Features – Significance of Law Library Value-Added Services in the 1990’s Law Firm

Lorna Casey-Cohen has been librarian at the law firm of Fort & Schlefer, L.L.P. since June 1990. Previously, Mrs. Cohen held various positions at the George Washington University, Jacob Burns Law Library, including Head of the Serials Department and Head of the Reference Department. Mrs. Cohen has written several articles pertaining to law librarianship. She received her A.B. from University of California at Berkeley in 1975 and her M.L.S. at U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Library and Information Science in 1978.

(Archived March 19, 1997)

When the Chicago office of Baker and McKenzie outsourced its entire library staff in March 1995, law librarians across the country were anxiously preparing for damage control. There have since been a few instances of smaller firms outsourcing their library staff, but, for the most part, outsourcing one’s entire library staff has not become a trend. I do not believe, however, that law firm librarians should become complacent about their positions within their firms. I think we should view the outsourcing incident at Baker and McKenzie as a reason for reexamining our role within the law firm.

This article addresses the significance of value-added services in a law firm library and whether these services can be adequately provided by outsourcing the firm’s professional library staff.

First, it should be noted that law firm librarians have been outsourcing or contracting out specific library tasks for the past 25 years. Far from dragging their heels, firm librarians were in the forefront among law firm professionals to recognize that outsourcing could be an effective cost cutting technique. Under the supervision of professional librarians, such tasks as cataloging, looseleaf filing, messenger services and document retrieval were contracted out or outsourced (the P.C. term for contracting out in the 1990s.)

Outsourcing specific library clerical functions is one thing, outsourcing an entire library staff is altogether another matter. The term “value-added service” is being tossed around so often these days that one wonders if it has become a meaningless phrase. I do not think so. I think “value-added service” as it relates to the law firm library has two meanings. The first meaning encompasses those elements on which it is hard to put a price–confidentiality, loyalty, knowledge of firm culture, institutional memory, familiarity with partners and their practice areas, being informed as to client profiles and development of in-house training programs to name a few. Secondly, value-added service should be taken literally. For example: How does one compare the cost of on-line vs. CD- ROM vs. book research in any given legal reference question? How often are we called upon to estimate the cost of a particular research project? Thus, we can see that these two meanings of the phrase “value-added service” are not unrelated — one ephemeral, the other practical. They are two halves of a whole, which, when taken together, add up to quality service.

First, let us discuss the issue of confidentiality. A law firm library in a busy law office is often strewn with works in progress, i.e., memoranda from associates and partners, briefs that are being cite checked and client files. I view the law firm library as a sanctuary — a place where attorneys can gather and discuss cases, issue assignments and generally let their hair down without fear of being overheard by visiting clients or outsiders. Law librarians are often drawn into these discussions and queried regarding effective research strategies. Law librarians are frequently asked to provide information regarding current clients and prospective clients. They may be asked to provide background checks on individuals and corporations. Often, law librarians become actively involved in the firm’s marketing plans and make presentations on client development. All of these situations demand confidentiality.

What is at the heart of confidentiality is trust, and trust involves knowledge (of the individual and the law firm), commitment (the most cost effective high quality product for the client) and loyalty. Trust cannot be outsourced. Every professional law librarian knows the feeling the moment a particularly difficult to please partner approaches with a research question and admits that he or she needs help. What that partner is saying in effect is “Yes, I trust you to handle this question discreetly, efficiently and cost-effectively.”

If one views the law library as the “brain trust” of the firm, then the librarian should be viewed not merely as the custodian of print and non-print material, but the one person who is knowledgeable of past research projects (including which partner or practice area initiated the request), what resources (both in-house and out-of-office) were accessed and the end results. including memorandum, briefs, marketing plans and legislative histories. The librarian should also be viewed as the one person who is well informed about current projects. An understanding of the history and values of the firm, the personalities’ of the partners and the methods of training associates are not things that can be considered equivalent to looseleaf filing, and therefore be outsourced.

Librarians often play the role of advisor to nervous law clerks and young associates. Questions that associates would not dare ask a partner are routinely asked of librarians. Basic questions covering cite checking, methodology and research tools are commonplace. It is thoroughly rewarding to watch a first year associate mature into a competent attorney and know that you, the librarian, contributed to this individual’s professional development.

Developing good rapport with associates is important. Letting them voice their anxieties, their hopes, ambitions, and in return, relating anecdotes from the days when current partners were young associates, is a way of establishing trust.

Many years ago, when I was working in the D.C. branch office of a Wall Street firm, I came in one morning to find the library trashed. Newspapers were all over the carrels, on the floor; everywhere except on the newspaper rods where I had left them Friday evening. On hearing me express my dismay over the mess, two young associates looked at each other rather sheepishly and admitted that Sunday night after a grueling day of work they had decided to relieve their tensions by engaging in a sword fight using the newspaper rods as swords. After a moment of silence, I remarked that it was okay by me if they wanted to be Errol Flynn but they should just remember to clean up their mess before one of our partners walked through the Library.

My low key response did more for librarian-associate relations than six months of interlibrary loans. I understood the pressure they were under, and, more importantly, they appreciated my understanding of the pressures they faced.

Familiarity with firm clients is related to the issues of institutional memory and knowledge of partners and their practice areas. With the Internet, e-mail, and other computer technologies, it is now possible for clients to contact firm librarians directly and request reference assistance. Clients may request legislative updates, firm newsletters, government documents and other specialized materials without ever approaching an attorney.

The amount of information available in the electronic age can be overwhelming. The ability to manage and access legal and non-legal information in print and electronic formats and to deliver this information efficiently and cost-effectively is what defines us as professional law librarians. The following examples illustrates the law librarians’ ability to create information order out of information chaos.

  • Example No. 1:

    A librarian in a large law firm may be aware that unbeknownst to each other, two practice groups are tackling a similar research problem. The librarian, becomes alerted of this situation through the overlapping of reference questions, interlibrary loans and online research requests, suggests to the lawyers that they communicate with each other and pool their resources.

  • Example No. 2:

    Librarians of branch offices realize that they are providing similar information on different client matters. They notify their attorneys that the two offices are working on similar matters and provide each other with a bibliography of resources (both print and electronic).

  • Example No. 3:

    While attending a firm marketing meeting, the librarian realizes that the partners are unfamiliar with how the new technologies (e.g., the Internet, online databases) can assist the firm with its marketing plans. The librarian offers to hold a seminar for partners and associates to introduce them to specific databases and electronic media that can be utilized in helping them achieve their marketing goals.

The value-added services that came into play in all of these situations are an integral part of a law firm librarian’s role. All of these key elements–confidentiality, institutional memory, knowledge of partners and their practice areas, familiarity with client requests, plus the professional expertise that enables the librarian in each of these instances to analyze and predict the costs of the research project, can only be carried out by a team member. Thus, we see a melding of the two sides of value-added services. A professionally trained librarian with years of service in a law firm can ultimately become one of the most effective law firm managers in contributing to the profitability of the firm. Of this, there is no doubt.

Can these same value-added services be adequately provided by outsourced personnel? Quite frankly, I do not see how this is possible. It takes years to build up institutional memory, not to mention the amount of time necessary to establish the level of trust so necessary when discussing confidential matters. The “here today, gone in six months” nature of outsourcing professional library services makes it impossible for these relationships to develop.

I admit that it would be possible in an outsourcing situation for a competent librarian to compare print vs. electronic research in a specific reference situation, but that is only one half of the picture, and ultimately the firm suffers. Today, with competition at its highest, a law firm cannot survive on only half of the whole. The client, who is the ultimate recipient of the law firm’s efforts will accept no less than 100% service. Only a dedicated fully qualified law librarian can offer the quality and commitment of the necessary value-added service from a law firm library.

Posted in: Features, Law Library Management