Law Firm Libraries Cannot Simply Be A Service…It Must Be A Strategic Partner

In the May 23rd American Lawyer article, “More Law Firms Outsource Their Law Libraries [pay wall],” is a wakeup call for some librarians, old news for many, a call to arms for others, and a confirmation of a shift in the profession for the rest. Outsourcing is a scary word, but one that cannot be ignored. We’ve had Deb Schwarz from LAC discuss the myths of outsourcing right here on 3 Geeks. I would be one of the first to step up and tell you that, in some cases, outsourcing the law firm library makes sense, and LibSource (LAC Subsidiary) or one of the other outsourcers (also known as “Managed Services”), would be a viable way to run the library. However, I’d also step up and say that it should not be the first or only option for struggling law libraries.

I will state this again… in some cases, outsourcing the library is a viable option for some law firms. I’m not anti-LibSource or any other Managed Services group that comes in and hires librarians, and maintains library collections and services. That being said, I also recognize that law firms, especially AmLaw 100 and 200 firms, like to copy what other firms are trying. I tend to say that most law firms do not want to be first… but, they don’t want to be last, either. With outsourcing getting more press, it’s bound to happen that law firm leaders will wonder if outsourcing is right for their firms. It’s the nature of the beast in this industry. I’d like to give my peers, and those law firm leaders that are reading this, some ideas and talking points when this discussion comes out.

Service is a Floor, Not a Ceiling

As someone that manages the law library function (as well as other departments) at my firm, I know that the most critical function of the library is not simply about providing good service. Good service, along with a good collection, a well-maintained budget, and on-demand responses to the needs of the law firm are the absolute basics of what a law library does. If that is what you provide, you’re doing the minimum. If you’re a manager of people, you know what it’s like to manage those that just do the minimum. You keep them around, but if you ever got a chance, you’d replace them in a minute. Think about how your firm’s management committees view departments that just bring in the minimum to the firm. Your services, and your people must be viewed as an integral part of the organization.

The Library is a Powerful Resource, Leverage It

I sell my department in many ways, but one that has a great effect on the leadership is when I tell them that the Library is the conduit for all external information, and understanding how these resource tie into the overall firm needs. Whether it is tracking down assets, conducting background checks on expert witness, or finding that elusive piece of information hidden in the recesses of a county courthouse, the Library and its professionals know how to find information. They find it quickly. They leverage their peers and professional associations. They do it at a cost that is appropriate (or lower.) They are experts at this. When you have these experts, usually with some subject matter expertise they have learned while at the firm, you have a powerful resource beyond traditional Westlaw and Lexis databases. My suggestion is to find ways of embedding these experts into the Practice or Industry Groups and take advantage of their expertise. Outsourced services, even if they end up hiring your own people to stay in the library, do not become a part of your culture. There will be turnover, and those brought in will service the company for which they work, and that is not your law firm.

Don’t Let Bad Librarians Bring Everyone Down With Them

This is for law firm leaders who have librarians they do not think are doing the best work for their firm. Find New Leadership! Nothing drives me more crazy than seeing someone that has led a department into the ground. I’ve seen it in law firms, academic settings, and in Government Law Libraries. People that have kept their heads down, not asked for anything, kept under budget, and didn’t rock the boat, be a twenty-plus year director of their law library. It makes me shake my head, and I get angry when I hear these stories. In many cases, I see that the staff has kept these zombie leaders alive by doing great work despite the lack of leadership. Unfortunately, when bad leaders retire (or finally get a buy-out package when someone discovers the lack of production), they are replaced by someone that isn’t a law librarian or information professional, or the position is simply left vacant and the library becomes rudderless. That’s a shame, because there are a number of strategic thinkers out there that know what a great law library can bring to the organization. By not giving these leaders a chance, and passing the library over to Marketing, KM, or IT, it brings it back to a department that simply gives good service, but not helping in accomplishing strategic goals.

Give the Law Library a Voice in the Discussion

I knew that ALM was working on an article about outsourcing, so I wrote a piece a week ago called “If You’re Not at the Table, You’re on the Menu” where I laid out some examples of how it is important to be involved in the strategic direction your law firm is taking. It doesn’t matter how great the ideas are if no one ever hears them. The law library leadership needs a voice in the conversation. For those in other departments that think that if they allow library leaders to be involved means that your individual power is somehow diminished, then it’s time for you to grow up and realize this is not a zero-sum game you are playing. Libraries that are engaged in the discussion bring ideas to the table that other departments simply don’t even know about. It could be how to streamline Business Development processes, or improve due diligence investigations of lateral partners. It could be improving conflicts processes by exposing current conflicts staff to external resources. It could be exposing IT department to new products that it can then integrate into Practice Group and Industry portals. Clients are looking for firms that are efficient, have improved processes, and innovative. Outsourcing can get you to step one, but would have a much harder time getting to steps two and three.

Law firms typically spend millions of dollars on library resources, and if you’re not allowing the librarians and others within the department to champion those resources and spread their ideas on how to best leverage them, then you might as well be pouring that money down a drain. Remember, even if the department is outsourced, the outsourcing company uses your resources, not their own.

Lead the Conversation before You Are the Conversation

Law Librarians are often risk-adverse people in a highly risk-adverse industry. We want to do what’s right, serve our organization, and help in the overall success of our law firms. Most of us do not like conflict. Well, that’s too bad in this situation. Start strategizing your arguments on why outsourcing is not a viable option for your firm. List out the pros and cons (and be honest), and design a plan that shows the leadership that the law library can bring much more of a value proposition to the firm as a strategic partner, than it would bring as a managed service by a third party. Step up and lay out your ideas, goals, and successes. Admit your previous failures and explain how you’ve learned from that and how it has made you a better group because you know have experienced and understood what went wrong. For each point that makes sense on why the law firm should outsource your group, counter with a better plan for why it makes more sense to not only keep you within the firm, but to expand what you do in a more strategic way.

There’s A Battle Going on For Your Law Library – Step Up and Defend It

There’s a battle going on in this profession. In order to be a winner in this battle, you must create your plan, align your resources, and be willing to step out there and defend yourself and those that follow you.

Editor’s note – this article republished with permission of the author from his blog, Three Geeks and a Law Blog, 5/15/16.

Posted in: KM, Law Firm Marketing, Law Librarians, Law Library Management, Libraries & Librarians, Library Marketing, Management, Outsourcing
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