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When the managing partner first called me into his imposing office to offer me the job of records manager, I refused — to my surprise as well as his. It was the only time I had ever said no to an attorney’s request. I thought I was too busy as the office’s librarian to accept more work. He let the answer stand. Three months later, I was summoned back to his office. “Congratulations, Bob, you areour new records manager,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, we’re moving your office into the records department so you can better supervise the place.” Thus began my multitasking journey, one that now encompasses not only the library and records, but also the docket, court services and conflicts departments of a firm with 22 offices in 10 countries. How did a person whose career goal was to be a decent reference librarian get in such a fix? How do law librarians cope in a nonlibrary world? Every librarian is expected to multitask in one sense: answering the phone while typing in a database search request, calculating the budget variance in the subscriptions account, and directing the attorney at the door to the antitrust section of the library. Anyone can do that. But many librarians are asked to take over entire departments outside the library while still shouldering their library duties. The records department is probably the most common department for librarians to take on, but many are also managing docket or court services, conflicts, training and MCLE, technology, intranet, knowledge management, marketing, facilities and purchasing. Even within the same firm, the librarians may wear different hats in different offices. Among the nine U.S. offices of Latham & Watkins, five librarians serve as information resources managers and are in charge of records and docket, as well as the library; one directs the library and docket, but not records; one directs all of the above and training/MCLE; and two handle only the library. Local conditions relating to staff size, supervisor tenure and administrator preference are among the factors that have resulted in these arrangements. Why do managing partners and administrators look to librarians to take on these extra administrative roles — and how does multitasking affect the librarian’s primary job (not to mention sanity)? A SKILL FOR ALL SEASONS Organization, organization, organization is what law firm management sees as the rationale for expanding the librarian’s role. The analogy seems obvious to administrators: If you can keep all the library books in order, you can do that for files, court calendars, supplies or any other department whose operation runs a little ragged. In addition to their organizational skills, librarians are often cited for their accommodating attitude and go-the-extra-mile service. “Of course, Ms. Associate, we’ll find that NLRB report for you, even though it’s 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend.” While the accounting department may decline to distribute petty cash on a Tuesday morning and insist that you come back later, has any law firm library ever said it would dispense reference answers only according to its schedule? Librarians try to bring the same flexibility to the new departments they manage. For example, when I took over records, there was a battle going on between that department and one particular practice group. The records department had always used brown accordion folders. This practice group wanted green pressboard folders. The records department insisted that all the other practice groups used brown and liked brown. All the other offices of the firm used brown. The records manual said the folders were brown. I came in and said, “We can handle green. If another practice group wants blue, we can do blue, too.” Librarians are such an accommodating bunch. TIME IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE Being an over-organized librarian who exudes service is the very characteristic that gets you into trouble when it comes to multitasking. If your inclination when you walk down the library aisles is to straighten up the book edges, now you are probably trying to do that with 6,000 file folders, too. But unlike books, missing files cannot be borrowed from somewhere else. The attorney knows he sent your department the only file in existence with a convertible secured debenture agreement for a hospital acquisition in Iowa. Your day is consumed by searching for that file. When your jurisdiction extends beyond the library, expect to downsize your goals. Those detailed charts you once spent hours on, tracking subscription expenses? The “library police” check for AWOL books that were not signed out? Your daily inspection of library shelves? Forget about it. For multitasking librarians, budget and evaluations seasons are especially dreaded because they consume blocks of time while daily tasks still beckon. Most office managers sympathize with your dilemma, and will probably allow you to spend a workday at home. If working from home is not possible or practical, try to reserve a conference room or visitor’s office in your firm and work there, away from your phone, visitors and e-mail. QUID PRO QUO Don’t count on an increase in staff when you assume new responsibilities. Be prepared for the Catch-22 of law firm management: You will receive more resources when service levels increase, but you can’t increase service without more resources. A former administrator once taught me that if you want something done, give it to the busiest person. That means you’ll have to work the extra hours to meet the demand for services, and only when you near the breaking point can you make the case that you need more staff. That is the sad truth. It helps to understand your firm’s financial standing. In good years, you have a better chance of hiring new staff. If you are not privy to your firm’s financial information, look to the legal press. Monitor the stories about your firm either in print or via the Web. One of my multitasking branch office colleagues in another firm recently asked for advice on getting more staff. Her firm did not share much financial information with managers. It just so happened that I had seen an article in the local legal newspaper reporting that her partners had a 20 percent increase in profits in 2001. She mentioned that detail in her request, and it helped her get the staff increase. WHY ARE DEPARTMENTS DIFFERENT? Library experience does not prepare you for the greatest challenge of the multitasking role — which is not lack of time, money or resources, but dealing with different kinds of people. Each department has a unique culture, with its own mix of education levels and career commitments. You will interact with each department’s staff in unique ways and ponder: Why are they different? The library staff may seem homogenous by comparison, full of researchers with master’s degrees, where even the clerical staff carry out their duties with professionalism. You are now the parent of a family gathered by adoption. Any hint of favoring one staff over another will be grounds for legitimate dissatisfaction and dissension within the ranks. My library has always hosted a party for the office during National Library Week. Then I found out there was a National Records Week — time for another party! Another new skill you will add to your repertoire is the ability to diplomatically handle criticism of your staff and department operations. The library is an oasis of good feeling and complimentary behavior from attorneys. But records, docket and other departments seem to attract complaints for every misstep, and you will soon have to address the perception that, for example, the Records Department can’t find anything — even when the missing file was located under the desk of the requesting attorney. MAKING NEW FRIENDS The library is largely its own independent operation: It makes its own acquisitions, often pays its own bills, and buys its supplies from its own vendors. Other departments depend more heavily on the regular assistance of colleagues in accounting, technology and operations. So my mantra for librarians who are, or may become, multitaskers is: Be nice to your peers. Never make a problem for your fellow managers. They have enough problems from everyone else. Understand that your technology manager may not be able to give you the fastest PC every year. Understand that your facilities manager is inundated with supplies requests all day long. Offer to do favors for your fellow managers however you can. Buy subscriptions to journals for everyone: PC Magazinefor the tech manager, Law Firm Economicsfor the accounting manager, any personnel newsletters your HR manager wants. Pay for them out of the library budget. It’s the least you can do for those who can help you in a pinch. As emphatically as the managing partner told me that I was the new records manager, I would declare multitasking a worthwhile extension of a librarian’s career. Your ability to support, comfort, mentor and advance others has even greater scope. The most difficult research enigma is superficial compared with the complexity of handling staff interactions and the feeling of satisfaction when a problem is resolved. Let me tell you about the docket staff person who had stretched a fitted bed sheet over his cubicle and was camped out beneath it. When asked whether he thought this might cause some concern for other staff, his reply was, “I don’t see why. It’s a clean sheet.” That was only the beginning of my day. Bob Oaks is director of global information resources at Latham & Watkins. He can be reached at [email protected].

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