Law libraries have evolved to become a service offered by talented professionals whose expertise can now be accessed at anytime, anywhere.
Not long ago, the law library was “a place”. It housed printed materials and staff and provided work space for research. Lawyers went there to use books and consult librarians to locate and complete assignments. Today, the notion of a modern law library is very different, shaped by the skills of specialized researchers and information managers rather than by bookshelves and bound volumes.
The evolution of law libraries of course stems from technological advances. The invention of Lexis by Mead in the early 1970s and the eventual rapid growth of online legal research during the 1980s had a limited impact on law libraries. It was really in the 1990s that libraries began a dramatic transformation.
In the 1990s, the legal market saw a move to fixed-price contracts for online legal research, which enabled lawyers to work from their desks without visiting the library. Printing from online services, once cost-prohibitive and inconvenient, grew easier than directly using the library’s collections. Enhancements to online systems also reduced – if not eliminated – the need to consult certain specialized resources (e.g., Shepard’s Citation Service). Then the Web entered the research arena. The advent of portals, RSS feeds, alerts, anytime and anywhere access to proprietary data sources, mobile devices and applications, and other digital tools further facilitated the transition from print to digital screens.
Three other trends also shaped the law library. First, many firms built dedicated marketing departments, which fostered demand for business research. Second, new business intake became increasingly complex – often requiring more detailed business research. Between these two trends, many firms struggled to meet the demand and to decide which department should conduct business research. Third and separately, even before the recent economic crisis, many firms began reducing the physical size of their libraries, particularly in metropolitan areas where office space was at a premium. This was of most concern for those firms experiencing the greatest growth. Many simply could not obtain expansion space and so needed to re-configure available space for lawyers’ offices. With lawyers using screens instead of books and firms needing more space, physical collections shrank, often dramatically.
Some mistakenly surmise that these trends endanger law libraries – making them victims of a new technological age or losers to business researchers. A more accurate assessment is that law libraries are simply evolving into a service rather than just a place [Editor’s note: libraries and librarians, content and expert services, have always been inextricably linked]. With that shift, law librarians are arguably even more important today: the multitude of digital databases raises so many questions about source selection and accuracy and effective use, that professional research guidance and services is critical.
The “library as service” enables yet another change: library service providers have become a viable alternative to the in-house operation and management of information resources. Managing partners and general counsels are receptive to library service providers for many reasons. Providers enjoy economies of scale that enable them to offer, in many cases, a broader array of services as well as deeper access to more expertise and information sources than traditional in-house libraries. In addition to offering more depth by centralizing service across firms, a provider can defray administrative and technical services costs over a larger base, thus reducing the underlying service cost. A shift to a vendor-operated service can utilize a mix of onshore and offshore resources, which further reduces costs. Finally, a service provider can provide cost-effective, 24×7 coverage, which is typically impossible or very costly for smaller in-house libraries.
A closer look at some of the benefits – many of which stem directly from scale economies – explains why this option is increasingly attractive:
- Access to experts with specialized skills: Law firms and law departments, even very large ones, can gain access to highly specialized researchers whom they otherwise could not to afford to hire on their own. From the perspective of library professionals, employment with a provider who offers outsourced library services presents an opportunity to develop highly specialized skills. As a result, these providers often attract individuals with advanced degrees, including those for legal and business specialties. In contrast, these same professionals are often required, out of necessity, to be jacks-of-all-trades when managing all facets of an in-house library operation, including procurement of information sources, research, training and administrative oversight.
- Access to specialized information: Many library service providers offer experience with and access to highly-specialized, proprietary research databases, best practices knowledge and a far wider range of publications. Though content provider license terms present challenges to aggregating demand and negotiating price, providers can sometimes purchase specialized resources at lower rates than what individual firms or corporate legal departments can attain. In this way, providers often make it viable, particularly for small and mid-sized organizations, to gain access to information that was too costly or unreasonable to invest in previously.
- Regional “super libraries” and “niche” collections: Library service providers can leverage their greater access to specialized information and preferred supplier relationships to create cost-effective central libraries for geographic regions – an important advantage for customers who often cannot justify investing in resources to serve one-time uses or “niche” topics. In this way, service providers are also often able to dramatically to reduce the costs associated with the management of collections and journals – while at the same time decreasing duplicate purchases of these resources.
- Lower administrative burden: Using best practices honed through the delivery of library services to numerous firms and corporate legal departments, service providers can operate at greater efficiency than many traditional stand-alone libraries.
- In-depth training: In most traditional law libraries, highly skilled librarians must spend time training lawyers on proper use of proprietary databases. This distracts them from more valuable uses of their time. Service providers either staff individuals dedicated to training or utilize their preferred relationships with vendors to offer direct training and support.
Service providers offer another benefit, one that does not flow only from scale. Because providers are in a focused business, they typically collect and analyze operational data and then adjust their operations based on rigorous metrics. This means systematic monitoring of and reporting on research requests and source utilization. These metrics support delivering better client service, adjusting service levels to better meet lawyers’ requirements, and optimizing the mix of data sources. The “service-level agreements” that govern providers assure law firms and departments that they receive the research support they need. The providers’ usage metrics allow customers to adjust service levels up and down and, in some instances, can improve cost recovery from clients.
The significance of these benefits has not been lost on leaders in the legal industry. Globally, the outsourcing of library services is accelerating. Notably, such growth is not limited to just small firms.
For small- and medium-sized legal operations, outsourced library services can “level the playing field” with larger organizations. For example, with 40 partners and a staff of 350, Foot Anstey is a rapidly-growing UK law firm. While it had many of the sophisticated needs for library services, it lacked the scale to justify the size and scope of the in-house library and research team it envisioned. By engaging a provider of library services, Foot Anstey was able to expand the breadth and depth of support available to its lawyers and staff without increasing costs – enabling it to provide higher quality, more cost-effective service to its clients that is comparable to much larger firms.
“By outsourcing our library services, we gained access to a large team of information specialists with greater breadth of expertise, depth of experience and capacity for meeting our growing information needs,” said Richard Gardiner, Foot Anstey’s director of business development. Now we have all of the support and expertise we need at an affordable price without the administrative and management challenges.”
Larger firms can gain benefits as well. Working with a provider can not only lower their costs but also free their professional law librarians to focus on what they do best – utilizing the skills that have always made them the first people lawyers turn to when they want to know where and how to conduct legal research. Furthermore, large firms can work with providers to rationalize both their physical collection and service offerings across multiple offices, countries, and practices.
Libraries have a long and cherished history. Technology and law firm economics have already changed the course of that history. Print is not dead, but it is much diminished. In the new world, librarians prove their value by continuous participation in solving lawyers’ research requirements, not only library management. In the evolution of library from place to service, the role of law librarian is shifting to problem solver, consultant, and expert researcher. Outsourced library service is another phase in our continuously evolving idea of what we mean by a law library.