Law Firm Articles

Leveraging the Assets of the Law Library

All firms are interested in saving money. And while the fastest route to savings is to cut personnel, this should not be the first approach. It limits the ability of a firm to grow and avoids the focus needed to reinvent the firm. If law firms take a good look at their opportunities to save money, they might find that eliminating physical assets, renegotiating high-priced contracts, and expanding the capabilities of flexible and capable personnel might provide better returns.

As an example, firms of all sizes struggle to supervise law libraries. While libraries are operating departments run by professionals who should be self-supervising, the logical partner of the library is the IT Department. The content management of the law library and content distribution by the IT Department make them natural allies in serving the information needs of the firm. They feed the firm’s unique work product and actively deliver service to their clients. With this, the firm competes for new business in 24-hour time. Librarians are the quintessential content managers and the IT Department can leverage their capabilities.

In an earlier segment of this series, I identified the library staff as the assets of the law library as the assets to be leveraged. Continuing that theme here, I profile the reference staff as providing the core value. Experienced reference librarians can contribute to other departments in a way that increases the quality as well as the quantity of output. After 30 years of seeing declining value in legal print publications, I have learned that: 1) the law library has little value without the staff; and 2) the law librarians should be spreading the value of their services across the firm. Commonly, this means contributing to areas such as marketing, docketing, records management and IT. But it also means getting to know the lawyers and practice groups and having the skill to assist them in new and creative ways. Executives want value to shine on the bottom line.

Librarians as Experts in Practice Areas

Firm librarians routinely conduct legal research and many develop relationships with specific practice groups. Assigning them as subject matter experts to an individual practice group is an immediate way to drive assets across the firm. If a content manager is put into every major practice group, it is possible to significantly support business development and marketing services without adding a single marketing dollar to the firm. It would also help the firm account for the otherwise non-billable costs of business development. This adds accountability, so there are fewer hours thrown away and more incentive to realize ROI for actual time spent.

An ideal practice group embodies three basic attorney types: researchers, rainmakers and technicians. Talented lawyers wear all hats at one time or another, but some make a studied effort to play only one game. Researchers enjoy the solitude demanded of the project while true rainmakers are inveterate extroverts. Technicians are task masters and get the job done. A practice group head should be dedicated to the specialty and have a congenial relationship with peers regardless of how selected. In many ways a microcosm of the law firm, the practice group needs marketing and business development as much as it needs operations. A mix of capabilities is necessary, but some challenges elude even the most multidimensional group.

An associate or paralegal can serve as a liaison with a reference librarian with subject matter expertise. Together they can survey the interests and needs of the practice group. This will allow for the delivery of targeted reports and resources pointing to new trends in the field, potential client lists, or details about professional events that call for speakers and writers. In general, a subject matter expert who focuses on opportunities can deliver a premium to the practice group. Ideally, the group also can meet to understand new research tools, facilitate an action plan, or volunteer for projects.

This expert contribution should not be too loudly broadcast. If it is, it could appear as a disruption to SOP and be rejected. But if given a chance, it can serve a disciplined approach to creating strategic support for the growth and development of the practice group. A librarian’s relationship with a practice group can grow naturally this way over time. Then practice by practice, it is possible to integrate a plan for the firm. The critical factor in delivering on these promises is the capacity to focus on and achieve credibility in the subject area at the practice group level and then deliver options for developing new business opportunities. Forecasting opportunities is something lawyers themselves usually take on or solicit from the marketing department. But lawyers rarely can give enough time to these non-billable tasks, and marketing departments are rarely large enough to provide focus for every practice group.

Combining a disciplined approach to the firm’s practice areas under the natural discipline required of the IT enterprise makes for the best use of reference librarians. If there are not enough librarians to do this, practice groups can elect paralegals or younger associates to develop that expertise and so logically enhance their legal research skills. Seasoned librarians are versatile in more than one field and in a good position to work with paralegals or associates to help them identify opportunities as well as solving client problems proficiently. Every research problem can be subjected to opportunity analysis. Potential solutions for existing clients can help identify new clients with similar issues.

Library Technical Staff and IT

In addition to reference librarians, who can serve practice groups as subject matter experts, the library supports so-called technical services activities. These activities are administrative in nature and surround the purchase of new print materials, online cataloging, routing of print or digital materials, and the lending, finding and shelving of books. These activities are relevant to managing physical assets but are too often identified as the only library activity. This undervalues research staff and overvalues book management. In an era of downsizing and cost containment, law firms should be biased in favor of contributions to client value.

Benefits of Uniting the Library with IT

The accounting for print materials begs for the assistance of the IT Department. Creating, sorting and managing lists are among the oldest of computerized tasks. Complementing lists with additional details goes hand-in-hand. But that is not all. The library must account for thousands of books, multimedia and activities over years of collection, multiple offices and, in some cases, multiple firms in a merger. The best overall picture of the firm’s library holdings is through records consolidated by the IT Department. The mere process of comparing offices helps to eliminate duplication, reduce maintenance and storage costs, and even introduce lending between offices.

Although it would be an unconventional HR move even today, law firms that take advantage of the competence of their library staff can realize benefits in productivity that are measurable in dollars and cents. The library staff can be separated from the physical assets, which as we know have decreased in value. The firm can recapture some space and redesign the remainder. It can become a lounge, retreat, or training center to house computers, a general reference collection and periodicals. It would give lawyers, especially in larger firms, a place to go to break from their routine without leaving the building or interacting with others. They may wish to read or think but still check resources or e-mail. Those who work from home — and this practice will grow — can have a place within the firm to go when attending meetings or meeting with clients.

Two Players on the Negotiation Team

Linking librarians to IT adds a necessary quality to the negotiation of contracts for online research services. An emphasis on the content delivered via the contract demands librarian input. They will have worked with the practice groups and can build on these relationships to understand which resources are necessary to maintain a high quality practice. The librarian’s task will be to consolidate this information across the firm and make it possible for the IT Department to negotiate a contract from a content point of view. Here, too, there will be a return on investment. A low cost contract without value adds expense.

Too often the library director becomes embroiled as an adversary in the negotiation process. This compromises the librarian’s relationship with the vendor and jeopardizes the negotiating process. Knowledge about content and lawyer demand is not the same as knowledge about pricing. And while the IT Department may need help with both the pricing terms and the negotiation process, that help will not come from the library. The vendor relationship demanded in the negotiation process is different from the relationship expected when the contract is in place and services are being delivered. Nothing should jeopardize the service delivery, which should be spelled out by the terms of the contract.

Understanding this, it is a gift to librarians to limit their involvement in contract negotiations. They can pass on an understanding of what the firm demands and force the vendor to consider the stake they have in the next contract with the firm. The vendors need to be accountable for the real relationship of pricing and content to contract terms. With that in mind, IT can demand a contract that has no surprises ahead.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of LJN’s Legal Tech Newsletter.  It is republished here with permission

Nina Cunningham, Ph.D., is an affiliate of Altman Weil, Inc., and President and CEO, Quidlibet Research Inc., a global strategic planning and cost management firm.