I am writing this blog post on the plane as I fly back to Toronto from Halifax, having just spent the last three days at the CALL/ACBD annual conference. The conference was fantastic, highlights for me included an opening session with Jordan Furlong who suggested we are entering an era of Legal Intelligence – a topic near and dear to my heart, a stellar lunch keynote from Janet Maybee on the wrongful conviction of Pilot Francis Mackey in respect to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and of course a meet up with fellow 3 Geeks blogger Greg Lambert. I think my colleagues from Thomson Reuters Canada showed him just how the vendor client relationship can actually be quite strong and positive. But all of that pales in comparison to the many great one-on-one conversations that I was able to have with people about the state of the industry, the position of law librarianship, the influence of legal tech – AI, Machine Learning, predictive analytics and what the (very exciting) future holds for all of us.
There is one conversation that continues to resonate with me several days later – the real purpose for this blog. Following the panel discussion, “SWOT-ing the Rise of Global Law Firms”, an attendee and I were chatting about how law librarians have had to evolve in the last 10 years since the great recession. Some added KM to their portfolios, others added CI responsibilities (see that Legal Intelligence thing again!), others focused on Intranets and UX, and others still chose to take on business development and marketing research to bring added value to their libraries and to the profession. In the session “SWOT-ing the Rise of Global Law Firms” Greg made a comment about how Law Librarians branched out into all these other areas, often starting or collaborating with others to start these functions in firms and then left the new disciplines to be run by others while the librarians returned to their comfort zones focusing on legal research, business research and the like. And ye t today, back in their comfort zones, many law librarians have been watching as their firms write down or write off their research time despite their best efforts to diversify and add value in other areas of the firm. It is hurtful and discouraging to see your hard-worked time not being considered as equal to lawyer time, and to see it continually slashed. The perception might be that legal research is valued less than those other disciplines.
For me, a non- librarian who stepped out of my strategy department comfort zone to join a law library team in 2007, I see things a bit differently. I think as the legal market for the buy side and the sell side is changing, so too is the market for law librarianship. As we encourage firms to think about their business as a business within a business, we must also encourage law librarians to acknowledge that the comfort zone has changed. It is wide and it is deep and the 2018 CALL conference barely scratched the surface. The law library, like the IT or accounting departments are a necessary part of the business. No one asks the IT department to recoup the cost of the MS Office Suite that is used in drafting legal documents, nor would we ever suggest a firm function without it. Similarly, research and practice tools are necessary parts of the business. We need to stop lamenting that the recouping of library costs is being decreased year over year from 80% in the 90’s to less than 40% in some cases today. That model is broken; it is dead. Would a firm ever consider practicing without research tools or word processing software? That’s table stakes and the effectiveness or value of the library should not be measured by the percent of costs recouped. As the eloquent Judy Harvie of Norton Rose Fulbright said in the same SWOT-ing session, (I am paraphrasing here), “It’s time to leave the past behind us and move forward”. If we are truly are in the era of law firm intelligence, then we also need to recognize this as the era of confidence building and accountability. We need to shift the business conversation (because I will take for granted that is the only type of conversations we are having anymore with our firms) from the library being a cost centre to being a profit place. We have to develop and nurture the kind of confidence that comes from knowing we are increasing our firms’ bottom lines, that we are helping to make practice more efficient and that the research and other services we provide are making the lawyers smarter and in turn providing better client service, with client service being the only real competitive advantage for firms in this hyper competitive market. I have said it before and will continue to harp on it: librarians or information professionals should be the very centre of the administrative hub for firms, connecting internal and external data for actionable intelligence at the partner, practice, and firm levels in strategic and tactical ways.
If knowledge is power, then intelligence is confidence and profit. Let’s change the narrative, banish the write down concept and expand the comfort zone to start making a real impact on, in, and for our firm’s client service and profitability.