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Image and reality

1 July 04

How the modern law firm librarian is able to take on a valuable role improving client service and enhancing the firm's fee-eaning potential

by Gill Leslie

The role of the Scottish law firm librarian has been undergoing a quiet transformation in recent years. We are information professionals or knowledge managers and the aforementioned list of tasks is but the tip of our professional iceberg. It is perhaps true, however, that the image of a librarian has failed to develop along with the reality and that outdated misconceptions form the basis of many attitudes towards our profession.

This article aims to dispel the myths about the law librarian and to encourage lawyers to recognise and utilise the full value of a resource which old-fashioned stereotypes may have disguised before.

The other half of the battle

At the most basic level, law firms cannot afford to deliver bad advice. All firms would agree that their fee earners should have access to the most up to date legal information possible. That is only half the challenge, however, as the best collection of materials in the world will not answer a client’s query unless it is exploited by someone with sufficient skill and knowledge. One of the members of the Scottish Law Librarians Group found herself talking to a planning lawyer at a networking event. After discussing his favourite resources, she had to point out that he was unwittingly advising his Scottish client base primarily from an English law book. Such are the risk management perils of not asking a librarian first!

Professional librarians do not merely select and acquire the most appropriate material, we also exploit that material in order to maximise its value to the firm. This exploitation can be proactive, such as in the provision of current awareness bulletins designed to keep fee earners fully informed of changes in the law affecting the firm’s client base, and it can be responsive, such as in the completion of accurate and relevant research relating to client matters. Librarians have even moved into the realm of fee earners in this regard as increasing numbers of firms introduce time recording for skilled research applied to client matters.

Increasingly, law librarians have complemented their librarianship qualifications with LLBs or other legal qualifications in order to ensure that the quality of legal research is of the highest standard and of the most benefit to the firm and its clients.

Delivering real CPD

Training fee earners in the skills of both electronic and traditional methods of legal research is a vital role for the law firm librarian. You may consider this unnecessary and believe that all practitioners would have these skills readily to hand. But ask yourself this – when was the last time you successfully consulted a legislation citator? If the answer is “last week”, I applaud you.

If, however, you last picked up a citator during your university library training and consider such things became obsolete on the invention of the online legislation database, just imagine that your internet connection died and your trainee was nowhere to be found. The value of refreshing your research skills on a regular basis suddenly becomes more than merely winning the never-ending battle to accrue sufficient CPD points for the year. Effective research-skills training equals true professional development in that the more a fee earner understands about legal research, the use of electronic resources and the quickest, most reliable methods of finding the law, the better service they can offer to their client.

In addition, successful user training by the librarian will reduce the time fee earners have to spend on preparatory research, thereby allowing more time to be made available for chargeable work and increased fees.

The service edge

In today’s competitive legal market, clients demand added value services which rely on the knowledge and information held by the firm. Increasing importance is placed on law firm websites, newsletters, interactive extranets and regular electronic information updates.

Simply stated, clients instruct the firms that they believe will know the solution to their legal problems. The more a firm’s staff are given the tools to access information and, importantly, are seen to be exploiting such tools the better they will deliver the service both in actuality and in the perception of the client.

A proactive librarian can assist in the communication of useful and relevant information both internally to staff and externally to clients. This is where many librarians are seen to be moving into the field of knowledge management, although we would argue that managing knowledge has always been an essential element of being a good librarian.

IT – keeping on top

In selecting and exploiting the best collection of resources for a firm, the law librarian has to combine the best of traditional and modern legal resources. This means that we not only have to understand the relative merits of electronic resources but also we must collaborate with the IT departments of our firms to ensure that the resources reach the most appropriate person in the most suitable format.

The better the flow of information around the firm, for example through computer desktop access to the firm’s resources, the better informed each fee earner will be with the minimum expenditure of time and effort. However, as an electronic tool is only as good as the person operating it, the introduction of IT resources reinforces the importance of the role of librarian as a trainer.

Further, the high cost of electronic resources underlines the need for proper controls and administration. On hiring a professional law librarian for the first time, one Scottish firm recently discovered that over half of their electronic licences were for fee earners who no longer even worked for the firm. That librarian saved the firm hundreds in wasted expenditure with one phone call to the publishers.

Myths and actualities

As librarians we are support staff and our raison d’être is to support the firm and fee earners in the provision of quality service for our clients. We are, however, also professionals in our own right, with qualifications, skills and experience not held by others in the firm. To recognise the true value of a librarian a firm must respect and support that experience and foster an environment in which our roles are allowed to develop and expand into areas beyond the confines of the physical library shelves.

The information held by the fee earners is the most valuable asset a law firm has, as this is translated directly into the advice given to our clients. Librarians have been organising, managing, retrieving and exploiting such information long before the rise of risk management, knowledge management, IT and business development. Our skills are flexible enough to adapt to the modern business world and we are no longer happy to stay quietly in the background. Just give us the chance to dispel the myths of those old stereotypes and we will prove to you that the modern law librarian is a powerful character who can help you and your firm flourish in today’s information society.

Gill Leslie, Librarian, Biggart Baillie