Law firm libraries are experiencing an identity crisis: the law firm library is no longer a “place” and the librarians who staff them not “keepers of books.” This is good news, and here’s why: law firms that can deliver value through competitive advantage are the law firms of the future—and leveraging library services is integral to that value.
Under current market pressures, legal research has been a target for law firm leaders to decrease headcount and services. Library overhead expenses may account for as much as five percent of a law firm’s gross income and is one of the most common areas of client push back for the recovering of costs. There has been insufficient understanding about the value-added services that a library can provide. Moreover, new technologies and online vendors offering similar services, often results in market confusion and fragmented purchasing processes, causing redundant services and higher costs.
This tide is now shifting dramatically. Attorneys are required to perform in areas beyond legal expertise in order to serve as high value business advisers to clients or business managers of their departments. It has never been more important for law firms and in house corporate legal departments to develop a structured, systematic approach to knowledge management.
In light of the competitive pressures and the changing legal environment, library leaders are now evaluating ways in which they can take a more proactive approach to running the library like a business and aligning their services with the firm’s overall strategic plans.
Here are some emerging trends we have seen across the industry:
- Developing practice area specialties, liaising with marketing, managing competitive intelligence research, supporting risk management efforts.
- Involving librarian leadership to effectively manage and control costs of resources, including talent, during client engagements.
- Empowering end user research competency by designing and supporting portals to facilitate access to “just in time” information.
- Instituting support for education efforts for legal and administrative staff, from resource specific training to research competency assessment and coaching, using standard materials and formats throughout the firm.
One of the most effective initial steps law firm leaders can take to strategically deliver value is to centralize their library services. This allows firms to leverage their size in the marketplace when negotiating vendor contracts in order to achieve substantial savings. Library budgets for electronic services and print materials are at an all-time high. Library directors are being encouraged to implement a contract management system, and introduce innovative and strategic protocols to analyze and better manage these costs. Also, firms will benefit from a cost reduction and realignment of tools by eliminating redundancy, maximizing the use of online versions and/or renegotiating vendor agreements.
At the same time, multi-office firms are taking action to re-engineer processes, and evaluate people and technology to optimize access to information. The focus is on ensuring parity of research support across all offices and practices, as well as promoting the awareness of the knowledge tools possessed by the firm.
An AmLaw 50 firm recently embarked on this process of centralizing its library services. The library functions were decentralized with dispersed management throughout its several domestic locations. The decision to centralize became an opportunity for the firm to fully understand and promote knowledge sources available in the firm and the marketplace, and to optimize the use of these resources to best serve its client base. Redundancies and inefficiencies in processes, workflow and collateral were identified and streamlined, after benchmarking against emerging trends. The result was a substantive shifting of roles and responsibilities that realigned people and skills and increased the value capabilities of legal services to the clients.
Such an example illustrate the good news about the shifting role of library services and, moreover, the multiple layers of opportunity to identify the value added services that the law library can provide in order to “do the best for less.”