The Tao of Law Librarianship: Invite Your Librarian to a Client Event

A curious thing about law firm librarians: we are a good addition to client events. I discovered this by chance when I invited myself along to a couple of events put on by my firm this past year.

For the first event I attended last spring, I offered myself up as a "helping hand," and was given the fun task of taking informal photos during the evening. Now, my pictures didn't turn out that great, but I did end up meeting various people. I was trying to generally blend in and not stand in the way of the lawyers mingling, but I had clients aggressively seek me out. As well, for those people not finding a friendly face in the crowd, I stepped in to make them feel welcome and helped them connect with others.

More recently, at an event last month, I realized there would be people attending I would know, so I asked if I could lend a hand. Again, I made some good connections with a couple of clients and was able to offer up some additional value from the firm in the form of historical legislation from our collection and research assistance.

It got me to thinking; why did I come away from these two evenings feeling I had made a contribution to my firm? Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

  • Law firm librarians are generally excellent networkers. We network with each other, we partner with other departments in our firms, and we often connect with many outside people and organizations to locate information and accomplish our everyday work. We are comfortable meeting new people and helping them feel welcome.
  • Some clients may be intimidated by a roomful of lawyers. I have seen many a face relax when I was introduced, both because I wasn't a lawyer and because of the realization my firm welcomes participation in events by non-lawyers. We also represent the culture of the firm that they otherwise only see through their lawyers. If I am happy enough in my work to show up to an event outside of work hours, that goes a long way to show how positive a culture exists within my firm. That can only create a good feeling.
  • Clients who are in-house counsel are surprisingly pleased to meet a librarian. They often do not have libraries, or only have limited resources. They see the value in having a proper library and research assistance from library staff. I have been able to offer up services above and beyond what our lawyers were able to offer, and some of it billable work at that. I have even met a lawyer who was responsible for the library collection in her organization, and was feeling isolated because of the issues she was facing. She was delighted to meet someone facing the same issues on a larger scale, and to know she was not alone.
  • Librarians, even specialized law librarians, tend to be generalists and can carry on conversations with many different types of people. We conduct research in numerous subject areas and, as a result, have enough background to carry on a conversation on a wide range of topics.
  • Some lawyers, believe it or not, don't really know how to mingle and network. It really is a skill that has to be learned. Lawyers are good at speaking with other lawyers, but it is more of a challenge to mingle with those who are not lawyers, possibly because many are not used to speaking with quite the range of people. I found I was able to help enable a transition, introducing those clients who walked into the room and looked a bit lost to others with similar interests. In other words, I just playing a good host.

There may be additional reasons. My conclusion, however, is that if your firm is organizing a client or other event, it is very worthwhile inviting along the library staff.

I recently spoke with some library manager colleagues in Toronto about participation in client events. Most had not been included in these activities, although it was common to call on a library manager to "fill a table" at client-sponsored charity dinners.

Clare Lyons of Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP pointed out that inviting clients to request work directly from the library can be a "double-edged sword." She has had the experience of client work becoming overly time-consuming, with the client not prepared to pay for the work. Moreover, small clients may not be prepared to pay the high costs for materials and information that those in our firms do.

Before an event, therefore, it is important to think about what type of work you would be willing to offer clients and potential clients. What information or services would you be willing to provide complimentary to foster good client relations? What would you require them to pay for? What would you not be willing to do; for example, photocopying that would violate copyright, or redistribution that would go against your vendor agreements. Also, how will you inform clients about the potential cost of research before starting? Would you require their requests to come to you via one of the principal lawyers with carriage of the client's file, or would the client be able to contact you directly? You might even wish to draft a policy for your library to clarify these issues.

In our case, I decided we could give simple research advice to in-house counsel over the phone without charge, and the odd copy of materials, providing it does not break copyright law. As well, selected clients would be permitted to use our library facilities in person, with an appointment. Research, especially in-depth research, would be billed to the client file. Clients could contact me directly, but I would have to notify the lawyer in charge of the file that billing to the file had taken place so the client could be invoiced in a timely fashion. Special care would need to be taken that we do not engage in providing any legal advice, and that clients understand such advice can only come from the lawyers. We have not yet set a formal policy regarding client use of our services, as I prefer to consider requests on a case-by-case basis.

Ines Freeman of Miller Thomson LLP asked how I came to be invited to client events in the first place. Generally I keep my ear to the ground for possible events and ask if I might be invited to those that interest me. Notably, I was successful in being added to the lawyer's email list in our office to keep an eye out for, among other things, the invitations that go out to the lawyers. That may not be possible for all librarians, however. You might need to find other ways of staying "in touch," such as having your library partner pass along email messages that may be of interest (this is what Lenie Ott of McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP does), or build good relations with a lawyer or someone in the Marketing Department who is willing to keep you abreast of upcoming events.

As Mary Saulig of Goodmans LLP said, we have to "find a way to pull up to the table" and be contributors to our organizations, apart from our library duties. Due to the nature of these events, we are not really on the radar, and are easily overlooked. That does not mean our offer of help would not be valued. Speak up! It doesn't hurt to ask to attend, especially if you can give a legitimate offer of assistance.

Following our discussion, Ott invited herself to a large annual client party. She reports she met many people and "felt pretty good about the whole experience." I have always been thanked after the event for speaking up and taking part. This goes a long way to prove yourself a team player and a leader in your firm. And the more visible we become in this context, the more natural it will be to call on us to participate in the future.