By now, it’s a phrase that law firm library directors likely hear in their sleep. “Do more with less” was a mantra through the recession; it guided library strategies and triggered cuts to staff, collections, and physical space. But now it’s become more than just a motto—it’s standard operating procedure in a fledgling, uneven recovery. The American Lawyer‘s 12th annual Law Librarian Survey finds that, financial uptick not- withstanding, the pressure to contain costs continues, clients are even more reluctant to pay for research than they were a year ago, and negotiations with vendors—never exactly a festive occasion—are still often contentious.

Yet for all that, the vast majority of library directors who answered our survey are far from discouraged. Of the 82 respondents, 40 percent agreed that they were satisfied with their job—up from 27 percent last year—while another 47 percent “mostly agreed” that they were content.

Why the optimism in the face of continuing challenges? The survey and follow-up interviews turn up a likely explanation. Leaner in just about every way—including their personnel, real estate, and resources—libraries are innovating, educating, and delivering value. “I doubt things will ever go back to the way they were pre-2008, and that has forced us to be smarter, and to think in new ways,” says Louella Randall, manager of research services at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. “It’s like I’m running a small business, and have to run it in the most cost-effective way possible. While that is something we always strove for, we now have to take it to the next degree.”

Library chiefs have been particularly successful at reining in annual price increases sought by online content providers. In past surveys, those increases—often north of 20 percent—were a common source of frustration for respondents. But library chiefs have become tougher, more successful negotiators. Of the firms that renegotiated vendor contracts in the past year, 79 percent of their library directors said that in the end, they received more favorable terms.”We tell them, ‘This is our need, and we won’t accept some arbitrary metric you use to determine pricing,’ ” says one library director. “ We find [vendors] much more willing to be reasonable.”

Still, those “favorable terms” can vary, directors say. “Sometimes [vendors] will give you a big discount on print to make the blow on electronic [content] more palatable,” says one library chief who asked not to be identified.” Or, for instance, publishers will add more content to the firm’s existing package, such as a new research tool. One strategy that some firms are using is to renew their contracts early. Overall, spending on outside vendors has held steady, with responding firms reporting an average 2013 library budget (including staff, print materials, electronic resources, etc.) of $6,194,015, compared to a 2012 average of $6,162,130. As in the past several surveys, increases in online spending were mitigated by cuts to print collections. Nearly 40 percent of respondents saw their spending on electronic resources—excluding Bloomberg, LexisNexis, and Westlaw—rise by more than 10 percent, while only 3 percent saw it drop by more than 10 percent. And when it comes to costs, price increases by some online venders appear to be getting smaller and more in line with firms’ expectations. Two library chiefs cited a 3–4 percent increase in what their firms are willing to pay for online resources, and say that the larger vendors, in particular (read: LexisNexis, Westlaw, BNA), have been amenable and have kept their hikes at this level. “The veterans seem to get it,” says one of the research directors. “It’s the newer kids on the block who still want 20 percent.”

Another aspect of the job that is changing is training. Library directors have realized that the kinds of long, technical sessions they have traditionally offered to attorneys are often ineffective. Lawyers have always been pinched for time, and that pressure has only increased as firms continue to stress business development efforts. This has put many library directors in a quandary: If they can’t educate users about resources, how can they ensure that those tools are used efficiently? “It is harder and harder to get attorneys to come in for training, but if we keep resources, we want to get our money’s worth,” says a library chief who requested anonymity.

One approach that some firms are taking is to focus on familiarizing attorneys about what resources are available instead of trying to teach them how to master each tool. Dickstein Shapiro, for example, has been creating short online conferencing sessions that allow attorneys to get a quick tour—from their own desktops—of tools that might come in handy for their research. One session might be focused on a new intellectual property resource, another on a legislative-related tool, and so on. The sessions, which run about 15 minutes, cover “just enough so lawyers can say, ‘That’s interesting,’ and follow up with us later,” says Joseph Meringolo, Dickstein’s senior manager of research services. “Attorneys have a lot of obligations, and you have to be sensitive to that.” Some challenges, however, are still awaiting solutions. Case in point: cost recovery. The difficulties here are not new—recouping research fees has been a constant battle since the economy went south and clients began to push back on charges. But as the survey makes clear, the situation is deteriorating further. Last year, just under a quarter of firms recovered 40 percent or less of the charges they paid to the “Big Three” online providers (Bloomberg, LexisNexis, and Westlaw), and this year a full third (33 percent) say they are recovering 40 percent or less. Overall, 71 percent of firms say they are recouping fewer research costs from clients than they did a year ago.

So what are firms doing about it? Not very much. “Firms are so schizoid on cost recovery,” says one chief. “Everyone knows that clients don’t want to pay for it and partners don’t want to ask for it, but it’s hard to give up the broken systems that are in place, [and this] one goes back 30 years.” One alternative that is often discussed: Treat research as overhead, and don’t even bother to recoup the costs. “It’s where this is heading,” says another research director. So far, however, few firms have taken the leap. In the meantime, some library directors say that firms need to be proactive and come up with their own Plan B. One idea being floated: a surcharge to the billable hour, perhaps pegged to the research expenses of each practice area (for instance, if tax lawyers used less costly research than litigators, they’d have a lower surcharge). In theory, at least, this would help the firm recover research expenses while alleviating some of the inequity in cost recovery in which some clients pay and others don’t. Another option being considered is a kind of “resort fee,” in which clients pay extra to have their research conducted on “premium tools,” such as the highly focused, high-priced resources offered by smaller vendors.

While both of these approaches might be more subtle than simply sending clients a bill for research services, they still depend on clients to loosen their purse strings. Fledgling economic recovery or not, that’s a questionable assumption. “Clients could push back,” a library head concedes. “Coming up with a viable model will be difficult, but we need to have a serious discussion on how to do it.”

And given librarians’ sharpened negotiating skills, they will likely be driving a hard bargain.

Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology. Email: alanc31@yahoo.com.

Law Librarian Survey: By the Numbers