Features – Outsourcing a Private Law Library: In Defense of the Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro Decision

Janice Hammond is the former Library Manager for Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco.

California Librarians Talk Back
For responses to this article by several California librarians, see: California Librarians Talk Back.

For More Information

Outsourcing in Law Firm Libraries by Rachel Pergament.

Library Associates – Outsourcing Statement

Late in January 1999, Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro announced it had made a decision to outsource the library operations of its San Francisco office to Library Associates, a Los Angeles based library and information services company. The Pillsbury staff were given two weeks notice, along with severance options, and were told they could interview with Library Associates for positions that may be available with them, either at Pillsbury or elsewhere. This move, not unexpectedly, shocked law librarians across the country as most were sure the outsourcing failure of the Baker & McKenzie Law Library in Chicago, several years back, was sufficient proof for law firm managers and administrators that outsourcing was not an option that works well in a private law library environment. However, before rushing to judgement, as some have done, I would urge my colleagues to consider the Pillsbury decision in the context of the firm’s history and its place in the local legal environment and, furthermore, to understand that outsourcing is not always a negative action.

The Issues

Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro is a very old firm, founded in San Francisco in the 1870s. It has a long, successful history and prides itself on being a firm where tradition and scholarly excellence are of utmost importance. Currently, Pillsbury has over 550 attorneys in multiple locations. The San Francisco office, the largest with over 220 attorneys, is located in several buildings in the financial district of downtown San Francisco. Some time, late this year or certainly by January 2000, the San Francisco office will be moving to a new location where all attorneys and administrative/support services can be housed in a single location. This is a much anticipated move as the office has had to struggle in recent years with services, such as the library, being separated from the main attorney location.

To coincide with the move the firm has undertaken a major reorganization and upgrade of many of its systems and services. These include:

  • significant technology changes, including a move from a VAX, mainframe environment to Windows NT
  • a migration from WordPerfect to MS Word
  • implementation of a new accounting system (CMS) to replace multiple and incompatible systems
  • the introduction of a new document management system. (Pillsbury is also working on its Intranet and developing other areas such as knowledge management.)
  • review and compliance for all systems affected by Y2Ka
  • a review of services throughout the office, to jettison outdated or unnecessary operations and to implement new services and technologies that would be more efficient or cost effective.

Pillsbury regards the move as an opportunity to re-evaluate its operations so that it can move the San Francisco office to new digs with the confidence that it can meet all the challenges facing a competitive, 21st century law firm.

For the San Francisco Library, in particular, the upcoming move has presented unique issues, many of which go well beyond the scope of what the Pillsbury’s understaffed library could have handled. These include:

  • Physical size of the collection: There have been significant changes in the library collection over the years. At one time a very large collection (reputed by some to have been one of the best for a private law firm “west of the Mississippi”), the current holdings are now a slimmed down collection of 40,000+ vols. Moved in early 1998, from a custom built library several blocks away from the attorney building to its present temporary quarters, the library is currently spread out in numerous spaces including old filing rooms, hall cases and conference rooms. With the “final” move to a new library at year’s end there will be a smaller, single library with compact shelving and less space available than in the current building. Over the next few months the library staff will need to continue to maintain the current collection as well as audit, weed and downsize the library even further so that it will fit in the new location.
  • Library automation system: The San Francisco library uses BIBLIOTECH for most of its library automation applications. This is an old DOS based VAX application with Y2K issues and Pillsbury is one of six remaining libraries in the USA who have not converted to BIBLIOTECH Plus or have moved to another platform. While some of the other Pillsbury libraries also use BIBLIOTECH others do not, and there have been ongoing problems with integrating the firm’s library records, for example, in to a firmwide OPAC that can reside on the network and form part of the library’s developing intranet pages. There have not been qualified professionals on the Pillsbury library staff for some time who could begin work on this project, let alone have a new system up and running by year’s end.
  • Y2K: The BIBLIOTECH operations were the library’s obvious concern for Y2K. However, there are as many as 20 other online systems and various other services running from the San Francisco library, some of which have Y2K issues to be addressed within the next few months.
  • Library Classification & collection organization: The San Francisco office library is classified by a system called “Verlinda Rose”. This system was developed many years ago and has been adopted by several law firms in the Bay Area. The classification system has been a long term problem for all the Pillsbury libraries and it is the wish of the librarians in moving forward, to develop an OPAC on the WAN and to convert all libraries to LC. For the San Francisco office, this ideally means re-cataloging and re-labelling materials this year so by the time of the move the vols. can go on the shelves in LC, thus avoiding any further disruption to library users.
  • Library staffing: The San Francisco Library has been understaffed for some time. In the 1980s there were as many as 22 people on staff, however the number has dwindled for one reason or another. There have also been periods of time when there has been no Library Manager. The lack of professional staff, in particular, has had a major impact on the library’s ability to move forward. Although Pillsbury reorganized its staffing requirements and has been on a concerted effort to recruit staff, particularly professional staff, the San Francisco job market is tight. The lack of available graduates from Library Schools and the growing number of lucrative positions in competing law firms in nearby Silicon Valley has affected hiring in the downtown law firm libraries.
  • Library services & the “new” library: The San Francisco Library has always offered traditional library services. With developments in technology, particularly in online services and the intranet, the firm has looked to the library staff to develop additional services, training and support. Pillsbury has also begun to explore the way the firm handles its knowledge management and, to this end, requires the library to be as integrated as possible with other firm functions. With the lack of sufficient professional staff in the library, it has been difficult to move in this direction. In planning the new library, the firm has given the library an exciting challenge to move forward in these developing areas.

The Options

In consideration of how best to address the library issues, particularly in light of the move and Y2K , the firm’s management set out to explore various options. Without going in to details, some of the options raised included:

  • To handle the library entirely via in-house operations: From the beginning it was acknowledged that, despite the very best efforts of its existing hard working and loyal staff, it would be difficult to successfully tackle the necessary library changes in-house. The current staff were scrambling to provide day-to-day service and were not in a position to undertake any massive, additional projects. Bringing in assistance or pooling expertise from the librarians from other Pillsbury locations was not possible as many of the other Pillsbury offices had small library staffs and there were questions if such a move would deplete services at these points. Problems in hiring in the San Francisco office were examined. Was there any way the office could staff up, particularly at the professional level, that the office had not already tried? If the firm did not outsource, how could immediate goals be met in such a short time?
  • Partial Outsourcing: Should partial outsourcing be implemented in the hope that staff with the necessary skills to tackle the library issues could immediately be brought on board? Such an option raised issues of control. For example, if partial outsourcing was in place, to whom would the library staff be responsible? How would issues such as leave, salaries and benefits be handled if there were two librarians equally qualified, working side by side, but for different employers? What about discipline and performance issues? What would happen if a Pillsbury employee left, and who would fill that vacancy? The outsource company or Pillsbury’s? Of all the options considered, partial outsourcing raised the largest number of concerns.
  • Project Outsourcing: Rather than outsourcing the staff, either in part or in total, could projects be outsourced that would leave the existing staff and services in tact, while moving on the critical library projects? What would happen when the projects and the outsourcers left? Would Pillsbury still be looking for staff to run the library? Would all internal knowledge for these newly installed systems be lost or require the firm to constantly have to go back to the outsourcer for maintenance? Which projects could be outsourced and how would this affect existing staff and operations? Would the cost of outsourcing projects while trying to maintain existing library operations and staff levels be more or less cost effective and efficient? Who would have responsibility for these projects, the outsourcer or the Library Manager?
  • Total outsourcing of staff, operations and upgrades: The most radical of options, total outsourcing involved consideration of very basic issues such as the impact on the Pillsbury library staff, some of whom who were long standing members of the firm. What would this mean to the employees concerned as well as to other members of the firm? Would years of accumulated firm knowledge be lost and how would this balance out against an outsourced operation? What about the other Pillsbury libraries? How would they be affected? Who were the outsourcing companies and how could the firm be sure they would provide the necessary staff and services? Would the outsource staff stay on or would there be a constant roll over of librarians? Would the cost of outsourcing be more or less than continuing to the run the library in-house? Why did the Baker & McKenzie outsourcing fail? What impact would it have on the attorneys and their confidence in the library if the staff were outsourcers as opposed to Pillsbury employees?

The Decision

Over a number of meetings all options were thoroughly examined by key players in the firm including discussions with the Library Partners, Managing Partners, Executive Directors, Human Resources personnel and Librarians. Every consideration was given to ensure all issues were fully reviewed. Finally it was decided, given the complexity of the issues and the need to move quickly, the best option was to completely outsource the library to a company whose task it would be to staff up the library, take care of daily operations as well as the re-classification, automation reconversion and move to the new building. The contract would be for one year, as long as it would take to move, at which time the firm would reassess its needs and decide whether or not the future would include on-going outsourcing. Library Associates was chosen because of its successful track record with the firm. The Pillsbury staff, many of whom had worked with Library Associates on a move earlier in 1998, were familiar with the company and it was hoped that some, or all, of the Pillsbury staff would transfer to Library Associates and return to work at Pillsbury as outsourced workers. The cost, which was significant, was accepted as part of the upgrading and represents a commitment by the firm to its library.

The Outcome

Two weeks after announcing its decision, Library Associates took over running the library. Three regular, Pillsbury library staff returned to work with Library Associates along with two others who were temping at Pillsbury at the time of the lay-off. Library Associates brought in other professional librarians from outside the Bay Area to fill out the team and there are now five professional librarians in the office, as opposed to three before the outsourcing took place. More will be added as necessary as Library Associates moves in to the reconversion and other projects. Library Associates and Pillsbury, Madison Sutro’s management share a positive relationship. Library Associates are included in Pillsbury’s administrative meetings and report to the Director of Operations on a regular basis. The outsourced Library Manager also regularly interacts with other Pillsbury office librarians so that the outsource company does not work in a vacuum within the firm. Pillsbury regards Library Associates as a “partner” in the care of the library and provision of library services.


For those who think Pillsbury Madison & Sutro were foolish, or “melon heads” in making the decision to outsource, I would say do not speak hastily or without full knowledge of the facts. The Pillsbury management acted after due consideration of all the issues and only then did they move to bring in a company who could immediately move them forward. It was important to the firm to develop new services, marrying a traditional library with new technologies and to provide the best possible, quality research support to attorneys and clients. Unlike Baker & McKenzie, Pillsbury did not see this move as downgrading its library or tossing out its professional library staff. Rather, the firm “revalued” the role of the library and recognized that at this point in its San Francisco Office history, an outside professional organization focusing entirely on library services could do a better, more professional job by providing them with the services they needed and that this, after all, greatly assisted them in fulfilling one of their major responsibilities to both their attorneys and clients.

Pillsbury Madison & Sutro has libraries in 5 locations (San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, San Diego and Washington, D.C.) Only the San Francisco office Library was affected by the decision to outsource. There are no intentions to outsource the other libraries.

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