The Tao of Law Librarianship: Reining In Your Inner Change Freak

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to change.

As law librarians, change is just part of our culture. We are used to continual software upgrade releases, and each of our online services experiences a major overhaul (if not smaller, incremental changes) at least once every 18 months. Many of us see an influx of law students and/or associates every year, so we need to adapt quickly to new faces and personalities. Plus there are constantly changing laws and new case law. And lately librarians worldwide have been monitoring and experimenting with all the social software developments with Web 2.0.

If you have clawed your way into the ranks of management, the effect is even more evident. Managers must strive for ways to become increasingly efficient, improve existing services, develop new services, and generally keep things moving away from the status quo. Whew! Being a law library manager, then, is a perfect position for someone who is wired for change. Blogs document all these changes in a wide variety of detail, and RSS feeds it instantly to many of us. Many really thrive on all that discussion regarding changing trends.

When you think about it, our society also very much feeds into this culture of change. Change, like its twin Youth, is Good according to our society. Do you buy into it? Do you have to read the latest book, be up on the latest music, have a new hairstyle, home decor or wardrobe? If you are like me, you strive to reinvent not only your work environment but yourself as well.

Looking back, you can sometimes see where avoiding a change was actually beneficial. For a number of years I avoided networking CD-ROMs, making single license versions available from a stand-alone machine based in the library only. At the time I felt extremely guilty about not keeping up with larger firms that had a wide range of CD services available across their networks. All I can think, now that most of those services are now available via the Internet, is that I saved my organization tons of money on licensing across the organization, and saved myself and my IT department a lot of the frustration I heard others complaining about when these services did not install correctly. For my particular firm, the right thing to do was wait and jump to web-based services when they became a viable option.

Here is a radical thought: change in itself is actually neither good nor bad. In his article, “Change: Who Needs Itfrom Managing Change & Technology (July 2000, Vol. 1, No. 5), Jim Frazier emphasizes this point:

Change is NOT inherently good. Stop believing that. Change is, without question, inevitable. But it is not good or bad. It just is. Change is not the issue. It is what conditions you are changing and what alternatives you are offering that should be the real topic of discussion. (p. 7)

We need to look at our organizations closely to decide whether certain changes would help or hinder, and act accordingly. Not all online services, software applications and management theories are appropriate for all organizations. For example, knowledge management may not be an appropriate umbrella management direction for some organizations, according to Bruce LaDuke. In a July 21, 2006 post entitled IT & KM Boat Anchors from his blog HyperAdvance, LaDuke argues that manufacturing companies should instead be focused on performance-related management: “Both KM and IT (as well as other disciplines) often usurp enterprise performance goals to achieve their own aims and as such I have seen them become boat anchors to industrial performance.” KM is increasingly prevalent in law firms because lawyers are knowledge workers so it is a natural fit for some firms. There may, however, be some firms in which KM is not appropriate as an overriding focus. For example, if you are in a smaller shop where practitioners know each other well and naturally share advice and documents, it just may not be necessary to put a formal KM program in place.

Beware of so-called “best practices”, therefore; just because something has worked for another organization, does not mean it will work for yours. It is of course smart to see what others have done and learn from their mistakes, but you need to take into account your organizational differences before implementing a change.

How can we ensure we use our super-human power as channelers of change for good, not evil? I have recently been reading about Marshall McLuhan’s theories in a fantastic little book I happened upon by chance, McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking, by Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove. One key McLuhan idea is that once we change our tools, our tools then change us. Think about that: how have our organizations changed from the adoption and use of Westlaw and LexisNexis? Suddenly we went from the ability to know all the law in a subject area to having to focus down and know a segment of the law. Where previously legal researchers could be assured, through the use of well-structured case law reporter series and reference works, that all the relevant law was found, many now hunt around in a random manner hoping key law is found. We may think that, being based in the library, we don’t have a large effect on our organizations; however, this one change has made significant changes not only in our organizations, but also across the legal profession.

If you are thinking about implementing some new technology, try this first: get out a pen and some paper, and jot down ideas regarding the technology in these four categories:

– what will the technology extend? For example, Westlaw and LexisNexis extend the ability to access law-related articles;

– what technology or idea from the past does the technology retrieve from the past? Continuing with our ‘Wexis’ example, having access to an online service retrieves a day when one could actually have a private library containing all known writing and knowledge;

– if you take the technology too far, what wll it revert into? What we all struggle with: information overload, with more ideas and documents than one could reasonably ever read;

– what the technology obsolesces? In this case, Wexis seeks to make books and hard copies of the documents obsolete.

This is McLuhan’s Laws of Media “tetrad” and is one tool he used to break open and reveal the underlying effects of implementing a new technology or idea. He theorized that all technology has effects that fall into all four categories. Playing off the ideas derived from other categories in the tetrad, you can actually end up with a whole list under each category. It’s not a static process but each category flows one into the other. Here is an example of lists I created in short order using blogs as the technology in question, although having the tetrad represented in this linear fashion doesn’t really do it justice as ideas between categories are inter-related:

Laws of Media Tetrad: BLOGS

– individual voice
– reporting of local events

– inside knowledge to outside world

– opinions/criticisms
– live reporting
– personal reputation
– personality
– community
– photographic collections
– personal presence on the Internet
– blogger’s ability to track items on the web, therefore it is a timesaving device

– spam blog (“splog”)
– comment spam
– very public arguments and embarrassments
– libel and slander
– disorganized lists
– time consumer

– journaling
– literary salon
– community centre
– traditional news reporting and photography
– essay writing
– speaker’s corner
– photo albums

– listservs
– chat boards
– e-mail exchanges
– newsletters
– browser bookmarks/favorites

You can see from this example that implementing a blog really brings the individual voice and personality into the forefront. If in your organization, for example, you are trying to emphasize the official corporate vision, implementing a blog might be too subversive for that goal. And meanwhile everyone was telling your organization it should be blogging!

And it is not just managers who can affect change. Those of us who are not managers can still definitely be leaders within our organizations. Our individual attitudes have an effect and can ripple through the rest of the organization. Those of us who are positive, pitch in with the larger organization, don’t say “that is not my job” but see ourselves as team members of the larger organization, are role models for others and can have a strong effect. In my firm, for example, my library co-workers periodically decide to run a fundraiser to support a charity. We’ve done things ranging from making cupcakes with pink icing to wearing wild homemade Halloween costumes to drum up support. While these activities were also great for team building within our own department, we always suspected some of our lawyers thought we were being frivolous in a serious workplace. Well, we were surprised recently when one of the partners told us our antics actually made the workplace fun and kept him motivated to keep coming into the office!

My point is that we have more affect on the cultures of our workplaces than we think, whether it is with our attitudes or in the changes we implement. It is not right to run headlong into change just because the “cool kids” at other organizations are doing it or because you think some new concept sounds like it would be fun to implement. No matter how much change you personally would like to see take place, you really do need to reign in that change addict and do what is right for your organization. Of course, if you have the vision and wisdom to hit upon something fantastic that would benefit your workplace, then by all means let that change freak show!

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.

Posted in: Blogs, Information Management, Law Librarians, Law Library Management, Legal Technology, The Tao of Law Librarianship