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.
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:
In the early days of networked computers, most applications served a single, discreet purpose. A word processor such as WordPerfect or Microsoft Word was initially only used for processing words. Now, with hyperlinking capabilities, the word processor can serve as a gateway to the Internet and other networked resources. Integrated office suites make this “single application, single purpose” idea even more distant.
Commercial programs and add-on products can now be called out from word processing interfaces, for the validation and updating of legal precedents, and the extension of research functionality.
Off-the-shelf electronic products from legal vendors might come as any of the following:
- Forms diskettes or interactive tutorials that accompany treatises;
- CD-ROMs for single-user access, network access, and those that allow hybrid online access for updates;
- Electronic versions of major legal loose-leaf services, which are no longer produced in printed format
Internet-based subscriptions to treatises, which may include updating services, and the list goes on
The Internet serves as a vast information resource as well as a delivery platform. In addition to the content resources in free and fee-based realms, the Internet also functions as a delivery mechanism for new products and services. Vendors who provide their information on the Internet can quickly adapt and change their features and functionality, forcing users to constantly learn new interfaces.
There are still a number of proprietary software products that exist to assist access to legal information resources, most of which will require functionality on each individual client computer.
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:
Try to understand how the library’s technology situation fits in with that of the rest of the firm.
Do whatever you can to understand the lingo and language of technology professionals.
Prioritize, pick the “battles” to be won, and be creative about solutions.
Attempt to provide value and/or services for IT staff.
If there is a firm technology plan, computer committee or other organizational structure within a firm, the library’s technology interests need to be represented.
Whenever possible, it is useful to be able to communicate needs and projects by using similar terminology. Read up on general computer news, and try to get familiar with the major elements of networks and computer and telecommunications devices.
In times when there is a lot going on within a firm, the library will need to prioritize its technology needs, both in terms of internal preference and external coordination requirements. Concentrate first on the major, functional projects, with later focus on creative ways to get new projects completed.
In an attempt to get away from being exclusively a user of information services, try to see what can be done to offer services and share knowledge with those in IT. As examples, invite IT staff to participate in vendor demonstrations of new technologies, and offer to provide the same kinds of library services that others in the firm receive.
Thoughts for MIS Staff:
Understand the importance of content and the general nature of legal materials.
Work with library staff to understand attorney and firm-wide needs.
Understand that library technology needs are often those of the firm as a whole.
Attempt to share responsibility for the benefits as well as the burdens of providing increased access to library staff.
Communicate and provide status updates.
Certain research materials are inherently more important, regardless of the format in which they are available, and therefore need to be updated immediately. Court decisions, for example, are ever-changing legal precedent issued on an ongoing basis without a regular publication schedule or predictability in terms of volumes or patterns of decisions. If researchers access cases on CD-ROM, therefore, they have no way to know whether they are looking at the most recent opinions. They depend on support staff to load each new update disc as soon as it is received
Librarians are in the best position to understand the legal research and practice needs of the attorneys and other legal staff. If attorneys request information about formats or new products consult with librarians, who are often the first to learn of new information products.
The Library requests services and products that will positively impact the practice of law. For every librarian pestering MIS about a service to be added, fixed or adjusted, there is bound to be an attorney driving the need.
If a new library service or system requires that people in the library be given additional access or administrative rights, consider allowing them the benefits of this access if accompanied by the burden of responsibility of maintaining it.
As a general stereotype, librarians love to communicate and share information. Consider providing regular status updates for ongoing projects. If time demands prohibit continuous updates, make an effort to schedule brief meetings to convey new information. As a corollary to this, notify the library of operational issues or time-critical projects for other departments when these may cause unexpected delays in ongoing projects.
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: