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Features - Shared Technology Landscape: Issues in MIS and Library Relations and Communications

By Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on June 14, 2000

Roger Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.

Introduction

Modern law firms in general, and their legal research and library environments in particular, have become increasingly reliant on technology. There is still a lot of paper involved with both litigation as well as transactional law, but electronic information products and services have become pervasive, posing formidable management issues.

Technology has become a critical foundation of the modern law library, as a direct result of the proliferation of electronic systems in the practice of law. This trend has created confusion and sometimes conflict between the Management Information Services (MIS) and library departments. The library’s products and services often begin to occupy a bigger part of a firm’s technology landscape, while the MIS world is broadening in terms of the needs and expectations of users throughout the firm.

In this article, I will present some of the overall issues relating to the emergence of technology as an integral part of the practice of law, with a focus on the clashes/border disputes that sometimes arise between computer and library staffs. A war of these two worlds is not inevitable, for some firms successfully avoid major MIS and Library battles. The purpose of this article is to suggest ways to foster better communication and cooperation, to reduce the incidence when territorial conflicts do arise.

I will touch on some organizational approaches that various firms take to address the overlapping technology requirements of the MIS and library staffs. After touching on some of the broader issues, I will suggest ways in which the library and computer camps might view the legal technology landscape in order to better understand “both sides of the fence”. In closing, I include citations to a few related articles from the legal press on the topic at hand.

An Evolving, Dynamic Technology Landscape

On the one side are the librarians, who have historically played a central role in providing content within a law firm. The problem today is that this content is now coming out in so many different formats. On the other side is the MIS world, where the conduits and infrastructure of information have been championed, but they are now being forced to deal with content resources that are migrating and merging.

For firms that have law libraries and staff to manage them, the emergence and evolution of electronic information products have presented numerous management questions about how to best implement them. Even before the Internet came along, law librarians have had to deal with electronic information products. It often began with a few dedicated terminals to Westlaw or Lexis, and it quickly expanded in both scope and breadth. Local and wide area networks resulted in connectivity not previously seen, and of course the Internet has changed things on many levels.

Following are some selected examples of the specialized technology needs of legal information products, which represent some of this shared technology landscape:

Organizational Responses to Technology Needs

Emergence of these kinds of technology-based products has posed personnel and organizational issues. Some firms take affirmative steps to redefine organizational structuring and relationships, and some changes appear out of necessity.

In response to the demands of technology in the legal information world, many libraries have created internal positions that are primarily focused on electronic access issues. This trend began at least as early as the beginning of the 1990s, with the addition and redefinition of positions geared directly towards technology in the library. Depending on a library’s staff size, there can even at times be systems analyst and support staff, who directly support library operations.

Another organizational response to the technology needs of a law library is to place the library itself within the Information Technology department. While few libraries share physical space with MIS departments, there are a number of firms who have included the library in the IT branch of the firm’s organizational structure. This positioning will not necessarily alleviate all problems, but it is fair to say that it indicates an explicit recognition of the technology needs of the library.

I recently work at a law firm that has both created technology-focused library positions and placed the library within IT, but I don’t mean to say that these steps are required. I strongly believe in them, but they are not always practical. Staffing sizes as well as management style will help determine their appropriateness for a given law firm environment. The only organizational decision I highly endorse is the inclusion of the library on all law firm technology committees, especially for short- and long-term planning throughout the enterprise.

Looking at “Both Sides of the Fence”

With the complex configurations that legal technology products require, it is no wonder that these sources can be difficult to deal with. End users are just as likely to contact the library or the MIS department for help and guidance with technology issues. With applications that share the same infrastructure, there is often no clear boundary set, defining discrete departmental responsibilities. Now let’s look at some thoughts and ideas of how each department might deal with this shared technology landscape.

Thoughts for Library Staff:

Thoughts for MIS Staff:

Conclusion:

In closing, hopefully these scenarios, topics and suggestions will help the camps on each side of our metaphorical fence to understand how to best deal with an evolving technology landscape. As technologies continue to merge, both sides will need to have ways to cross the fence, and in places to remove it altogether. In addition, this overview will hopefully provide insights for those who also set up maintain and define where these fences exist in a law firm.

For additional insights into these issues, check out any of the following:

  • Brondfield, Ellen. More Law Librarians Will Soon Have Both Degrees – Not to Mention Other Specialized Training. In: Legal Times. Section: A Look at Law Libraries. p. S40. September 22, 1997.

  • Davis-Gabriel, Lynne. Library/MIS Communication: Results of a Survey. In: Trends in Law Library Management and Technology. Vol. 7, no. 6. p. 1-4.

  • Gaylor, Philleatra. Good MIS Relations: How Firm Management Can Help the Law Library Staff. In: Law Office Economics and Management. Vol. 36, no. 3, Fall 1995, p. 314-319.

  • Hokkanen, John. Breakthrough technology; ground zero; will you survive the Internet Explosion? One Firm’s story. In: Legal Economics, vol. 25, no. 2, March 1999, p. 30. (also: http://www.llrx.com/features/ground.htm)

  • Shesgreen, Deirdre. The Evolving Law Library: Technology Sparks Turf Battle. In: Legal Times, p S27, Nov. 18, 1996.