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We pause for a moment to remember the law firm “showplace library” — that big, beautiful, marble-and-maple sanctuary filled with endless aisles of legal tomes. In the grandeur of their architecture and the vastness of their collections, these libraries were testaments to the size and venerability of the law firms that built them. The truth is, although I’m speaking of these showplace libraries in the past tense, there are still a number of them around. But take a good look while you can, because very few of them will be found a few years from now. Back in the good old days, law firms spent a lot of money on grand libraries to complement their elegant offices and to impress clients and potential clients. And because there were no CD-ROMs and no Internet, legal information was found only in books — the larger the firm, the more books they owned. Law firms could afford to spend a lot of money because they made a lot of money. They were not subject to the same economic vicissitudes as ordinary businesses. Relationships between client and attorney were largely personal, based on trust and time. Clients tended to stick with the same firm for years, and most clients, especially large corporations, tended to pay their legal bills without asking a lot of questions. Companies did not shop around for legal representation; they did not compare fees; they did not inspect their legal bills line by line to ensure that they were getting a good deal; they did not tell law firms in advance what they would or would not pay for. That was then. The heady days of “hire all the attorneys you can and bill what you want” are gone. Because clients are much more conscious of legal expenses, law firms are now run like businesses, and, like businesses, they must contain their costs and watch their bottom lines. In times of economic uncertainty, that means downsizing. One of the easiest places to downsize is the library. The first priority for a law firm is revenue. A law library does not generate revenue: It’s overhead. While many firms charge an hourly rate for their librarians’ services, librarians rarely bill as many hours as paralegals or attorneys, and librarian billing rates are usually much lower. So, while librarians perform an important function for attorneys, they don’t make money for the firm. And the big, beautiful, showplace library? That space doesn’t generate revenue when it’s filled with books, but it can when it’s filled with attorneys. Thus, many law firms are scaling back their libraries and putting in more attorney offices. While some law firms have elected to eliminate their libraries and library staff altogether (most notably, Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie), this is not a popular option, and it frequently proves to be a mistake (as Baker & McKenzie discovered). Most firms opt to reduce the library’s physical inventory, the library staff, or both. Reducing the physical inventory allows for more space for attorney offices and saves money because legal collections are very (very, very) expensive. Reducing library staff simply saves money (although, judging from most law librarians’ salaries, it’s not a lot of money). PAPER VS. ELECTRONIC Since so much legal material is now available in both print and electronic formats, many firms are beginning to question the efficiency of keeping both. When trying to decide whether to carry the print product or the electronic, many librarians favor the latter. The electronic product eliminates shelf space, and it offers attorneys instant access at their desktops. BNA, CCH, and Matthew Bender are just a few publishers that now offer electronic-either CD or Internet-access to print products. West has long offered many of their publications on CD (but as yet does not offer Internet access). Electronic access to print products, whether via the Web or on CD, is not less expensive than paper, and sometimes it costs even more. That’s why many libraries are opting to carry either the print format, or the electronic, but not both. Library budgets can be huge — for a large, multioffice firm, it can easily exceed $1 million per year — and when the firm’s number-crunchers start looking for places to cut, the library makes them salivate. It’s cheaper to carry only one format, and letting go of a print set that is available electronically saves space. When librarians are deciding whether to get rid of a print product and carry only the electronic version, they must consider the users-attorneys and paralegals. Today’s younger attorneys are very comfortable with computers and online searching. Many would rather hop on Westlaw than try to use the books, and training them to use other Internet products is not difficult. (Several firms have already discarded their reporter sets and now access case law online exclusively.) Older attorneys, however, tend to get nervous when you talk about getting rid of books. And then there are some attorneys who simply are not computer proficient, and never will be. But no matter the age or technical proficiency, user training must be mandatory. While all electronic products have certain features in common, each operates differently. It does no good to spend several thousand dollars on an Internet subscription when your users do not know how to use it. Of course, sometimes the question of whether or not to eliminate the books in favor of electronic access is not up to the librarian. Sometimes it’s a mandate from on high. Our firm will be moving to new quarters in a couple of years, and the new library will be significantly smaller than the one we have now. It is up to library staff to decide what goes and what doesn’t. This means training our users now to think of the electronic subscriptions as a primary resource, rather than a backup to the books. Many of the books will be gone, and the only way to access information will be via the computers. It’s going to be painful at first, but change always is. Many attorneys and secretaries had a hard time adjusting to the advent of computers and word processing, but I know of no one who would prefer to go back to the days of typewriters and carbon paper. As librarians are well aware, computers are not as reliable as books. Books always work. If the CD tower goes down, or the T1 line is having problems, or the firm’s network crashes, electronic information is unavailable. This is when attorneys start screaming for the books, which may have been discarded. This scenario strikes dread in the hearts of librarians and library users alike. STAFFING ISSUES Many smaller firms do without library staff altogether — attorneys and paralegals do all of their own legal research. But smaller firms have fewer clients and lighter caseloads than the big firms do. A larger firm generally employs at least one librarian, and sometimes more, as well as assistants. And in those firms, large or small, that do have library staff, the librarians do more than just legal research. Many librarians are doing business development research these days. I would guess that 40 percent of my research time is devoted to business and marketing research projects. My attorneys could, if forced to, do all of their own legal research, but they would not have time left to attend to complex and time-consuming client development research. Attorneys with a full caseload really don’t have time to do all of their own research and stay on top of their clients’ work, and also go out and develop new business, which is just as important in a law firm as serving existing clients. Associates who don’t bring in new business don’t make partner. Another argument for keeping library staff: Librarians are cheaper than attorneys and paralegals. Clients today insist on efficiency, the maximum bang for the buck. They don’t want to pay shareholder rates for work that associates can do — or associate rates for work that librarians can do. Some clients limit what they will pay for in online costs. Not only are librarians’ billing rates lower, but because librarians are trained online searchers, they incur less online research costs than attorneys or paralegals. Many firms do not want to eliminate their entire library staff, but are looking at reducing the body count. Many law library consultants continue to recommend that the ratio of attorneys to librarians should be about 50-to-1. This is an ideal, one that a lot of firms feel they can’t afford. In the future, a ratio of 75-to-1 or even 100-to-1 might not be uncommon. This sounds harsh, but think about the attorney-secretary ratio. Once upon a time, each attorney had his own secretary. Today, the average legal secretary works for anywhere from two to four attorneys. Reducing the number of professional library staff means that attorneys have to do more research themselves — which underscores the importance of training. When downsizing firms reduce staff by cutting the library assistants — nondegreed people who open and check in mail, shelve books, make copies for attorneys, and perform other important but nonresearch functions — this means that librarians have to assume administrative duties in addition to their research duties. While this means a heavier and more inconvenient workload for librarians, it is doable. Leaner, more budget-conscious law firms are here to stay, and libraries will have to tighten up just like every other department. The law firm library of the future will be smaller in terms of both collection and staff. Holly E. Watson is librarian at the Houston office of Dallas’ Jenkens & Gilchrest.

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