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[Ed. Note: I’ve asked my old friend, Colleen Cable, to write from time to time from a law library consultant’s point of view. Colleen and I were county law librarians in Oklahoma more than a decade ago, and we’ve both gone on since then to take on different evolving roles within our profession. I’d like to thank Colleen for sharing her experiences as a law librarian and consultant, and how she believes her new role will play out in the future of the law firm library and beyond. -GL]

Coming together is a beginning.  Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success.  ~Henry Ford

Consulting is not new. Consulting in law firms is not new. Consulting that can radically affect the law library is new.  As law firms have evolved and adopted more corporate cultures, consultants have played a larger more prominent role.  Once confined primarily to IT, consultants now advise law firms on management, organizational structure, billing, costs, practice groups, marketing, business development, the list is endless, and now includes libraries.
This year the focus on libraries has become even more apparent. Recent evidence of this includes:
  • Chase Cost Management merging with Library Associates (LAC)
  • Donna Terjesen starting her own consulting firm Visionary Information Solutions (VIS) and adding Mark Schwartz and Gitelle Seer
  • Nina Platt joining LAC
  • Me joining Profit Recovery Partners (PRP)
What is driving this change? I have a few theories that I’d like to share:
  1. In many firms, the library is now ‘under’ the CIO. CIOs are very familiar with using outside consultants for IT projects, so it is no stretch for them to utilize library consultants. CIOs recognize that hiring a consultant is not a sign of weakness; sometimes you need someone with a specialized core competency that will help the organization reach its goal.
  2. The library is one of the largest costs to the firm. Since 2008, the library has been under scrutiny to explain costs and the ROI for the department. Oftentimes that communication is not understood by firm management, and a consultant is brought in to bridge the gap.
  3.  The firm is closely examining all administrative departments for cost savings. After many years of sometimes extravagant spending on ‘back office’ functions, firms are looking for a consultant to review all spending, which includes the library.
  4. The visibility (or lack thereof) and perceived value of the library. Quoting from Connie Crosby’s excellent post on the blog On Firmer Ground :
I suspect when you stop talking about “what can the library do better” and take the library itself out of the picture in your inquiries, you may discover something quite shocking: the work you have made a priority has little to do with the information seen as important to the organization’s overall business. Unless you have been out talking to your clients regularly and asking these questions already, you may have been missing something. (Highlighting is mine)
Regardless of the reason, consulting is now firmly (no pun intended) part of the law firm and it isn’t going away. What should librarian do? For a few tips, I’d like to quote from an excellent Spectrum article on this subject by Cindy Adams and Sarah Stephens:
  •  Get mad and get over it
  •  Don’t take the change personally. Remember the change is not directed at you and is probably the result of a business decision made by your institution’s management
  • Make a plan and become a change agent!

One of my dear friends, who shall remain nameless, has told me many times about how he brought in a library consultant when he was a Director at a large firm. He recognized the need for assistance and approached his boss about hiring the consultant. He told me that his boss was surprised, but also looked at him with a new appreciation. He was obviously ahead of the times, but the same thing could very well happen today, and maybe it should. In today’s reality, consultants appear to be just one more of the available resources at the disposal of the modern law librarian.

[Guest Blogger Mark Gediman]

My phone is ringing off the hook these days with folks who want to do me a favor and negotiate with my vendors for me.  First, yes, I did say “my” vendors even though I know that they are here to service the needs of the firm.  I am a firm believer (no pun intended for a  change)  in looking at our vendor relations as a partnership.  It requires cooperation, negotiation and a measure of trust.  Adversarial relationships don’t work.  For example, I have a very good realtionship with an online service vendor.  I have done white papers and testimonials for products of theirs  I like and, in return, they listen to (and occasionally implement) my suggestions to improve their service and/or product.  When we have a problem with one of their products, they quickly respond with several technicians to resolve the issue.  They also provide weekly office hours in our main office.  Now, a mid-level firm not headquartered in a major metropolis cannot usually expect to receive this level of service.  But yet we do.  This approach has given us a contract we’re happy with as well as a vendor we know we can count on to go above and beyond.

Second, most of these consultants don’t know me or my firm. All firms are not the same.  The culture, habits and processes of the attorneys in my firm are unique and a “one size fits all” approach won’t work for us.  The fact that they listen to my feedback puts me in a unique position to influence the developoment of the product to meet our particular needs.

Third, I’m starting to hear from vendors that they will not deal directly with these firms.  So it seems to me likely that just using them as advisors would stand a good chance of wiping out any savings you may realize from their services.  When you couple this with the Non-Disclosure Agreements most of us are forced to sign with our vendors, it makes this situation problematic.

This is not meant to condemn these folks or deny them an opportunity to earn a living as they choose.  Some of these consultants, having worked for a particular vendor in the past, can provide unique insight into that vendor’s sales practices and processes.  Much like the former IRS agents who open tax consultancies.   Some Librarians don’t like to negotiate and this is an alternative for them to avoid the “unpleasantness” of the negotiating process.  My view is that these consultants may have some value as advisors.  However,  they can interfere with the partnership between the firm and the vendor.

One of the ideas behind hiring consultants is that they bring experience and expertise into your organization and help guide you to where you need to go.  Many times, however, we end up using consultants to verify what we already know, but cannot get others within the organization to trust in our decisions.  Sometimes we come out of meeting with consultants and tell each other things like “see, we’re not that far off.”

Of course consultants also give us a view of ourselves without the veil of our internal biases.  Sometimes it is good to hear someone ask us “why are you doing that?”  If the answer is “because we’ve always done it that way” then it gives us a chance to either justify our processes, or be made aware of the bad processes so that they can either be changed or eliminated.

Consultants can also be a wall that we can throw spaghetti at and see what sticks. Sometimes the consultants are the ‘spaghetti throwers’ by making suggestions that we may not have thought of on our own.  It is this quality that exposes the previous experience and expertise that we want our consultants to bring to the table.  Many times the spaghetti slides off of the wall, but sometimes it sticks and gives us a fresh approach on how to solve a problem or accomplish a goal.

I had mentioned in my projections for 2010 that this would be a great year to be a consultant.  Because so many of us need to make changes (sometimes make dramatic changes) to how we conduct business in a recovering economy, having a consultant come in and vet our approach to achieving our goals may be money well spent.
[gl]