A Better Strategy for Law Firm Librarians

As I venture out onto what may be thin ice, I’d better start with some disclaimers.  I’m not  a law librarian, although I have had responsibility for a law firm library.  I’m not a management consultant with 14 different ways up my sleeve to help you figure out your business strategy. However, I am a longtime consumer of the services provided by law librarians.  And, I am a longtime collaborator with law librarians.  It is from these perspectives that I’m compelled to say that the strategy Greg Lambert suggested in Testing Your Law Library Strategy may not be the best one for law librarians.

To be fair, most of what he says about using the McKinsey tests as a way of examining and strengthening your strategy makes good sense.  While there may not be a 1:1 correlation between the businesses McKinsey usually advises and your law firm library, an exercise like this can often lead you to new insights.  And that’s all good. The part that pulled me up short, however, was the discussion about “beating the market.”  Here’s how Greg defines beating the market:

Beating the Market means that the strategy will better position the law library to compete in the market place against internal and external competitors, and will improve the way the library leverages the use of internal and external competitors.

If that’s the case, good luck to you!

From my perspective as a law firm library client and collaborator, I see things differently:

  • Competition is not the best way to frame this.  Focusing on beating and leveraging the competition requires a lot of institutional strength and influence. While some law firm libraries have this, many do not. It may be fun to consider a David and Goliath scenario that pits your law firm library against Google, but do you actually want to try that in real life?
  • Google is now engrained in our online lives. It is always available and always ready to help. It works outside regular business hours and doesn’t leave me to hanging while it helps someone else. While it doesn’t always guide us to the right resources, how does it stack up against all the super-busy law firm librarians we know?
  • What about the law librarian’s “internal competition”? These are the folks (e.g., paralegals, associates, clerks and secretaries) who are able to provide services comparable to those provided by your library.  Rather than focusing on beating them, I’d focus on understanding them.  Do they really provide a duplicate service? And, are they doing it in a more cost-effective or efficient manner? If so, the law librarian should leave them to it and get out of the way.  If these internal competitors are bringing extra value to the service that you cannot provide, then you definitely should cede this ground.  If, however, they are not bringing value, then it is in the interest of the firm and its clients that you work with them to ensure that the right folks are providing the right services.  This isn’t about competition — it’s about eliminating unnecessary duplication and streamlining your processes.
  • Greg also says: “…even if internal and external competitors end up being the best way to accomplish our objectives, it [should be] accomplished in a way that makes sure the law library is still an important player in that market.”  I’m not sure I agree with that either.  Now you are talking about riding the coattails of more successful “competitors.”  Is that really how you want to spend your professional life?  If Online Tool X is in fact the best way to carry out a research project, then work to ensure that the people in your firm are trained to use Online Tool X efficiently and effectively.  Don’t be tempted to force everyone through the library’s intranet page to win access to Online Tool X.  That doesn’t make the library more relevant.  It just makes it more of a hurdle.

I’ve worked with collaborative librarians and I’ve worked with competitive librarians.  As a client and a collaborator, I can tell you that the collaborative law librarian is infinitely better than the one who is constantly battling me and others for turf, influence and credit.  The collaborative law librarian works with me in such a way that our joint work product is appreciably better than anything either she or I could have produced independently.  Once I’ve seen a result like that, she becomes a key part of my team because she makes both of us look good. And, more importantly, the net result is better for the firm and its clients.

    In short, Greg’s approach to beating the market seems born of a rather grim, Manichean view of the world.  It really shouldn’t  be about us versus them because if it is, law firm librarians may well be toast.  I’d recommend following a more lighthearted guy, Ronald McDonald, who once famously said:  “If you can’t beat `em, join `em.

    [Photo Credit: Adrienne Massanari]