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Law is a learned profession. Judges and clerks read case reporters. Law students lug around treatises that look thicker than they are long. Litigators flip through codes, digests, legal encyclopedias and other books with too much agate type. Surprise: The central theme of AmLaw Tech‘s first survey of law librarians is that books are becoming historic relics at the nation’s largest law firms. Fifty-five percent of the law librarians who responded to our survey of The Am Law 200 reported that their libraries have cut back on shelf space in the past five years. Libraries are canceling subscriptions to law reviews, legal encyclopedias and digests. Even West Group’s state and federal reporters — once the meat and potatoes of every law library — have become flotsam and jetsam at many firms. Still, law librarians have plenty to do. They train lawyers on databases, negotiate contracts and manage ever-growing staffs. In many ways, they’ve never had more responsibility. Of the 200 firms, 53 responded. That’s a meager percentage compared to the annual AmLaw Tech survey, which routinely reaps a response rate greater than 90 percent. But it’s sizable enough to say this: Libraries are shrinking. And technology is to blame. The forces behind the book purge have been building since the mid-1970s, when West Group and the Mead Data Central Corp. started marketing Westlaw and Lexis Nexis, computerized databases of judicial opinions. The earliest versions of both programs were expensive and buggy. Over time, the companies smoothed out the wrinkles and even incorporated slick features, like West’s key numbering system and the ability to “Shepardize” cases. By the early 1980s, both Lexis Nexis and Westlaw were expanding rapidly. Lawyers didn’t get rid of their reporters, digests and treatises right away. But they started relying on them less. The tipping point came in the mid-1990s. West Group and Lexis Nexis started offering site licenses. Firms (and their clients) could finally escape the tyranny of “per search” or “per hour” fees. At about that time Westlaw and Lexis Nexis became far more booklike. Both launched double-column formats, which made the printouts of cases much easier to read. “Overnight, the page numbering got better, and cases got easier to browse,” says Robert Oaks, the director of global information resources at Latham & Watkins. “It helped a lot of legal professionals, including judges, become very comfortable with [electronic] research.” West, the nation’s largest legal publisher, is both a victim of and victor over these trends [see Good and Bad News for Westlaw]. The arrival of the Internet also helped spell doom for books. For years, smaller publishing companies had tried to hook lawyers on CD-ROM versions of their print offerings. But CD-ROMs never caught on. They were slow. They constantly needed to be updated. And like books, they could only be used by one lawyer at a time. The Web allowed publishers like the Bureau of National Affairs Inc. and Aspen Publishers Inc.’s CCH to reach millions of users instantaneously. They followed the lead of West and Lexis Nexis and began selling site licenses to their centralized databases. Suddenly, any lawyer with a computer and a dial-up connection could do almost all of his research from his seaside cabin. “For the first time in my career, I was actually able to go away for a couple of weekends when I had work to do,” says Jonathan Sperling, a senior associate in Covington & Burling’s New York office. “These days, there’s not much you can’t pull up on the Web.” Eventually, firms started to decide they didn’t need both electronic and print editions of the same book. In 1997 members of the management committee at Minneapolis’ Faegre & Benson realized that lawyers were using the fledgling online version of the Martindale-Hubbell legal directory more than they were using the tried-and-true books. “It was a strange moment,” admits William Busch, a member of the firm’s management committee. “It dawned on us that books were becoming obsolete, and we knew we needed to do something about it.” Over the next few years, the Minneapolis office threw away more than 10,000 books and canceled subscriptions to several titles. This summer the library will move to another floor and consume far less shelf space. Not too long ago, the library was a badge of respectability and a sure stop on a firm tour or visit. Now it’s just another cost center. “It changes the entire definition,” says Nina Platt, Faegre’s director of library services. “We’ll be a department much more than a destination.” Libraries may be smaller. But they’re not cheaper. Only 16 percent of the law librarians who responded to the survey say that their library budgets shrank in 2002. “Going electronic is always more expensive,” says Latham & Watkins’ Oaks. “And that makes some sense. You’re asking for wider distribution, more access.” Most firms are currently paying for both the print and electronic versions of at least a few titles. But as they migrate to electronic versions, the costs ought to decline. So will the hassle and expense of library maintenance. “It used to be that on any given day we might have 30 titles come in,” says Nancy Rine, the director of library services at New York’s Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. “So we had to spend time unpacking those 30 books, shelving them, and making sure they got paid for.” Over time, knowledge management efforts may help curtail library costs. Environmental lawyers at Miami’s Greenberg Traurig spend a few hours every month compiling the latest news on the law and loading it onto the firm’s intranet. “It’s not that hard to ‘find it yourself’ in a lot of substantive topics,” says Linda Will, the firm’s director of research. “Our attorneys can visit the Department of Labor’s Web site just as quickly as the people at BNA can.” Law librarians may be watching their castles crumble, but at least they’re cheerful about it. The vast majority of head librarians report that they either “agree” or “mostly agree” with the following statement: “In general, I am satisfied with my job.” The survey shows they like their pay (more than half make between $75,000 and $150,000) and love the amount of job responsibility they’re afforded. As the library changes, so do the librarians’ responsibilities. Today’s law librarians are technologists. They need to know how to manipulate databases, add content to their firm’s intranet, and train lawyers on better ways to search (88 percent of the responding librarians say that they are responsible for at least some computer-based training). So, more than ever, library directors have to work closely with the firms’ technology staffs. Library directors increasingly have to play chief executive. Take Austin Doherty, the director of Washington, D.C.- based Hogan & Hartson’s information resource center. Twenty-five years ago, Doherty oversaw eight people in one Hogan office. Today he manages 90 employees in offices spread across three continents. “In one generation, everything about this job has grown exponentially,” he says. “I really run a small business within a large business.” As Westlaw and Lexis Nexis continue to improve, garden-variety legal research has become a snap. Law librarians aren’t doing nearly as much of it as they used to. But today’s cases and deals are more complex and international than ever before. An intellectual property litigation might call for information about, say, the side effects of a certain class of drugs manufactured in Brazil. And an international corporate merger might require a working knowledge of stock markets in Belarus. “Ten years ago, I’d say that 80 percent of our research was legal, and 20 percent was nonlegal,” says Kathleen Martin, the director of library services at Washington, D.C.’s McKenna & Cuneo. “Now, that’s completely reversed.” “It’s cost-efficient to send these types of [nonlegal] questions to the library staff rather than [to] an associate,” adds Bruce Parmley, a real estate partner at Hogan & Hartson. “I’m very comfortable [billing clients] for our librarians’ work.” Library staffs used to be made up of a few highly trained research librarians and a larger handful of clerical workers. Nowadays, with fewer books to shelve and more nonlegal information to track down, that old staffing pyramid has been inverted. “We have lawyers, Ph.D.s, technology specialists, IP specialists, litigation specialists and pure research specialists,” says Hogan’s Doherty. “It’s not just people with degrees in library science anymore.” Of course, staffing this much expertise is not cheap. The responding firms spent an average of more than $900,000 each on staffing in 2001, or about $2,960 per lawyer. “The more sophisticated the staff, the more expensive it’s going to be,” says McKenna & Cuneo’s Martin. “But we’re adding more value, too. We’re busier than we’ve ever been.” And that, of course, is more bad news for the books. Related charts: Physical Space Finances Staffing Technology

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