There was an interesting question asked on Twitter this morning by Patrick DiDomenico (apparently preparing for an ITLA presentation on the topic.) At first blush, it seemed to be phrased a bit on the negative side, but it really is something that those of us in law firm libraries do need to ask from time to time. “Tell me what’s wrong with law firm libraries today.”
This isn’t about bashing Patrick for asking the question, quite the opposite actually. It is a legitimate question to ask. This is more about addressing what is wrong, while also addressing what is right in law firm libraries today. After batting the question around with some of my law library and law firm administrative colleagues, we thought that this question could be asked of any of the law firm administrative departments. The Library and the Knowledge Management (KM) groups are probably the most venerable to this issue, but all departments, including IT, Marketing, Accounting, Human Resources, Records, and others are under constant scrutiny from law firm leadership to prove our worth to the firm. If we aren’t challenged, we become complacent. If we come complacent, we fail to see those changes we need to make until it is too late. It could be asked of any department, but this morning, it was asked of us in the law firm library. So, let’s address it.
In defense of those of us that lead law firm libraries, as with most law firm administrative problems, there tends to be a lack of direction in the library as to where it fits in the overall strategy of the firm. For example, the push to “go online” has been the biggest issue for the past 15-20 years, and it has put the library leaders and staff in a situation that is unclear, and quite frankly, unobtainable without 100% of the partners all agreeing to go in one direction. We suffer from the “one-veto” effect of the partnership in that everyone can agree to go with or without a service, but if one partner votes the other way, we tend to get stuck supporting a service that is expensive, time consuming, and duplicate.
- We are still debating formats within the library and keeping outdated formats in support of a minority of attorneys (example: formats now include print, e-books, online, databases, and on-demand… each with its own individual cost and demands from individuals within the firm.)
- Law Firms have not decided how to bring the law library into the modern day structure of a 21st Century firm
- The primary demands on librarians are to keep costs low, client costs low, and to watch out for the firm’s best interest
- Librarians are not given the final word on what to buy and what to keep (that causes problems with the previous point)
- Librarians tend to be the first to feel the cuts when times are bad, and the last to feel the benefits when times are good
- Librarians tend to be team players and are willing to take a larger percentage of “taking one for the team” than other departments, this leads to libraries becoming easy targets
- Librarians tend to be very tough on each other (publicly), yet very defensive when attacked from outside (think of it as “I can call my sister a name, but if you call her that, we’re going to fight!)
- The current Directors of law libraries failed miserably in succession planning. We’ve been waiting for 25 years for the next group of leaders to bring in fresh perspectives and what resulted was the whole library structure got tossed out with the bathwater
- Libraries (and Librarians) generally have a problem when it comes to the Return on Investment (ROI) piece of justifying their existence
What’s right with Law Firm Libraries?
- Librarians are constantly looking out for the best interest of the firm
- Librarians have kept very good control on overall costs (most libraries are less than 2% of revenue, some are less than 1%)
- Librarians keep costs down to the client (usually by assisting attorneys that forget about those costs until they see it on the bill and have to write it off.)
- Librarians are constantly looking for less expensive, or better resources that fit the needs of the firm’s practices.
- Librarians are extremely good at risk analysis for the firm and help save the firm from itself (costs, copyright, access, correct resources, etc.)
- Librarians share their experiences with each other. Most librarians do not have to trail blaze into a new product or mission or strategy, as we can stand on the shoulders of others that have tested the waters before and are willing to share those experiences (without exposing anything confidential, of course.)
Someone told me the other day that Librarians have a fear of strategy. Perhaps that is true of some, but no one that I would associate in the law library world is afraid of being strategic. I responded to this person that they were painting with a very broad brush and that the librarians I associate with have no fear, whatsoever, of strategy. However, I think we tend to be easy targets from other departments and law firm leadership, and that we roll over too easily at times. We’re at the end of a cycle where those in charge of libraries for the past 25 years are rotating out and failed to create an effective succession for the library to bring in those with the experience needed to understand the library structure, but with the fresh new ideas of where it needs to go from here. This left the door open for those outside the library to come in and have to start from scratch and think that the library needs to be rebuilt from the ground up rather than expand those processes that work, rework or remove those that don’t, and begin building new processes that make the library and the firm better prepared for the future.
So, what’s wrong with today’s law firm libraries? It’s a question you have to answer and supplement with what’s right. If you don’t, someone else will come in and answer it for you, and they will not be nearly as aggressive on defending what the law firm libraries are doing well.
Thanks, Patrick, for asking the question. I hope this gives you a few ideas to process.