Group thought it would. The story usually ends with how much time the librarian spent on getting the contract reworked into an existing deal (reducing the overall cost, but retaining the product) or finding some way to get out of the contract after tracking down the contract signed by the group.

Many librarians would love to adopt the newest version of a legal research product and be on the bleeding edge of technology. However, our biggest duty to the firm is to make sure that we first look at the risks associated with taking on the latest and greatest products. Skipping the library (either by a vendor, or someone on the inside of the firm) may get a product into the firm, however, it rarely comes without introducing some unforeseen risk to the firm. The librarian is then asked to fix the problem, and usually a note goes out reminding members of the firm that all contracts have to be negotiated through the proper channels, and that “X” vendor must from this point go through the proper channels. For the vendor,  the short-term victory turns into a long-term damage to their reputation within the firm. Even worse, now they have to go, hat in hand, to the very librarian they excluded, and work to make amends.