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What makes a good law firm?

The law librarian knows...

August 12, 2014

Home Blog What makes a good law firm?

What makes a good law firm, or a good law firm great? Management consultants and other experts are available to give plenty of advice on that topic. We thought it might be useful to approach a group of people who are truly in-the-know – law librarians. After all, they share the view from the trenches.

In the process of working on a book by LAC Group CEO Deb Schwarz, we conducted a brief survey. We asked a select group of law librarians for their assessment of the general state of affairs within their firms, and what recommendations they have. We didn’t specifically ask them what makes a good law firm, yet their suggestions are relevant!

We will be revealing more in the book and other avenues; meanwhile I decided to share a few nuggets of advice on what firms could do to operate more effectively and creatively.

Ideas on How to Make a Good Law Firm from Law Librarians

We asked one completely open-ended question, with no restrictions on the length or type of answer they could provide. It was along the lines of:

If you had control over the law firm, what would you do? How would you run the firm or direct the people who are running the firm?

While we did not provide instruction as to what part of the firm’s operations they should focus on, we were happy to receive a wide range of responses covering everything from leadership to cost containment to business development. Following are just a few answers they gave us, some of them edited slightly for brevity, even though all the original answers were rarely longer than a couple of sentences.

For Managing Partners, Practice Managers and Aspiring Attorneys…

…who want to know what makes a good law firm, here are a few good suggestions worth your consideration and action.

Leadership and Management Advice

What makes a good law firm are enlightened partners who recognize the best partner(s) for leading the team and place those individuals at the forefront. Enlightened partners also recognize that all managers, whether responsible for lawyers or non-lawyer staff, are equally important. That’s what our librarians had to say:

  • Reassign partners in current leadership positions who have personality/work styles that are not helpful.
  • Put the appropriate support staff on the same level with similar power and responsibility as the existing lawyer management.
  • Trust your people and don’t micro-manage.

Operations and Expense Management Advice

With their understanding of the firm’s information resources and information technology, law librarians possess valuable knowledge worth tapping into for streamlining and containing costs. Also interesting to note how many of them suggested ideas that are not in their favor, like cutting staff and space.

Their take on how a good law firm could improve operations:

  • One of the benefits of technology should be to create more mobility for working virtually and cutting staff and space costs.
  • I would favor the consolidation of infrastructure and basic legal services in low cost service centers.
  • Provide the kind of technology and support that is required for the practice of law without worrying about cost as the first factor.

Practice Area and Legal Service Advice

We were pleasantly surprised at the number of suggestions that came in regarding practice areas and client services, the firm’s bread and butter. And the prevailing recommendation is to break down the walls that tend to separate support staff from legal staff:

  • Begin modeling excellence in records and conflict policies for our clients, perhaps even building it into a practice, to reduce client risk and make discovery less painful when faced with litigation or investigation.
  • Integrate various working groups – attorneys seem to think only of their practice group.
  • Get rid of the practice group model.

Marketing and Business Development Advice

We are witnessing closer alignment between librarians – who are increasingly focused on Competitive Intelligence research – and marketing. We see it as a perfect marriage, and so do they:

  • Push the firm toward cross-selling services. This would help us increase revenue by doing more work for existing clients and making them clients of the firm, not of an individual attorney.
  • Improving technology improves business processes and frees time to provide more valuable services for clients.
  • Increase collaboration and strengthen the ties between the librarians and marketing!

Information Technology and Knowledge Management Advice

As physical library space continues to shrink or go away altogether, resulting in the delivery of the Library as a Service, more librarians are becoming Knowledge Managers or Information Resource Managers.

As such, they recognize the need to beef up initiatives in this space:

  • Use technology and Knowledge Management to build strengths and relationships.
  • Create a Chief Knowledge Officer Position and work to implement any level of KM.
  • Undertake a comprehensive knowledge management initiative.  Currently, our efforts are splintered at best, with mixed results.  Need a commitment from all employees to focus on a unified, shared knowledge system.

Advice for Optimizing Both Lawyers and Non-Lawyer Staff

Perhaps one of the greatest changes to the legal industry is the blurring of lines between support staff and lawyers and greater emphasis on teams. Increasingly non-lawyer staff are doing legwork that used to be performed by young associates.

Other ideas how good staff can make a good law firm:

  • Firms need to rethink how they are using non-attorney staff…there are opportunities for efficiency if actually consulted.
  • Re-think the hierarchy of the attorney, enmesh the attorney into a larger team that would include and equate other professionals.
  • Knock down the silos and create teamwork.

Culture and Work Environment Suggestions

Over and over it becomes increasingly clear to us that staff members (the ones worth hiring and growing) are eager to contribute their talents and be a valued, acknowledged member of the firm. In today’s competitive, rapidly changing environment, it is no longer possible for non-lawyer staff to be considered less vital than lawyers in any way.

Our law librarians are eager for accountability, creativity and collaboration within the firm:

  • Measure outcomes so that everyone is accountable and to see where we can do better.
  • Encourage creative thinking.
  • Hire smart, creative, collaborative people and give them clearly defined objectives/goals. Then give them support and the freedom to execute.

I would venture to say that this advice aligns with guidance being given by any outside practice management experts. Perhaps hearing it from both sources will be a wake-up call to accelerate the pace of change in order to become a more successful, profitable, modern law firm.


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