Image [cc] Cacau & Xande

A friend of mine pointed me to an article from Quidlibet Research, Inc.’s, Nina Cunningham, entitled “Leveraging the Assets of the Law Library.” I read it… then I read it again… then I read it again. Each time finding different things to agree, and disagree with. I sent it to staff for feedback… then I sent it to peers for feedback. Even after all of this, I’m still not sure what I think of Cunningham’s conclusions on how a Law Firm Library should be leveraged.

On my current read, my synopsis of Cunningham’s article is that Law Firm Libraries should focus on being really good researchers, and shift the managing, operations and vendor negotiations to other departments. Of course, I may read the article a few more times before completing this post, and my understanding of the article may shift once more.

Let me start off by pointing out a couple of sentences that my friend said caught her attention:

…firms of all sizes struggle to supervise law libraries. While libraries are operating departments run by professionals who should be self-supervising, the logical partner of the library is the IT Department.

This statement is backed up with the idea that Librarians are the content managers, while IT Departments are the distribution managers. This fits in with my synopsis that Librarians’ value is in researching and anything not directly related to this shouldn’t be managed by the library.

Cunningham goes on to the next segment of her article and talks about what most of us know as “Embedded Librarians” into law firm Practice Groups. She refers to it as “Subject Matter Experts” and sees it as a way to distribute the strengths of the library staff (researching) across the firm. The interesting part of the Subject Matter Expert analysis isn’t the concept of placing a skilled researcher within the Practice Group, but rather that the Subject Matter Expert should work in a very subtle way. Here’s how Cunningham puts it:

This expert contribution should not be too loudly broadcast. If it is, it could appear as a disruption to SOP and be rejected. But if given a chance, it can serve a disciplined approach to creating strategic support for the growth and development of the practice group. A librarian’s relationship with a practice group can grow naturally this way over time.

One of my peers saw this approach as being similar to creating a quasi-Practice Support Lawyer (PSL), only in this case, a Practice Support Researcher (PSR.) The way it is expressed in the article, you might define it as a Discrete Practice Support Researcher (DPSR.) There was a mention of how “IT enterprise makes for the best use of reference librarians” in this topic of DPSR’s, but I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure where the author was going on this. I ran this by some of my peers and they gave me some good feedback that I wanted to share with you.

A common mistake made when discussing embedding seems to be that the embedding researcher will quietly wait until called upon for assistance.  While this model does allow the researcher to be proactive (the proverbial fly on the wall), it also restricts their effectiveness.  As an embed with [a practice group], I ask questions on the conference calls and use my experience to provide guidance to help the group achieve its goals.  There has to be a give and take. 

CI Expert:
In terms of leveraging librarians (with rare exception – present company of course excluded) Librarians would need to be trained and coached to feel comfortable outside of their libraries. It is akin to training associates to be rainmakers and bring in clients.  How much of the literature out there discusses whether or not associates should be trained in BD or leave it to those who are naturally interested/capable. Introverts vs Extroverts. In my experience the theory of the embedded Librarian is great, in practice, it intimidates…. 

I have believed for a longtime that law librarians should be leveraged as PSLs. US firms have had little interest in adding PSL headcount, but I believe that law librarians have the requisite skills (at least the ones I know) and interests to perform much of the work of a PSL and most firms already have the headcount. This would require Library Services to rethink their position

Next up on the list was what Nina Cunningham refers to as “so-called technical services activities.” These are the areas where library staff are having to spend time actually managing the firm’s print and digital materials, and how this tends to define the library’s role in the firm:

These activities are administrative in nature and surround the purchase of new print materials, online cataloguing, routing of print or digital materials, and the lending, finding and shelving of books. These activities are relevant to managing physical assets but are too often identified as the only library activity. This undervalues research staff and overvalues book management. In an era of downsizing and cost containment, law firms should be biased in favor of contributions to client value.

How Cunningham argues libraries should handle this so-called technical services role is something that I think she oversimplifies. Her answer (in my interpretation) is that the IT Department can assist and streamline the entire process of managing the collection through a series of list building and records consolidation. I’m thinking that the response from many “so-called” technical services librarians would be that we’ve been doing list building and records consolidation well before there was even such a thing as a so-called IT Department. However, to Cunningham’s credit, she does have a point that the management of the collection is perceived to be a low value to the firm. Of course, the “low value” is relative… try telling a Practice Group Leader that their core materials for researching their practice area are being cut or reallocated through list building or records consolidation and see how low value the service is then.

The pièce de résistance of Cunningham’s article surrounds the idea that vendor contract negotiations are not a value of the law library, and should therefore be turned over to the better negotiators found in the IT Department. Her concept is that the librarians define the content needed from the vendors, but the negotiations should then go to the experts. This leads me to my favorite quote in the article:

…it is a gift to librarians to limit their involvement in contract negotiations.

Um, thanks?

This part got many of my peers talking, and disagreeing with Cunningham’s assumptions on placing negotiations in the hands of IT. Here are a couple of responses I received from peers.

Library Contracts should be negotiated by Librarians.  These services are  not like purchasing a software or SAAS package.   The service needs to meet the content needs of the attys in a way that they are comfortable with.    Librarians also have a deeper understanding of the quirks of the vendors, which as publishers have a different pricing model than software companies do.  I have been involved with IT contracts and they have different set of serviced level requirements than the Library contracts.  Also, knowing these contracts allows the librarian to contribute significantly to cost recovery efforts firm wide.

CI Expert:
Contract negotiations should be done by whomever is best at it and understand the opportunity cost of the exercise with the particular vendor. All admin groups work with vendors and negotiate contracts, – Accounting and Office Services with companies like Xerox and whomever sells your paper and pens, HR with employees, Benefit providers, Marketing with Multinational media outfits, SWAG companies, printers, ad agencies, IT with software and hardware vendors, telecom companies and of course Library with licensed content. There are many more negotiations in between it is a part of management to do take on this role and it may be that while you are a terrific manager of an admin group, you can’t negotiate contracts so you hand that piece off to someone else in your group who can be fierce but fair. To hand it all over to IT, in my mind makes no sense…as non users of the content, they can never understand the negotiation.  

I hear what [the Librarian above] is saying about understanding the contracts and how law librarians have a unique understanding of research needs (and I agree), just like IT has unique understanding of IT needs.  Procurement is a disciplined approach to buying – not a skill set commonly found in IT or LS.  The idea is to involve IT and Library Services to the extent necessary to get the right product, but let procurement do the heavy lifting on negotiating the contracts. 

IT/KM Specialist:
No time to read all of this. Busy negotiating contracts on behalf of the Library.  Lazy b*stards.  Why don’t they negotiate their own contracts?

Okay, the last comment was one of my friends having fun with the rest of us.

My own thoughts on vendor negotiations, and what I’m hoping where Cunningham is intending to go with this argument, is that there is some value in negotiating with the vendors in a unified way. Especially in this time where a vendor like Thomson Reuters is selling products to IT, Accounting, Marketing, Library, Records, Conflicts, etc., there is opportunity to leverage that relationship and end up with a better overall deal for the firm by pointing out the large amount of money the firm spends, as a whole, with the vendor. However, I think it is an oversimplification of the process to simply have the different groups define their content needs and then turn the reigns over to the IT Department to negotiate.

The best thing about Nina Cunningham’s article is that it got me discussing this with my peers, librarians and others within the law firm structure. Although I don’t agree with some of the pieces of her argument, there are a few points that are well taken, and hopefully others within the profession will pick up the discussion from here and come back with additional comments and suggestions for how to handle leveraging (and defining) the assets of the Law Library.