(Illustration by Justine Becett)

For law firm library directors, the problems are by now familiar. Chief among them: how to recover the costs of online research; how to handle the surge in, and difficulties of, mobile devices; and how to provide effective service when purse strings continue to be tight. Yet as in years past, respondents to The American Lawyer’s 13th annual Law Librarian Survey continue to be upbeat. Ninety-one percent agreed or mostly agreed that they were satisfied with their job (compared with 87 percent last year). Seventy-six percent agreed or mostly agreed that they were satisfied with their firm’s business direction for the library (in 2013, the figure was 74 percent).

In previous surveys, those satisfaction levels could be explained, at least in part, by the resilience and perseverance of library staffs. They were able to trim the fat and negotiate better deals with vendors. While that’s still the case, this year’s survey finds something else at work, too: Increasingly, the challenges that libraries face are being tackled in new, often innovative ways.

Consider that perennial pain point, recouping the costs of charges paid to the “Big Three” online providers (Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis and Westlaw). At large firms, those costs easily run into seven figures annually. Over the past few years, cost recovery has lent itself to a host of sad adjectives: disappointing, deteriorating, dysfunctional. A situation that was troubling on last year’s survey, when a third of firms were recovering 40 percent or less of their Big Three charges, has worsened still. Now, nearly half of responding firms (48 percent) are recovering 40 percent or less [see "Big Data: Highlights from the 2014 Law Librarian Survey."] In all, 72 percent of respondents say they’re recouping fewer online research costs from clients than they were a year earlier. “I wouldn’t say cost recovery is dead, but it’s heading that way,” says one library director who asked not to be identified. “If you’re getting 50-60 percent recovery, you’re doing extremely well.”

In interviews with survey participants, the same problems were mentioned repeatedly: clients not wanting to pay for online research (and increasingly, stipulating in engagement letters that they won’t), and partners not wanting to press them on the issue (“They’re almost embarrassed to ask,” said one chief).

This is not new: Participants in previous surveys made the same points. But this year, both interviews and questionnaire responses point to a shift in the way that firms are approaching the challenge. Few chiefs are proposing “Plan B” solutions—which in years past had included such ideas as tacking on a surcharge to a practice group’s rates (linked to the research costs that group incurs) or implementing a sort of “resort fee,” where clients who pay extra get their research conducted with premium resources.

Now the consensus appears to be that cost recovery, in any form, isn’t long for this world. “If you take a survey two years from now, you’ll find 80 percent of the firms are not charging,” says one library director. Another chief says most of her peers are simply waiting for the tipping point—”the point where you’re not recovering enough to make the effort worth it.”

Some firms have already hit that point, and now consider online research costs overhead. The results, says one chief whose firm decided this year to eat those fees, haven’t been disastrous, but liberating. “The impact has been highly positive in that we’ve been able to change the work flow of associates,” says this library director, who asked not to be identified. “They used to spend half a day trying to figure out how to get state case law without billing a client.”

Another director, whose firm is considering pulling the plug on recovery, echoed those thoughts: “We need to stop scaring attorneys about using online tools. Telling them to log on, do the search, pull the document and get the hell off encourages inefficiency—and the use of tools that may not be as good.”

Not everyone sees their tipping point as imminent, however. One library chief, who says her firm is “still recovering quite a bit of money”—albeit “less and less every year”—expects to “go down with the ship on this one.” And liberating or not, zero cost recovery means zero money coming in to help reduce the budget pressures many libraries are under. (In response to a question asking what their biggest challenge was, nearly half of those responding noted cost containment or budget issues.)

But here’s where some libraries have gotten creative, taking, in effect, a two-part approach to getting the most out of the resources they have. On the first prong—holding the line on cost in­creases—results have been mixed. More than a quarter of firms (27 percent) now go the “single provider” route, using just one of the big three vendors for online research. This, the chiefs say, can get a firm better rates, often by playing one potential sole provider against another in negotiations. “If you’re really considering doing away with bill-back, one way to reduce the pain is to go with a single vendor,” says a library chief whose firm is contemplating such a move. And overall, firms are reporting success at the negotiation table. Of the firms that re-upped contracts with LexisNexis and Westlaw in the past year, 86 percent say they wound up with more favorable terms.

But outside the Big Three, controlling costs remains a formidable challenge. For one thing, vendors are simply charging firms more, often significantly more, for existing resources. In a written comment, one survey respondent reported “double-digit cost increases.” Added another: “It’s very hard for us to get away with 5 percent.” Making matters worse, many of these resources are the kind of specialized publications that can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. Thus, a survey finding that would otherwise appear cause for celebration—78 percent of firms increased their budgets for “non-Big-Three” electronic resources in 2013—lends itself to a less positive, and more likely, explanation: Firms are spending more not to get more, but to maintain the status quo.

It’s on the second prong—boosting efficiency—that things are looking more promising. Increasingly, libraries are centralizing operations: Twenty-one percent of responding firms have a library only at their main office (up from 12 percent in 2013); 55 percent have libraries in less than half of their offices. This has made it vital to optimize work flows, which some libraries are doing by leveraging what’s known as reference tracking software. These packages not only route research requests to the most appropriate librarian, but also store the results, creating repositories of knowledge for future use. Perhaps even more significantly, the software helps libraries crunch the data regarding the substance and origin of those requests. “We’ve always had anecdotal evidence about when requests tended to come in, or that the most requests came from a certain practice group, but now we can plot it out,” says Steven Lastres, director of knowledge management services at Debevoise & Plimpton.

The insight that firms glean can then be used to set library hours, allocate staff, fine-tune work schedules and focus hiring efforts (not to mention lobby for those hires). It can be used, too, to show upper management—which doles out the resources—how the library contributes to the bottom line. Libraries, for example, are doing an increasing amount of competitive intelligence work—73 percent of firms say this has grown over the past five years. But it has often gone unheralded. “Traditionally, it’s been hard to capture how libraries support the business of law,” says Lastres. “These systems give us the metrics.”

Efficiency is also about getting lawyers to use the right resources for the right tasks in the right ways. Traditionally, training has been a challenge, with lawyers perennially pressed for time. Here, too, libraries are getting creative. At Dins­more & Shohl, for example, screen­casting technology is being used to create bite-size videos—running just a minute or two—in which librarians cover the basics of getting up and running on different re­sources. “With a voiceover and pictures, [we] walk you through what you need to know, instead of beating you up with so much content,” says Mary Jo Merkowitz, the firm’s director of library services.

Other firms, like Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, have replaced the “if you build it, they will come” model of in-library training (pro tip: they won’t) with “housecalls,” where staff go to the lawyers’ of­fices and show them the ropes, customized to their needs, at their desktops. Embedding library staff directly within practice groups is also in vogue: Eighty-one percent of respondents now do it, up from 72 percent last year.

The survey also shows progress on another focal point of recent years: facilitating and managing research on mobile devices. While gear like tablets and smartphones can vastly increase the accessibility of research tools, library chiefs noted an array of challenges. Tracking usage (what subscription services lawyers are using, and to what extent) can be difficult with mobile devices, making the already troublesome cost recovery process harder still.

And then there is the problem of users even getting onto those systems. Managing individual passwords and user IDs for potentially hundreds of services was a problem library chiefs had thought they cracked. Thanks to a technique known as IP authentication, users logging in via an internal network gain access based on the IP address of their computer, which would correspond to a known range. But in a mobile world, where a user may be logging on via off-site networks, using a different IP address each time, that solution doesn’t work. The irony, says Patricia Barbone, director of library services at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, is that “someone accessing the service remotely is more likely to have a critical need for it.”

But Barbone and other library chiefs see that as one challenge they may soon be able to strike from their to-do list. New tools, like ResearchHub from Priory Solutions, are promising to extend authentication and usage monitoring to the mobile space. Some firms, such as Debevoise, are already testing the software in pilot programs.

Bringing research and proper management of it to mobile devices will no doubt tax library staffs that are already stretched thin. But that is one drain on their time that library directors don’t seem to mind. “This is somewhere we need to be,” says Anne Stemlar, director of research and knowledge services at Goodwin Procter. “We are constantly changing and evolving with our users, and if our users are mobile, that’s where our focus has to be.”

Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology.