The law firm library—”books and mortar” version—has been shrinking for many years now. While print resources are still available, their use has declined as electronic information options have increased, and legal librarians have assumed new responsibilities in response to the growth in digital libraries.
Yet just when the dust seemed to have settled in a middle ground of physical / digital harmony, along came the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic. Within days, many lawyers and legal support staff found themselves working from home with limited or no access to firm offices and resources, including the library. As of this writing, working from home may remain an option for some workers through the summer of 2020 and possibly beyond.
Will this be another step toward an all-digital law firm library?
The law firm library never went fully digital
If the pandemic had occurred in 2000 instead of 2020, the ability of most firms to remain operational while working remotely would have been limited at best. But over the last couple of decades, firms have been moving to online information resources and downsizing the footprint of their library space. Many firms reconfigured the library into more flexible-use space or converted the square footage into new offices or other uses.
Yet even with the growth of electronic information resources, many firms continue to dedicate a portion of their real estate to a library. The entrenched traditions of the legal industry, a firm’s culture, valued print resources and collections, lawyer preferences, generational differences, the library as a place to gather, and other factors have contributed to this blend of physical library space and digital library services.
The digital library has new momentum
Advances in sophisticated technologies like data analytics and artificial intelligence have been the latest catalysts toward further digitization. Now the coronavirus is the new force on the block, and it’s likely to have far-reaching consequences for years to come.
The legal media have been tracking law firm responses and actions due to the pandemic. Law.com reported that Reed Smith and Pillsbury offices have remained open and manned by skeleton staff. Weil, Gotshal & Manges has divided lawyers and staff into two groups that will alternate weekly between working from home and working onsite.
Prior to the pandemic, working from home was not a widely accepted policy in law. It took a public health crisis and lockdown requirements to force a change. Whether that change remains temporary or becomes a permanent option will depend on firm management and the necessity to comply with ongoing public health mandates.
As for lawyers and legal support staff, it may be that some of them have discovered that they prefer working at home, and that they perform equally well or better. Others may be hesitant about returning to the office and being in close proximity with co-workers and the general public.
This all comes together as a reminder that law libraries can be configured fully as a virtual gateway to information regardless of the current circumstances.
Several digital library factors merit consideration:
- Digital access to resources is more easily measured than access to books, so this can allow for better analysis of how sources are used and if they’re needed.
- Digital access is less expensive to maintain, and provides other benefits in terms of access to numerous patrons at the same time and information currency.
- Virtual arrangement of information sources not only leads to greater efficiencies, but can also lead users to relevant sources they might not otherwise have considered or consulted.
- The appropriate arrangement of resources can be paired with workflow procedures in a meaningful way.
- Library research is becoming more like knowledge management, and the two need to be complementary functions with shared access points.
Also, it’s important to look outside the firm into the greater operating environment:
Corporations that make up the firm’s clientele are likely to change their practices and customs, including where and how they meet with external stakeholders and advisers.
Court systems have had to respond to the crisis with limited access, especially in densely populated cities like New York. For the first time ever, the US Supreme Court heard arguments via phone.
With a global economy in limbo, all deals and client relationships assume even greater value. At the same time, alternative legal service providers are likely to increase their marketing and business development efforts.
It remains to be seen what new challenges and changes the future holds, but it’s becoming clear there will be new customs, mandates and norms that will impact the law library and research functions.
This is an opportune time for law firms to revisit their law library infrastructure and information requirements and to seek advice from LAC Group. We’ve done this before, under much less urgent and concrete circumstances. Years ago we pioneered the concept of remote research and reference, called Library as a Service®. Law firms come to us on a spectrum of needs and preferences, seeking everything from just-in-time support for special projects to full library outsourcing.
We know the efficiency improvements, revenue-enhancing activities, and cost reductions that can be the outcome of strategic library roadmapping and innovation. And we have the strategies and practices to help you implement a forward-looking virtualization of the library.
We will continue to look at law firm real estate in a future article, when we take a bigger view of office space needs as more services move to digital and online platforms.