What’s in a Name? The Future of Law Firm Library Departments

Joanne Kiley | January 21, 2022

The American legal profession has had a uniform conception of a law firm’s library department and its role for several generations: great big rooms full of books and periodicals staffed by librarians responsible for making sure the firm had the most important volumes on hand for instant reference by the lawyers — or to track down what the lawyers needed if it was not on hand. The nomenclature was universal, and everyone knew the role of the department.

But in just one generation, all of that has changed. As Legaltech News reported: “The law library of today only bears a resemblance to the library of 30 years ago….” Today, much of a librarian’s day deals with knowledge work and technological research.” Those shelves full of legal tomes are largely relics of the past, replaced by online legal research tools, and rather than simply tracking down court opinions or an obscure law review article, law firm library professionals are expected to assist lawyers with far more.

The law firm library department’s functional evolution has been accompanied by the introduction of new nomenclature describing who we are and what we do. Are we still the Library? Or are we Information Services? Or maybe Knowledge Management? Or some amalgamation of all the above? Moreover, where do we fit inside the firm’s administrative org chart?

I had the privilege of moderating a session on this topic during HBR Consulting’s 2021 LINKS (Legal Information + Knowledge Services) Conference. Our expert speakers were two popular voices from the renowned “3 Geeks and a Law” blog and podcast series: Greg Lambert, chief knowledge services Officer at Jackson Walker LLP, and Marlene Gebauer, director of knowledge management at Locke Lord LLP. The session yielded interesting discussions about the terminology used to describe our departments and the roles we fulfill inside our organizations.

New Roles or New Labels?

Focusing on role evolution for both library staff and department leaders is necessary to ensure continued success for law firm libraries. For example, HBR Consulting’s 2021 Benchmarking + Legal Information Services Survey (BLISS) found that more law firm business functions are now reporting into the library department. Of the firms surveyed, these reallocated functions included knowledge management (31%) and competitive intelligence (28%).

“In certain instances, we’ve been doing some of this work for a long time, so it’s really just putting different labels on what we were already doing,” said Gebauer. “But even in those cases, putting new language on some of these functions makes it easier for the attorneys and law firm administrators to understand our important role in the firm.” Lambert further expanded on this by stressing questions that libraries should consider: “As the language changes, does that (1) change how you talk about it and (2) do you have to change your methodology in order to fit the defined definition that the powers that be are now creating?”

In fact, Lambert noted the terms used to describe some of the new roles of modern law firm library departments are themselves in the process of evolving. “‘Knowledge management’ and ‘competitive intelligence’ are becoming ‘business intelligence’ and ‘data analytics’ in some firms and ‘legal product management’ or ‘practice solutions’ in other firms,” he said.

Information Services vs. Information Technology

Modern law firm information services professionals must be adept at leveraging technology to perform their roles. The challenge is to make sure the discipline is understood as entirely distinct from other professionals in the firm who are responsible for providing information technology support. IT tasks must not be confused with library services.

“I don’t think that law firm leaders always recognize the different skill sets that are unique to their information services professionals,” said Bobbi Basile, a managing director at HBR Consulting. “Language matters. I think there is a real opportunity to reframe the expertise that legal information and knowledge services professionals bring to important business problems.”

Basile cited, as an example, the use of natural language processing tools that must be properly “trained” to create useful taxonomy for the firm. “Librarians are the perfect folks to guide that process and serve as the guardians of that technology,” she said.

Location in the Org Chart

A library department’s location within a law firm’s organizational structure speaks to the department’s ability to help shape the future of the firm. As Lambert commented, “It’s important where the department sits inside a law firm organization because it determines the voice, influence and recognition that we have in our firms…. Where you sit inside the organization makes a difference in how you can influence strategic decisions at the firm and your ability to communicate to the firm’s senior leadership how your department is helping the firm achieves its goals.”

And sometimes, it’s equally important for purposes of shaping the perceptions of co-workers across the firm. “When it comes to how your department is placed in the organization, it’s all about perception,” said Gebauer. “We no longer serve in a traditional library role, it’s something new. Our colleagues will understand that more readily if our departments are in influential spots in the organization.”

Delivering Value

In light of the evolving role played by the traditional law firm library department — and regardless of which trendy labels stick or not — the bottom line is that legal information professionals must focus on demonstrating tangible ways they deliver value both to the business of law and to practice of law within the law firm.
“As data stewards in our firms, we have a real opportunity here to deliver value in terms of analytics, competitive intelligence, and other specific types of work we do that distinguish our new role,” said Gebauer.

Lambert noted that one of the opportunities he has seen emerge in the past 18 months has been greater access for information services professionals to engage directly with lawyers who have opened their practice group meetings on Zoom. He noted this access has enabled his department to demonstrate client service value to the firm’s partners, but he has more importantly recognized the need for his library to maintain that newfound direct contact with lawyers after the “return to office” schedule kicks in.

Legal information industry leaders seem to share the view that what our discipline is called and to whom we report inside the firm is more than an academic exercise. It’s an important topic already shaping the future of our profession — and it just may be an auspicious moment for us to elevate the importance and value of what we do far beyond what our predecessors experienced back in the days of quiet libraries full of dusty volumes.

“As we move into these new roles and business groups, it’s an opportunity for us to showcase what we do in relation to those new roles,” said Gebauer.
For more information about the LINKS Conference or HBR’s services for legal information services professionals, please contact Colleen Cable.