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]

    7 thoughts on “A Better Strategy for Law Firm Librarians

    1. Mary,The terms that McKinsey uses work pretty well in the business world, but maybe are a little aggressive for what the law library's definition of “beating the market” really means. As for the competition, I think it would be better if you looked at it as a “are our users actually using other resources, when the law library is a much more efficient use of their time and efforts” kind of approach. For example, many of us watch attorneys jump from high-dollar resources (Wexis) directly to Google when they don't want to incur any charges for their research. Although I'm a big fan of Google (use 'em everyday!), it's not a Wexis-or-Google-Only-World. So, the library would look at that as an opportunity to “beat the market” by filling in that need between high-end paid resources and Google. That's not saying we are beating Wexis or beating Google… but rather that we are providing a service that shows alternative players in the market. Even if we're not giving the answer to the question, we are leading the user to the place the answer resides. That's our piece of the market.Same with the internal “competition.” It may be far more efficient and effective to allow paralegals or secretaries to do work that overlaps with the services that the library provides. However, it is also important for the library to step in when it is far more efficient and effective to use the library for services because that is really why we are here to support the firm. It's not a “use us” and “never use them” situation, but rather a understanding of when it is better to use the library (because that's where the skill sets are) rather than using someone with less skills simply because they happen to be within shouting distance of an attorney's desk.Again, the language may be over the top as laid out by the McKinsey rules, but I think most law librarians understand the niche that we're in and how to adjust the language to fit what we've laid out in our strategic goals.

      1. Thanks, Greg. It sounds like there may be far less distance between our positions than first met the eye. Perhaps the Manichean lens distorted perceptions a bit?In any event, it seems to me that the biggest challenge law firm librarians face is winning the time to educate their internal clients. In that regard, their position is not all that different from knowledge managers. We all provide some great resources and services. The key is helping our internal clients understand when working with us is more efficient and effective than going it alone with Google.- Mary

        1. One of the brutal facts of the downturn of 2008 was that is made many law libraries so “bare bones” that it makes it that much harder to find the time to educate our internal clients. One of the challenges that I've addressed with other law librarians is that we absolutely have to “make time” for these types of efforts. When I saw the ten tests from McKinsey, I thought that something like this might help law librarians better define what it is they are doing, through better defining their place in the market. Even if the language isn't familiar to what a law librarians might use when defining what we do, it may work (as you mentioned in your post) to give us a fresh perspective and approach the idea in a way we might not have thought about.

          1. Greg – Of course, once we've made the time for this necessary work, we may find ourselves facing another big hurdle: convincing our internal clients to make the time to listen to the educational information from their law librarians. The real market share we need to win has to do with the time and attention of our internal clients.- Mary

    2. Another point here is that regardless of how a librarian should position themselves for their clients (I don't think anyone would argue they should be competitive over collaborative), the Library, along with KM and other administrative departments, would do well to think of themselves as businesses when interacting with management, because — whether we like it or not — that's how management sees these departments. So we do need to be prepared to explain how we fit into a world where there are alternatives to the services we provide. It may be that some services are better handled by others, some are best handled by us, and some are best handled by both groups working together, but in any of these cases we should have a clear sense of where we fit in, because that's the question on the minds of those paying the bills.

      1. You're right, Ayelette. The challenge is in defining that business unit as something beyond the dollars spent on staff and online subscriptions. Otherwise, this department won't be extraordinary. The ordinary are easily replaced.

        – Mary


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