I manage the library at a mid-sized (150 attorneys) single office firm, and Bloomberg Law recently invited me to speak at a luncheon for Chicago-area private law firm librarians. The suggested topic was changes I’ve been observing in the private law world. I decided to skip over AI trends, legal analytics (a favorite topic of mine), and other tech innovations. Instead, I spoke on how libraries are integrating and interweaving themselves within their firms. A panel I coordinated for the American Association of Law Libraries covered similar ground, entitled “The Linchpin Librarian: Becoming an Indispensable and Integrated Resource in Your Organization.”
The key to becoming a “linchpin” at your firm is understanding the needs of not just the attorneys – but also paralegals, support staff, and perhaps most importantly, the other administrative departments.
When Adam Sidoti, my Bloomberg Law account manager, asked what was “new and exciting” in the library at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, I described the library’s expanded role in the new business intake process. Moving beyond our standard due diligence research, the library had helped create checklists of what should be researched and how results should be presented to the attorneys, as well as what research databases were needed for these tasks. My team looked at it from the perspective of how data collected at the onset would be beneficial to the competitive intelligence reports we later produce. Further down the road, the data initially collected could also be utilized for the statistics our finance and marketing teams need to understand the firm’s strengths. Again, being a “linchpin” requires understanding the firm’s needs, especially the micro and macro strategic goals.
When Adam asked what duties the library was giving up to handle its new responsibilities, I gave a little laugh and said, “None that I’m aware of.” However, I realized that’s not entirely true. As we sign more firm-wide contracts and draw focus away from cost recovery, we’re able to empower the firm’s support staff with research tools and training, which does lighten the library’s research load somewhat. For instance, we recently provided finance department staff with access and training for Bloomberg Law dockets and for Lexis Public Records (the Diligence product) so they can conduct research on unresponsive clients.
Librarians are sometimes tempted not to relinquish our tools and tasks so we can ensure our value. We think holding on to these tools is the way to be indispensable. That only breeds resentment between departments, as if we’re hiding or locking down the tools that would help others be more efficient at their jobs. In graduate school, we were taught to be the proud gatekeepers of our institution’s knowledge and information resources. Unfortunately, the term “gatekeeper” has taken on some negative connotations, implying that we’re not a welcoming access point, but rather, a locked gate. The library continues to be the go-to administrative department for more complex searches or larger research projects, and this ensures our importance. But, through cooperation and resource-sharing, we’re also allowing the firm to derive greater value from our research contracts, and we’re demonstrating our active willingness to support the entire firm.
If you’re trying to understand the needs of the other firm departments, I invite you to take a page from another of my firm’s strategies. Our COO, Sonia Menon, holds a quarterly lunch with all administrative department heads. A dozen of us get together to discuss current projects, which often spurs collaboration. After all, how can you know how to help other departments unless you know what they’re doing and the challenges they’re facing? Sonia also encourages us to share something personal and fun about our lives outside work – vacations we’re planning, favorite bands – those things we sometimes get too busy to ask our co-workers. We might find things in common, such as my learning that Star Wars geeks exist across all departments (even if I am the sole fan in the library).
Swinging back to the business intake process project, the consensus among Conflicts, Finance, and Marketing was that the library is the perfect control point for collecting the right data. I say “control” not in the sense of locked-down information, but “control” as in ensuring quality data and consistent data. Another area of quality control may be the library being a repository for institutional or organization-level data. University of Oklahoma’s Darin Fox, a panelist on the AALL Linchpin program, spoke on how the law school uses the library as a type of PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter to verify marketing claims, especially pertaining to rankings and statistics. The AALL program was a stark reminder that, as law firm librarians, ideas to improve our libraries can come from anywhere and we should never discount our academic or government counterparts when looking for innovative ideas.
We also should not discount ourselves if we come from smaller firms. These smaller firms can be more nimble – there are fewer stages to go through before a decision can be made. We have a more direct line to those that sign the contracts and determine policy. Just because you’re not at Big Law does not mean you don’t have valuable ideas.
Finally, I’ll leave you with the frightening thought that you can never reach the point of being fully indispensable. If the recession taught us anything it’s that 1) everyone is dispensable and 2) housing prices do not always go up. Once you’re convinced you’ve achieved that level of being indispensable, you’re likely heading downhill. Is this a recipe for career insanity? Possibly. But I think it’s also what drives us to constantly redefine and reinvigorate the law firm library role.
Editor’s Note: This article is published with permission of the author with first publication on the blog, On Firmer Ground.