Features - The Role of the Law Librarian In Business Development

Sue Sutphin is a solo librarian at the law firm of Burns, Doane, Swecker & Mathis, LLP, in Alexandria, VA.


The traditional role of a librarian in a law firm has not been one of rainmaker.  More information seeker than client seeker, librarians work expertly and diligently to locate, obtain, catalogue, classify and maintain research materials in hard copy collections, online and on wide area networks.   Many law librarians, however, are now using their well-honed research skills to jump knee-deep into the inner workings of their firms, often acting as researchers, networkers and in some cases, business development managers.

Attorneys and law firm managers are not necessarily comfortable with “selling” their services. Rather, attorneys often prefer to obtain new business via word-of-mouth referrals. In today’s competitive legal environment, however, law firms are finding that they need to pro-actively market their practices and expertise.  (For more information on law firm marketing, please refer to the 34 Internet Roundtable columns on LLRX, authored by experts Jerry Lawson, Dennis Kennedy and Brenda Howard.)  Consequently, some librarians, using their research skills and the latest online legal research tools, are becoming the firm’s frontline marketers and business development managers.

Why the Librarian?

Librarians are already using online legal tools for a range of client related assignments, as well as for client development and competitive intelligence research. Librarians are thoroughly versed in the business of their respective firms, and have an excellent working knowledge of its clients.  Most large law firms employ a designated marketing or business development manager and staff who are responsible for aggregating market information and leading the firm’s business development operations. However, in small to mid-sized firms that do not have a marketing department, the responsibility of targeting and tracking markets is increasingly involving librarians, whose knowledge of the firm’s current client base is an appropriate starting point for developing more business.

Whether or not business development is part of the librarian’s official role in the firm, it is important for all librarians to learn business development techniques to stay abreast of new trends in the legal industry.

Deciding to Get Started

Things aren’t as simple as they used to be for librarians. With the wealth of legal information available online, via huge commercial database systems and on the ever expanding web, librarians are often inundated with responsibilities and must prioritize their time to ensure that they can sift through mountains of information and distill it for their attorneys. So how does one find the time to do business development? It may not happen overnight, but finding just an hour a day to dedicate toward learning and practicing firm business development is enough to get you started.

Choose your Information Sources

As a librarian, you have access to many different sources of business information, from books to databases, the telephone, the web, and via interlibrary loan. The first thing you need to do is to determine the best of breed among available resources, be they online or in print. Trying to research every available source is too time consuming and frustrating.  Reliable web resources that are continually updated are often a good choice, but you must carefully evaluate which ones are best for your purposes based on your firms specific requirements.  Aside from your firm’s internal information sources, using key online legal and business databases, should be sufficient as a good foundation to help you develop business for your firm.

Identify Your Firm’s Potential Markets or Fields of Business

The next step in any business development effort is to identify the firms potential markets by answering a few key questions: Where is the firm getting business now? What special expertise does the firm offer? In which practice areas is the work non-routine and important, i.e., it requires specialized expertise that the firm can offer but other firms do not? What size companies does the firm serve?

Many of these questions can be answered by conducting a few key interviews with partners and other firm members, and also researching the firm’s
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Most CRM systems have information as to a client’s industry, and how the firm was first retained by the client. You can also conduct a search on the firm’s CRM system to obtain a list of the kind of businesses that are retaining the firm most often, providing you with essential information as to the kinds of companies that are seeking out your firm.

Once these key questions are answered, the next step to take in a business development process is to learn about the composition of the potential markets. You can use an online legal tool to do trend analysis and discover the kind of cases that have been most prevalent, the most active companies in particular practice areas, the types of legal issues that these clients are facing, and which law firms already work with clients in these target markets. I use CourtEXPRESS.com because of its ease of use and variety of search options.  Once you have looked at the trends in the particular markets, it is easier to identify and track potential clients to bring into the firm.

Identify and Research Prospective Clients

The fourth step is to narrow your search from prospective markets to prospective clients. This requires the greatest amount of research in the business development process. First, for the market that your firm is interested in reviewing, find businesses and individuals in your local area that fit into your target industries. Next, make a list of potential clients and start researching.

Start by checking the archive of an online legal intelligence tool to identify previous and pending cases involving the prospect. Examine the legal issues facing the company and identify the company’s previous legal representation. If possible, go one step further and order a brief or relevant decision to gain more knowledge of the case specifics.

Next, visit the prospective client’s web site. Most sites have an “About” section where a brief overview of the company can be found. Go to the "News" section to read their latest press releases. If the company is publicly held, look for the company’s annual report online under "About" or "Investor Relations" and review it quickly to see if it recaps the major business and legal issues facing the company. With more stringent accounting rules going into place, annual reports should include more information about the company’s decisions and legal issues.

It is also wise to run a general search on the company’s name to find important news involving the company, especially news that the company does not choose to publicize itself.  Use several of the major search engines, Google, AlltheWeb, and don't forget Yahoo! Finance for a comprehensive look at news and financial data involving the prospect. Lastly, check major trade publications for the company’s industry. For free information, use NewsDirectory.com to identify relevant publications, then use the search engine on the publication’s web site to scan back issues.

Summarize and Bookmark

The next step in the business development process is to summarize your findings and bookmark business and individuals that your firm would like to do business with. To do this, compile the information for each client into a file that can be forwarded to the appropriate attorney and can be stored in the firm’s CRM system for future reference. Use Adobe Acrobat to compile a set of separate research materials into a single file from different sources and in different formats (Word, XML, PDF). Each item can be bookmarked so that the end user opens up one e-mail attachment and finds a point-and-click collection of results that can be easily scanned and read.

Track Your Prospects to Ensure Efficient Follow-up

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to track potential clients using an online system such as CourtExpress.com, Lexis or Westlaw, to create an alert to notify you or the attorney when the prospective client is involved in a lawsuit of interest to the firm. Tracking the identified company or individual is the payoff for all your research – you’ll now have access to information regarding new and ongoing litigation involving your prospect. You can then forward the alerts to the appropriate attorney so that he/she might contact the prospect immediately.

As the role of the law librarian evolves, it is critical to stay abreast of the latest trends in business development not only for the firm’s business, but also for your own career knowledge and advancement. The more you know the more valuable you are to the firm, and aiding the attorneys in bringing in desired clients speaks volumes about your commitment to the firm and evolving contribution.