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]

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    Times Are Changing — Are You?

    For the last few Sunday nights, my family has been completely absorbed by the upstairs downstairs drama of Downton Abbey. This English import provides a glimpse of life in an aristocratic home just before the First World War. One very poignant moment occurs early in the series when a man trained to be a gentleman’s valet realizes that the skills he has spent a lifetime perfecting are no longer needed.

    I found myself thinking of that valet as I read some recent posts on the shifting boundaries of law firm knowledge management. There are some who seem bewildered to find themselves in a world where the traditional things they have done don’t seem valued anymore. Meanwhile, there are others who are finding increasingly inventive ways to stretch their job descriptions.

    If you think we are not in a period of flux, you would do well to read some of the posts below. Taken together, they present a picture of law firm life and the role of the knowledge manager that is rather unsettled and unsettling. In the face of these tensions several law firm knowledge managers I know are looking for ways to ensure their continuing relevance. As is so often the case, the interests and innate abilities of particular individuals lead them to explore avenues (and hidden alleys) that may not have been within the traditional territory of knowledge management. I expect this will only accelerate. No matter what our views are on these developments, it’s hard to ignore the pace of change around us. The question for each of us is how are we going to reshape our jobs before the oncoming revolution does it for us?

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    Flat KM

    Back in the 1960s, the world was introduced to Stanley Lambchop.  As you may remember, an unfortunate meeting between Stanley and a bulletin board rendered poor Stanley flat as a pancake.  As a result, he became known worldwide as Flat Stanley.  The books Jeff Brown wrote about Flat Stanley provide detail on what it might be like to live in one dimension. Nearly fifty years later, it appears that Stanley Lambchop’s approach is alive and well in some law firm knowledge management quarters, as evidenced by a preference for Flat KM.

    What’s Flat KM?  It’s KM constrained to a single dimension and a limited purpose.  It’s KM that focuses on traditional activities, perhaps with a slight technological boost.  It’s KM that provides incremental improvements in quality and efficiency, but rarely makes fundamental changes to the way we do business.

    To be honest, Flat KM is not uncommon.  There are law firms and KM personnel for whom Flat KM is the form of KM with which they are most comfortable.  In fact, when I read Greg Lambert’s report of a recent knowledge management conference we attended, I wondered if his concept of “traditional KM” might be a bit uni-dimensional:

    I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very `flashy’ and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider `KM’ resources.

    Many of them were `Client Services’ products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing `knowledge’ at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

    Although Greg does not define traditional KM in his post, I suspect he had in mind some of the following tasks:  creating model documents and precedent banks; providing current awareness; and implementing search technology. In other words, KM activities closely related to the core of the craft of law that focus on “managing” legal knowledge. These activities are more concerned with documents than processes.

    While Flat KM may bring with it certainty of mission, I don’t believe it is adequate for the way lawyers practice law today.  Perhaps once a upon a time it was possible to be a successful lawyer simply by being a good legal craftsman who produced excellent documents and provided wise counsel.  However, the practice of law has moved on.  Today, lawyers know that being good at the craft of law is necessary but not sufficient.  Now they also need to be good at the business of law — the developing of client relationships, the winning of business, the hiring and nurturing of excellent talent, the running of an efficient, humane firm, etc.  Any one of these tasks would be a challenge.  Facing all of them together at once can seem insurmountable.  Thankfully, there are lawyers and firms that are finding ways to meet these challenges every day.

    Given the scope and depth of these challenges, can law firm KM afford to slide by as Flat KM much longer?  I don’t think so. Knowledge managers need to provide support to their firms for both the practice of law and the business of law.  In most cases this will mean, at a minimum, finding more realistic ways to provide the annotated models, practice guides, market precedents and current awareness lawyers need in a timely fashion.  However, there is much more KM can do.  (For a fuller discussion of the purpose of KM, I commend to you Mark Gould’s commentary on the “breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities.”) Just as we help uncover and deliver information useful for the practice of law, we can help uncover and deliver information useful for the business of law. This may involve information in our time and billing system, our client relationship management system  or our competitive intelligence system.  It may mean bringing KM principles to bear to make business processes within the firm more sensible. It may even require the occasional cool user interface.

    Some firms don’t have the resources necessary to achieve even Flat KM.  Others lack the will to go beyond it.  In either case, knowledge managers need to suit their activities to the abilities and aspirations of their firm.  That said, if you are at a firm that understands that knowledge management principles can make a material difference to both the practice of law and the business of law, then you can move past Flat KM to the richness of working in multiple dimensions.  This opportunity may well involve significant challenges — but it certainly beats living a flat life.

    [Photo Credit: Dena Williams]

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