“Doing more with less” has long been a theme, goal, and — at times — mandate for law firm librarians, but now it’s “do much more with far less.” Money is part of the story, with the average library budget down slightly, according to our fourteenth annual survey of law firm library directors, from $5.9 million in 2008 to $5.8 million in 2009. But far more telling is the number of firms that said their budgets had gone under the knife. Last year only 9 percent of respondents said their budgets had shrunk. This year it was a whopping 46 percent. Staff reductions have also become the norm, with 57 percent of firms paring their library payroll, up from 18 percent in 2008. (Librarians at 86 Am Law 200 firms completed our 2009 survey.)

Resources are on the chopping block, too. Indeed, the librarians who still have their jobs are being asked to become detectives of a sort, tracking, graphing, and reporting on their firm’s use of every research tool. As one library director — who, like many of her counterparts, requested anonymity — put it: “Nothing is a sacred cow anymore. Everything must be reviewed, and there must be a palatable [return on investment] for each use.”

The current economic climate is pushing libraries to be leaner, more efficient operations, which isn’t always a bad thing. New software is helping them analyze how resources are used, letting them home in on the ones that provide value. It’s proving easier, too, to persuade partners to give up some of their long-treasured, but not mission-critical, resources. “We’re having some good conversations, and that’s giving us reductions,” says Robert Oaks, chief library and records officer at Latham & Watkins. “We’ve been able to cut our print budget a bit over 12 percent and our electronic budget a little less than 10 percent.”

But at the same time, some librarians fear that management is getting a bit too gung ho with the cost-cutting. “In the past we had budget cuts, but we were given targets,” says the head librarian at a blue-chip New York firm. “They’d tell us to cut it 10-15 percent, and we’d come in around 7 or 8. You got yelled at, but you didn’t lose your job. Now they are serious. It’s no longer a target.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that we noticed an uptick in librarian dissatisfaction. The numbers aren’t dramatic, but keep in mind that law firm librarians have long been an extraordinarily contented lot. Last year just 7 percent of librarians mostly or totally disagreed with recent decisions made regarding the library. This year the figure was 16 percent. Similarly, in 2008, a mere 3 percent were dissatisfied with their job. In 2009, 8 percent were unhappy.

One might think that the library’s continued work in assisting marketing efforts — 62 percent of respondents said the library is their firm’s main source for marketing research — might upset librarians trained to research statutes and legal issues. But the problem isn’t the work, say several library chiefs; it’s the recognition that comes with it. Or more often, doesn’t come. The library, in short, has marketing issues of its own. One librarian, whose staff spends 75 percent of its time on marketing and competitive intelligence work, says, “It’s a good thing when [all of that effort] results in something positive, but I often don’t hear whether it results in anything.” Lack of feedback is a recurring problem. Lawyers “think of the library in one box, doing legal research,” says this library director. “So 90 percent of my own work is public relations, getting coffee on other floors and talking to people and making sure they know exactly what we do, and how we can partner with them.”

Still, librarians have become tougher, more successful negotiators when it comes to renewing contracts with publishers — thanks in no small part to the metrics they get from new tracking software. For a long time most vendors were unable, or unwilling, to provide the level of detail that would let firms truly understand their usage patterns. And there were just too many resources — often hundreds — to track. But now there’s commercially available tracking software — like Onelog, from the U.K.-based company Info Technology Supply Ltd., and Advanced Productivity Software LookUp Precision.

These products can provide in-depth metrics for all those many, many resources. For law librarians, this is hot stuff. In written comments accompanying their surveys, five librarians said that Onelog or LookUp Precision were new tools that made their job easier; four more were planning to implement one of the packages this year; another 18 said they would use it if they had the budget for it. (A third package mentioned by some library chiefs was Research Monitor from Priory Solutions.)

“The technology has only now developed to the point where a large law firm that wants to monitor 1,000 resources can do so,” says Steven Lastres, the director of library and knowledge management at Debevoise & Plimpton, which has been testing Onelog for the past six months. “We can see who is using a database and how long they are using it, how many views a newsletter is getting,” he says. The tools “will alert a lawyer that there may be a more cost-effective alternative than the resource they selected,” Lastres adds.

These systems don’t come cheap. One law firm that is considering LookUp Precision says that for its needs — tracking about 1,000 different databases — the ballpark figure is $100,000 a year. “The idea is that the ultimate savings could be substantial,” says this firm’s librarian, “because when it comes to our renewal decisions, we’ll have factual information in addition to anecdotal evidence. There are a lot of bizarre and complex pricing models out there, and we need to know if they are justified.”

The metrics can be compelling: A firm paying for 200 user licenses for a product may discover that only 50 lawyers are actually using it (a scenario that has become common, library chiefs say, given so many attorney layoffs). Suddenly that resource may not be indispensable. And suddenly the vendors may budge. One library director who uses advanced tracking software says that he has not paid any increases in subscription costs this year. Pointing to the metrics, he told vendors that their products don’t provide enough bang for the buck. “In many cases I was actually able to realize a savings over what we had previously paid,” he says.

Yet even with the stats and the sharpened bargaining skills, costs for electronic re­sources other than LexisNexis and Westlaw rose in 2008, with the average firm spending just over $1 million, compared to some $929,000 in 2007. (Lexis and Westlaw spending decreased slightly.)

Library chiefs say there are a number of explanations. First, there is the emergence of resources just now grabbing the attention of lawyers — expensive tools such as Standard & Poor’s Capital IQ. One prominent firm pays over $100,000 a year so that ten users, firmwide, can access this database, which contains in-depth information and financials on public and private companies. (The firm’s library chief says it has become one of the firm’s most important research tools.) Second, library directors say, it’s not always the vendor who caves in negotiations. “There are times when top management will decide a resource is critical, no matter the price,” says one library chief.

Finally, there are still all manner of wacky licensing and bundling schemes out there, such as requiring licenses based on the geographic location of lawyers (so six lawyers in three countries will pay far more than six lawyers in one office), charging higher fees for an online product if the firm declines to purchase a print version, and making access to high-value content that can’t be found anywhere else conditional on the purchase of low-value content the firm doesn’t want.

Put it all together — the cost-cutting, the metrics and the idea that everything is open to review — and it’s no shock that more firms are starting to ask a question that, up until now, seemed almost blasphemous: Lexis or Westlaw? Last year just 12 percent of firms said they intended to move to a single-vendor strategy. This year, 31 percent did. “In good times, we could all have Coke and Pepsi,” says a library chief. “Now management is more willing to say that we’ll make do with one. Of course, if you’ve got 50 percent of your users on one system and 50 percent on the other, it’s harder to do.”

If there is one unqualified bright spot in this year’s survey, it’s the success — finally — that firms are having using technology to filter and organize vast amount of electronic content: documents, e-mail newsletters, blog feeds and so on. The idea of taking this information and delivering it to lawyers in a way that assists them without overwhelming them isn’t new.

Multimillion-dollar knowledge management systems were something that more than a few firms invested in. Newer platforms, such as Microsoft SharePoint — which five library chiefs praised as a tool that made their work easier and three more planned to launch in 2010 — just do it better. “SharePoint lets us splice and dice pieces of information, creating all these little repositories without going through IT or ten years of programming,” says one library head. “You want to create a database full of Madoff stuff? There, it’s done. And anyone can access it through a Web browser.”

Five other firms gave a shout-out to Ozmosys’ eponymous service, which helps them provide personalized news delivery to users. “Lawyers subscribe to multiple electronic periodicals and Web feeds, which typically means they’re getting bombarded with e-mails all day long,” says Debevoise’s Lastres. “Ozmosys aggregates all of their content into one daily e-mail. Not just blog posts and newsletters, but updates on proposed legislation they’re tracking, Lexis and Westlaw searches they’re running — any kind of electronic content or alert that’s important for them.” Debevoise started using Ozmosys last September. Since then, some 500 of the firm’s 750 attorneys have signed up for the service.

Of course, cutting-edge projects like this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Contrary to their bookish, quiet stereotypes, law librarians have always been a proactive bunch, eager to embrace new technologies — and often entirely new areas of work — to show the contribution, and difference, they can make. And maybe that’s what makes these times particularly difficult for them. The realities of the recession are making this group uncomfortably reactive. They’ll battle vendors — but not partners. “You realize it’s your job on the line, too,” says one library director. “So if the firm tells you to cut more, even though you’ve already cut so much, you find a way.”

The Full Survey:

The Librarian’s Expanding Role
Electronic Resources
Staffing
Finances

Alan Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York.