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When it comes to succession planning…

Don’t forget your library director

Many law firms focus primarily on the managing partner or the management committee when it comes to succession planning and leave the various departments to work with human resources or to fend for themselves when it comes to planning for the future. This can be especially problematic because it is not uncommon for law firm support staff, including library directors, to have significant tenure at their firms, sometimes 20, 30 or even 40 years of service.  When these individuals retire or leave the firm, they take with them a wealth of institutional knowledge.

As of 2018, nearly half of the Baby Boomer generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—have already moved on or will soon be retiring. If your chief law librarian or library director is a baby boomer, chances are good that he or she is getting close to a retirement decision. Retirement of a well-regarded, effective leader requires planning, and it should start well in advance of the farewell parties.

Plan for the future

Even if the firm decides that the departure of a long-tenured library director is an opportunity to make changes in how the library operates or is structured, it is important to have made decisions as to what the change will look like, how it will be staffed and what the new or changed mandate for the library should be.  Involving the departing library director in developing this succession planning can be beneficial, even if the ultimate plan ultimately deviates from his or her contribution.

As with any senior leadership position, the library director should be required to actively work with firm management to focus on talent management. To that end, we recommend ditching the formal job description and building a profile of the ideal candidate. The profile should include the desired experience, education, competencies and skills sets that will best suit the law firm’s culture, business strategy and goals. The profile should include personality attributes, but not be written to fit any one individual, even when there is a possible successor in mind. This profile can then be used for recruiting both internal and external candidates and depending upon how long the exit path is for the outgoing director, can be updated as changes in the firm occur.

Succession planning for the law library

What are some key considerations when contemplating the replacement of a lead law librarian?

First, the knowledge management role has changed dramatically in the internet age. A librarian who recently retired after 30 years in a law school library remarked,

“You have access to so much more information, but often it’s too much information. So one of the things that librarians do well is vet information—authenticate it, make sure that it is reliable and from a good source, not biased. It’s a good role for a librarian, to gather information and sift through it and make sure the most valuable and helpful information gets to the person who needs it.”

In the same vein, the law library itself has changed significantly. Large law firms have physically downsized their libraries as more information is delivered digitally, and staffs have been cut as more associates are able to perform their own online research right out of law school. It’s now critical to understand the librarian’s role and the functions that the firm can or can’t do without.

A comprehensive strategic plan that encompasses succession would look at options, such as:

  • Developing and promoting from within—if other library personnel can fill the shoes of a leader, then it pays to invest in mentoring these potential leaders, either through formal training, coaching or exposing them to tasks that help them build the skills and competencies needed to do the job. A succession plan would lay out the path the successor should follow to prepare for that future role.
  • Hiring from outside the firm—the aforementioned success profile that would be ready at a moment’s notice to give to a recruiter or post on appropriate job boards. Beyond a job description, the firm should also make sure it understands the attributes of a successful librarian so it can interview and select a well-suited individual.
  • Outsourcing certain functions—incumbent staff may not have the skills, time or budget to provide every needed service. Outsourcing discrete tasks, like research, might be a cost effective alternative if the budget won’t support a new hire.
  • Retaining contractors—Contract staff may also be a good option if a talent search or in-house staff development takes longer than expected. Contractors are typically adept at stepping into new situations and can be brought on for single projects or for longer term staff augmentation.
  • Job flexibility—a retiring librarian may be open to semi-retirement if the role can be structured in a way that supports fewer hours. If the firm is willing to provide flexibility, this could be a win-win situation.

A robust succession planning process should always strive for staff development as its ultimate outcome. Ensuring each potential successor has the opportunity to grow into a prospective role is the real value in planning. Keep in mind that the purpose of succession planning is not to unilaterally select an “heir” for specific positions, but rather to openly discuss career goals and potential and to give employees opportunities to develop the skills needed to advance their careers.

The services that we provide at LAC Group touch many levels of a law library’s staffing and succession model. Should you decide to hire externally for a librarian, our expert recruiters can help you find the right candidate. Our librarian contractors can fill long or short-term staffing needs, while our research specialists can be retained on an outsourced basis. If you require any assistance for staffing or library staff augmentation, please get in touch.

Deborah Schwarz

Deborah Schwarz

Deborah Schwarz is founder and CSO of LAC Group. She helps organizations focus on strategic and pragmatic solutions for managing information, research and assets.
Deborah Schwarz

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