Of all the lingering effects of the recent recession on the legal industry, none has been so dramatic as client demand for efficiencies. Headcounts are down, and the billable hour model is under attack, as alternative fee arrangements become more common. With fewer lawyers, some routine tasks are being assigned to nonlawyers. As a consequence, law firms must operate more leanly. So, where does that leave law librarians?
I suggest that legal information professionals are a valuable resource who can support many knowledge management initiatives that directly benefit not only the practice of law, but equally important, the business of law.
The role of the legal information professional has changed. Firms implement knowledge management not just to make lawyers smarter faster, but to provide a competitive advantage. Law librarians have been moving away from their traditional roles of providing on-demand research to support true knowledge management. They apply their expertise to deliver a more lean and analytical model of law firm practice.
Law librarians have been at the forefront of cost-cutting measures since the economic downturn descended in 2008. Dire times meant librarians had to rethink even the most basic assumptions about what products/services the law library delivers. They needed to question, rethink and reimagine the library's goals and opportunities in the new digital world and the "new normal" business climate.
Take the law library's physical footprint. It has been shrinking for more than a decade, as resources have moved to digital rather than paper formats. In this new digital age, the importance of the library's physical space in many ways is no longer relevant.
Instead, in today's business climate of information overload, librarians have shifted to a new way of serving lawyers. The new business mantra is: Libraries are a service, not a place. Librarians understand that they are running a business unit within their law firm. They are curators — selling a product/service (knowledge and information) to a market (lawyers) that needs to be serviced effectively (custom products/service), efficiently (at the right time) and cost-effectively (at the right price).
The law library at Squire Sanders provides a good illustration of this new trend. Instead of being marginalized by the space reduction, the library became the central hub of the firm's Main Street. It is located at the intersection of many critical flows. The staff is close by the managing partner, the business development personnel, an active international trade group, and the lunch room.
As ALM's "Annual Law Librarian Survey" in Texas Lawyer affiliate The American Lawyer shows, it's obvious that law librarians are assuming responsibility for aspects of knowledge management and legal technology within their law firms. In light of that, the Private Law Libraries Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries started a new knowledge management subgroup in 2011.
Some pioneering librarians have branched into chief knowledge officer roles. They are firmly rooted professionally in the International Legal Technology Association, as well as in AALL, the more traditional home of law librarians.
The gulf between technology and information professionals is shrinking. We can already see the crossover in professional organizations. At the 2012 AALL annual meeting, an ILTA track debuted. Lately, law librarians have begun attending and presenting at ILTA events in significant numbers.
The New Librarian
In October 2012, AALL and ILTA published their first joint white paper, entitled "The New Librarian." It highlights examples of the enormous changes that are occurring in the profession. Some examples of the new roles are:
• Intranet content development: As librarians have become embedded into practice groups, they gather institutional knowledge about the internal and external information needs of the practice. Librarians can harness that knowledge to provide practice group lawyers with a well-designed virtual community that supports their research needs and helps them uncover the firm's know-how.
• Creation of expertise databases: Whether tracking expert witnesses, outside counsel, alumni or other business parties, law librarians are well positioned to manage expertise databases that enable lawyers to readily track the right parties.
• Database development and maintenance: As Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint becomes the standard enterprise content-management platform within firms, law librarians will play a pivotal role in database development and maintenance extending well beyond managing practice group pages.
• Taxonomy, develop controlled vocabulary: One of today's significant pain points for digital content is the absence of a taxonomical structure that makes it easy to retrieve the firm's intellectual capital. Librarians are the right people for the job of building one. After all, they have been cataloging print content for centuries and were the first to create the MARC (machine-readable catalog standard) for digital online records.
• Legal project management (LPM): As LPM becomes more ingrained in law firms, embedded librarians are well positioned to take on that role, given their historic practice support roles. As we learned at ILTA this past August, it is clear that LPM roles are being managed by a cadre of support staff such as project managers, legal assistants and finance professionals. Law librarians may be better suited for this role.
• Search engine optimization: Librarians spend their days searching hundreds of proprietary databases and internet resources. Who is better equipped to help firms conduct search engine optimization analysis of enterprise search engines? There are a number of firms that actively engage research librarians to avoid risk-management issues related to uncovering documents that need to be secured, as firms install new document management and work product retrieval systems, and enterprise search engines.
• Business and competitive intelligence: Pushing out relevant content to the right users at the right time is critical for successful lawyers. Law librarians know what lawyers need to know — their cases, deals, clients and industry information. Current awareness systems are complex and require professionals to craft precise search queries to deliver smart, filtered results. Librarians are also knowledgeable about U.S. and international copyright laws to assure that their firms stay within the bounds of fair use.
• Development and maintenance of social networking tools: Current awareness is no longer limited to professional publications. Important intelligence now can be gathered from nontraditional source, such as blogs and wikis. Vendors offer tools to crawl and monitor peer firm social network activity. The legal information professional sleuth should manage this activity.
• Portal knowledge support services: As an extension of the virtual reference desk, law librarians are providing portal knowledge support services to help lawyers find internal work product, such as exemplars, models and forms. While lawyers are smart, they need support from law librarians who are intimately familiar with their work product.
• Cost recovery: Even though a growing number of institutional clients refuse to pay for computer-assisted legal research services such as LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters offerings and consider legal research to be law firm overhead, recent surveys have shown that most Am Law 100 firms have cost-recovery policies in place to offset some of those expenses. Law librarians play a vital role in drafting a measured policy, managing costs and moving the firm to nonmetered alternatives. Proactive monitoring of the firm's information services helps reduce the firm's online data spending.
Using a cost recovery system can lead to further efficiency benefits, such as: providing lawyers with effective password authentication; tagging research sessions to valid client/matters; prompting users to access pro bono menus that reduce the firm's costs; and generating detailed use reports that can be used to negotiate new, lower-cost license agreements based on the actual usage and not the size of the practice group.
Law librarians and other legal information professionals are transforming themselves into knowledge professionals who put their expertise to efficient and effective use in new ways. They enhance accessibility of information to promote a strong collaborative relationship with their customers (lawyers, clients, and other professional staff members) by strengthening the knowledge flow within the organization.
Librarians not only curate information, they offer specific and nuanced services and train users on the successful use of these services, which both enhance practice support and further the business of law.