Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In 1995, a law firm was approached by one of its major clients to open an office in the city where the client’s headquarters was located. The law firm really didn’t want to expand into a new region of the country, where it had no other significant clients, so it politely refused the clients request. The client, however, was very persistent, and continued to press the law firm to open a new office in order for their joint legal teams to work closer to one another. The client would not back down, but then neither did the law firm. In a last-ditch effort to entice the law firm over, the client offered to donate its entire law library collection to the law firm; thousands of linear feet, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of reporters, treatises, and specialty collections were offered in order to convince the law firm to open a new office. The law firm was stunned by the offer and immediately agreed to open the office. Twenty-Two years later, the law office thrives… and the law library collection that sealed the deal? It barely exists today.

True story.

On the surface, this sounds like a sad story for law libraries in law firms. Once the centerpiece of a law firm, the law library now inhabits a small fraction of the space it once did. Does this mean that the law firm no longer has a library? If all you think about is the space a law library takes up, then yes. If, however, you think of the library as the information and knowledge needed to effectively practice law, then the law library is as important now as it has ever been… perhaps more important than it has ever been.

I talked with a reporter a few weeks ago about another firm that actually re-purposed their old library space and sublet that space to a start-up company. The reporter found it to be telling that the traditional book law library was literally losing ground to a modern start-up company. What the reporter didn’t realize is that the law library actually became its own little start-up and had already reinvented itself. The traditional law library was about space, size, beauty, and being a showpiece. The modern law library is about function, ease of use, portability, and just-in-time availability. This isn’t a paradigm shift that suddenly appeared in 2017. This has been a gradual shift that has occurred over the past twenty-five years or more.

Law firm libraries occupy less space than ever, yet contain more information than ever. Saying that a law firm library has lost its importance because it has a smaller physical footprint is like saying that today’s laptop or tablet is less important because it doesn’t take up as much desktop space as an IBM Selectric typewriter. It’s actually quite a silly notion once you really think about it.

The modern law librarian has taken advantage of the paradigm shift and has reinvented themselves away from maintaining and updating a physical collection toward developing and training the members of the firm to understand which tool is the most valuable at the appropriate time. Very few firms lack for resources. The problem is that we have so many resources that we become overwhelmed by them. The law librarian’s skill at helping others find the right resource for the task is more important than ever. Moving the idea of the law library away from the physical and focusing on the actual information available has opened up opportunities for innovated law librarians.

So when you think back on the “good ol’ days” of the law firm library being the centerpiece of the office, don’t be sad for the law librarian that it has faded away. Be grateful that the law librarian is now offering you more information than ever before, and will gladly help you understand how to use it effectively.