Turning Challenges into Opportunities: New Directions for Legal Information Professionals

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(Last Friday, I spoke at the fall meeting of the Law Librarians of New England and the Association of Boston Law Librarians. I was part of a panel with Stephanie Godley Murphy, manager of research services at Ropes & Gray, on “Turning Challenges into Opportunities: New Directions for Legal Information Professionals.” The panel was moderated by Susan Vaughn, legal information librarian and lecturer in law at the Boston College Law Library, which co-hosted the program. Stephanie and I each gave opening remarks; what follows are mine, more or less.)

In my law practice, I represent newspapers, and for much of my career, I worked at newspapers. When I hear it said that newspapers are dying, I have to strongly disagree. Yes, perhaps paper will die out as a delivery mechanism. But the work that newspapers do, the value they provide, will never disappear.

There is a strong parallel with law librarians – or, as we’re calling you today, legal information professionals. You may have seen the article yesterday in The New York Times about Kaye Scholer’s move to a new office in New York, in the process of which is discarded nearly 95 percent of its law books.

“Shelves full of uniformly bound legal volumes — beloved of any photographer, videographer or cinematographer who needs a background that instantly proclaims “law office” — are headed to oblivion in the digital era.”

No doubt, the library, the physical space in which many of you work, is already evolving and could someday disappear. But the work you do, the value you provide, will never disappear.

Time of Unprecedented Innovation

LLNEpostcardWithin the legal profession, change is all around us. In a blog post earlier this year, written just after I attended Reinvent Law NYC, I said that I believe we are in a time of unprecedented innovation in legal technology – and I include within that the field of legal information.

Why is there this groundswell of innovation? The reason, at least in part, is that the Internet has changed the formula for innovation. No longer do the behemoths, alone, drive the development of legal technology.

We live at a time when a Harvard undergrad who started something in his dorm room rose seemingly overnight to become one of the world’s wealthiest people. We live in a time when two guys in law school who think they have a better idea for a legal research site can run with it and create the company Ravel Law by the time they graduate.

We have transformed from a time when legal technology and legal information were products driven by large corporations to a time when anyone with a way to make things simpler and smarter can succeed.

So What Does That Mean For You?

To my mind, there has never been a more exciting or important time to be a legal information professional.

For too long, librarians were defined in the public consciousness by the place in which you work. As that New York Times article suggested, many now believe that that place is irrelevant, unnecessary and too expensive to keep around. At both law firms and law schools, there are some who argue for doing away with the physical library altogether.

I understand why that could be a cause for concern for many of you. But it also provides an opportunity to examine what it is you provide – what value do you provide to your firm or institution.

As soon as you begin to look at it that way, you see immediately that what you provide is something that cannot be done away with. You, more than anyone else in your firm or institution, holds the key to information. Your skill set is not about shelving, but about knowing how to find and manage information.

Way back in 1993, I first started writing and speaking about how lawyers can use the Internet for research, marketing and other purposes. I figured then that I’d do that for a couple of years, by which time everyone would have caught on and there would be no more need for what I was doing.

Two decades later, I’m still at it. Without question, the Internet has made it a kazillion times easier to find information. But there are several major problems:

  1. There is way too much information, making it hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.
  2. It is more difficult to assess the quality and reliability of information.
  3. It is still difficult to find many forms of very specific information – the very kinds of information lawyers often need.
  4. The nature of information is changing. In particular, data has become information, and in this era of Big Data, many are struggling with how to manage and make sense of it.

I heard it said recently that Google has made us stupid. There is real truth in that statement. We know how to Google, but we’re stumped beyond that.

And the notion that up-and-coming generations are more research savvy because they are more digital savvy is a bunch of bunk.

Redefining Yourselves

Anyone who says the librarian is a dying breed is simply wrong. What is true, however, is that you need to redefine yourselves – redefine your value proposition – in terms that others can understand. That means that you must identify and emphasize what it is you bring to your institution and to the people it serves, whether they be the lawyers, the clients, the marketers, the fundraisers, the faculty or the students.

At the Private Law Libraries Summit during this summer’s AALL meeting in San Antonio, Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, gave a great keynote on re-engineering the role of the private law librarian. She pointed out one of the major forces that is driving change in the law firm business model.

What lawyers want to sell is expertise by the hour. But that is not what clients want. They want solutions to their problems, delivered efficiently. Librarians, Hackett argued, are uniquely situated to help lawyers leverage the firm’s knowledge resources and develop new products, processes and multi-disciplinary strategies that will help give clients what they want.

After all, what is legal advice? Simply put, it is the application of experience to information. Information is and will always be an essential part of the equation of practicing law.

The Many Roles You Can Fill

Going forward, what you as information professionals need to do is to consider how you might adapt to this changing environment and how you might help your firm or institution adapt. You need to look more strategically at the skills you possess and how you can deploy those skills to maximum effect to help your firm or institution thrive.

Here are just some of the ways in which you can provide unique value:

Librarians as publishers: In the early days of the Internet, law libraries led the charge in publishing legal information online. Over the years, I’ve seen less of that. There are huge opportunities for librarians to take a leading role as publishers of both primary and secondary legal information, or at least as facilitators of publishing.

A good example is a site I recently reviewed, CanLII Connects, that connects primary law materials to secondary commentary and analysis through crowdsourcing with lawyers, academics and others.

Librarians as publishers, Part II: Help your firm or institution use blogs and social media to help push it knowledge and resources to its constituents. You can help in researching, writing and maintaining blogs and in both tracking and participating in social media.

Librarians as facilitators of access to justice. We are in an access to justice crisis in this country. An AALL report published in July, Law Libraries and Access to Justice, underscores that librarians have a critical role to play in helping to expand access to and understanding of legal information.

One example of this is The People’s Law Library of Maryland, a legal self-help information site operated by the Maryland State Law Library. The AALL report has other examples.

Librarians as market analysts. In today’s highly competitive environment, market intelligence and competitive intelligence have never been more important to law firms. I suspect there is an equivalent to that in academic settings as well. This is the kind of information and analysis you can provide. I don’t know how common it is that a law firm’s librarians ever work with the firm’s marketing and business development staff, but why not?

Librarians as trainers. We are in an age when lawyers are more likely to work independently, to work remotely, and to focus on mobility. But if they do not have the skills they need to use research services, they cannot do this effectively. Training lawyers and associates on how to use research services is as important now as it ever was – maybe more so.

Librarians as knowledge managers. You are perfectly trained and situated to create and manage libraries of firm knowledge and practices. These libraries can be used within the firm but also adapted for use by clients. Consider helping your firm create playbooks and process maps.

Librarians as prospectors. Work with your firms and your firms’ clients to help them make sense of this Big Data, social media world we live in. Help them understand what data they have and how they can use it. Research that data to mine useful information.

Librarians as members of client teams. Why is it that librarians are rarely if ever considered part of the direct-services teams at law firms? You should be directly integrated with the projects your firm is handling and the teams that are handling them.

Librarians as specialists. Develop in-depth knowledge about particular practice areas and industries and become part of the team serving that practice area or industry.

Librarians as drivers of change. You have immense power to control the direction of legal information and legal publishing. You can help drive the media in which information is published. You can help drive or defeat efforts to increase open-source publishing and open access to legal information.

Librarians as experimenters. None of us here have all the answers. You need to be willing to try new things and to be willing to fail. Out of those experiments will come the future course of your profession. And that means the future is in your hands.

Disruption is an overused word these days, but there is no question that the legal profession is in the midst of radical changes. The business models that underlie both law schools and law firms have never before been so closely scrutinized and so widely criticized. A sea change is coming in the way our institutions operate.

The fact is, that is disruptive – and disruption equals opportunity. This is not a time to bemoan changes you can do nothing to stop. Rather, it is a time to push forward based on the skills that you already have. After all, the work that you do, the value you provide, will never disappear.

Editor’s note – published with permission – first publication by the author on his blog, Law Sites.

Posted in: Law Librarians, Law Library Management, Legal Research Training, Librarian Resources, Libraries & Librarians, Library Marketing
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