Today’s economy and how it is affecting librarianship in private law firms has been the focus of many discussions. At the 2012 American Association of Law Libraries meeting and the 2012 Private Law Libraries Summit, it was the central theme running through many of the programs, and there was consensus that the current economic climate calls for innovation and flexibility from private law librarians.
We all faced significant challenges with the downturn of the legal market in 2008 that culminated in the credit crisis in 2009. In mid-March and in October 2009, AALL conducted a survey of law library directors to understand how the economic crisis was affecting the profession. What they found was that in private law libraries, 30 percent saw staff reductions, but 72 percent also had a hiring freeze in place.
The impacts of this were many. Library directors were reducing their print collections and their staffs were taking on additional new duties, including tracking continuing legal education and assisting with client relationship management software. There was more attention paid to billing librarian research time and increased involvement in research for implementing new business and strategic initiatives.
In 2010, Thomson Reuters conducted a Large Law Firm Librarians Study to better understand library directors’ roles in a changing economy. What stood out were the increased responsibilities in business development research, knowledge management and practice area integration or specialization. Additionally, we heard library directors were more involved in product evaluation for solutions traditionally belonging to the IT department.
We saw a change not only in the structure of the work, but also in the law firm reporting structure. The 2011 ALM Law Librarian Survey reviewed reporting relationships for library directors from 2008 to 2011 (ALM is the parent company of the Daily Report and The Recorder). It showed that the percentage of law library directors who reported to a COO, director of administration, or executive director fell 11 percent, while reporting relationships to a CIO or IT director increased 4 percent.
The Hildebrandt Institute anticipates that we are not out of the economic woods yet. They are advising their clients that growth will remain a challenge and the key to success is going to be balancing that capacity against the available work. Delivering high quality at a reasonable price is now table stakes to be competitive in the business law space. Librarians are still perfectly positioned to assist with those challenges.
These changes have created challenges for private law librarians, but by being innovative and nimble we are poised to create higher visibility for the library and to deliver information in a more timely and efficient manner. The following three areas have been identified as some of the growing areas of need in private law firm librarianship: the “embedded librarian,” the library as knowledge center, and competitive intelligence.
THE EMBEDDED LIBRARIAN
The embedded librarian is a concept that is quickly gaining a foothold in private law libraries. It is a highly customized specialty with a focus on actively developing and enhancing relationships in specific practice groups.
In 2012 a survey conducted by the ARC group and the Three Geeks and a Law Blog found there was almost an even split between the firms that have embedded librarians and those that don’t have them. This means there is an opportunity to create and define this program as it works best within your specific law firm.
We have heard a variety of business support models, including librarians being housed with the department they support or in decentralized locations in order to continue supporting the library as well as the practice group. The benefits have been the creation of a stronger relationship with the practice groups and becoming an integral member of those teams.
THE KNOWLEDGE CENTER
Library as a knowledge center: The 2011 ALM Law Librarian Survey highlighted that the library’s role in the field of knowledge management, or KM, was up 42 percent since 2008. This is significant because the value of knowledge management is to make content — no matter what it is or where it resides — easier to access. Where best than the library to manage this process? KM can bring all of those disparate, hard-to-fathom sources under a single user-friendly interface.
But there is a lot of room for improvement in the KM efforts; librarians’ increasing sophistication with technology can make this process more efficient and seamless. With tools like wikis, blogs, and Microsoft SharePoint, it is no longer necessary to possess an engineering degree to build Web portals and practice group pages that bring together far-flung content.
In open-ended survey questions and follow-up interviews, several library directors also pointed to enterprise search as a particularly promising new tool. This technology enables users to search a wide range of repositories — from document management systems to the firm’s intranet — with a single query. As this field expands, the library brings a natural value-add to this technology.
Competitive intelligence has always been an important asset that librarians have brought to their firms. When we look again to the 2011 ALM Law Librarian survey, we see that the department that was most in charge of marketing research was the library, at 52 percent. And in terms of which department was primarily responsible for competitive information, the library was significantly above marketing, at 56 percent.
This indicates that law librarians have a growing and evolving role of value to the firm in the field of competitive intelligence.
Librarians are increasingly collaborating with business development teams to research and analyze information for attorneys to use in acquiring and retaining clients. While there has been some tension between the two departments, law librarians need to continue to highlight that they are key in obtaining actionable information, such as identifying new business opportunities, helping create strategies, and ascertaining potential threats.
The future of private law librarians in this new economic climate is changing. Firm librarians face challenges in the form of reduced staff and budgets, new duties and different reporting structures.
This new climate calls for innovation and flexibility from private law librarians to highlight their unique skills and use them in important new ways to help.
Heather Heen is a librarian relation manager for Thomson Reuters. This article first appeared in The Recorder, a Daily Report affiliate in San Francisco.