Evolution of Service Models in the New Law Library

While the rate of change in the legal industry seems to be accelerating, change is not new to law librarians. In fact, those of us who have been around long enough have been hearing for the past 20 years or so that the days of the law library are numbered. It is certainly true that the use of books has declined in recent years, and the focus of librarians has shifted away from traditional print maintenance roles toward supporting attorneys through the delivery of information in increasingly digital environments. However, this article is not about the decline of print. We’ve already been there, done that, and it’s time to move on to a new topic.

But change continues, and so do concerns about the role of law librarians. In recent years, the “new” role of librarians as expert online researchers and content managers seems to be threatened again, this time by the trend toward creation of self-service research environments in which content is served up so conveniently and intuitively, that even the busiest attorneys (who necessarily have other things to do besides learn new search platforms) can find useful, on-point information without the guidance of an expert to lead them through the digital maze. The well-recognized expertise of librarians in organizing and directing users to content seems likely, in the view of some observers, to be supplanted by newer expert systems.

As the culture of attorney self-service expands, the question is circulating again about what the future of law librarians will look like – if we have a future.

Of course, smart information delivery systems must be built by experts, and customized to the needs of specific firms by professionals who understand their legal practice areas and unique firm cultures and deployed to end-users whose interest and comfort with change vary widely. Law librarians are uniquely suited to roles in developing and deploying new resources through their combination of legal knowledge, technology skills, and emotional intelligence.

Even after the new tools have been deployed and attorneys trained in how to use them, librarians continue to play a role in delivering service through these platforms, including performing on-demand research and providing alerts, platform customizations and other services to support end-users. For example, although push technologies for current awareness are typically customizable by individual end users, and some attorneys like to be hands-on with these tasks, more often the creation and curation of alerts falls to library professionals who can do so efficiently and accurately, saving attorney time for other work – such as, well, practicing law.

While librarians are invaluable to developing and supporting self-service technologies, that is not the only role in which they are proving their value.

During the recent SLA Webinar on Evolving Libraries, Kris Martin, one of my co-workers at HBR, discussed an evolution of library services that we have been tracking along two distinct paths, toward either a User-leveraged service model, such as the primarily self-service environment described above, or an Expert-leveraged model.

While the User-leveraged model is characterized by increased investment in new technologies and librarian support for user-enabling applications, with a subsequent decrease in direct research, the role of librarians as researchers continues strong in firms where an Expert-leveraged service model has evolved. In these firms, the research skills of librarians are increasingly utilized as library professionals are embedded within practice groups and other administrative departments, where their familiarity with a wide range of resources and subject-specific knowledge combine to create competitive advantage. In legal practice groups, embedded librarians enjoy inclusion on client teams where they contribute research efficiency and value to client matters. In administrative teams, librarians work closely with marketing and others to provide research and analysis in support of their firm’s strategic business objectives. In addition to providing traditional research expertise, embedded librarians are frequently called upon to provide more sophisticated information analysis.

Both user-leveraged and expert-leveraged service models change the role of the librarian, demanding greater expertise and a pro-active approach to meeting firm information needs.

And there is one more high-value librarian role overarching both models, that of the Generalist/Knower of Many Things. While generalist researcher positions are declining as firms move toward user-leveraged or expert-leveraged service models, the individual with knowledge and experience across a variety of legal subjects, technology, and research functions continues to play an essential role in developing library and information services which support law practice efficiency and innovation. The true generalist who is involved in many areas of research work and engaged in conversations throughout the firm is uniquely positioned to identify opportunities. If innovation is about connecting dots, who is better positioned to deliver value than the individual whose vantage point includes multiple dots?

Firm leaders who empower their librarians to contribute value through support of user-leveraged or expert-leveraged service models and through direct involvement in the creation of systems to support practice and efficiency efforts, will find the “library” to be a valuable asset for many years to come.

[Editor’s note: this article is republished with the permission of the author with first publication on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog.]

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