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Legal librarianship in 2019-2020

Share your thoughts on law firm research and information

Legal librarianship 2019

As 2019 gets underway, law firm librarians find themselves at a crossroads. The explosion of technology, the downsizing or elimination of library space and the new normal of fewer and leaner Big Law firms likely means that law librarians will have to reinvent themselves and their role, with a focus on relevancy and adding value.

We surveyed some of LAC Group’s in-house experts on where they see the profession headed as we enter the final year of this decade and what legal librarians should focus on to ensure they remain an essential part of the law firm mission. We will also ask you, as a law firm researcher or librarian yourself, to weigh in on what you think the priorities should be for legal information professionals and their employers—you’ll find a survey link at the end of this article.

Law librarians must demand recognition for their contributions

In the wake of the 2008-2009 recession, the legal industry has experienced anemic recovery, with weak demand for legal services and use of outside counsel. Because of this dynamic, along with law-firm consolidation and intense competition among the firms that remain, the implications for law librarians have never been more critical. That was the conclusion presented by representatives of ALM Intelligence in reporting the findings of their annual law librarian survey at the 2018 American Association of Law Librarians annual conference.

If there is any kind of consensus among outside authorities and our own, it seems to be that law librarians must become better at self-promotion and selling their value to the firm’s leadership.

According to ALM’s Steve Kovalan (as reported in Above the Law),

“Law librarians need to make sure they’re getting adequate recognition for their contributions to the firm’s success.”

In terms of information budgets, our internal experts in research and spend management have no consensus. An equal number of them believe that library budgets will either rise, fall or remain static. It’s very firm-specific.

A librarian by any other name…

One interesting change in Big Law is how the biggest firms are now describing the information function. According to ALM, just 22% of AmLaw 50 firms continue to use the term “library.” LAC Group’s observers see them being rechristened as the following, or some variation:

  • Resource Center
  • Knowledge Center
  • Research and Information Services

Likewise, the term “librarian” itself may have an outdated connotation, with that job title perhaps even becoming a liability, at least in the special library segment.

Above The Law editor David Lat has stated:

“Some law firm clients resist paying for librarians but have no objection to paying for information specialists.

Our respondents within LAC Group see the title increasingly replaced with something like one of the following:

  • Research Analyst
  • Information Analyst
  • Knowledge Manager
  • Information Services Director
  • CI (competitive intelligence) Specialist

We don’t see the terms “library” or “librarian” completely going away in the near term; however, there will be a continued push to redefine both in terms of what librarianship means as the shift to digital becomes even more complete and technologies like AI and machine learning advance further.

Advanced legal technology

Technology is transforming the law librarian role. Large firms are increasingly employing sophisticated software tools in the areas of discovery, contract review, litigation research and prep and predicting case outcomes. In addition, a greater focus is being placed on competitive intelligence and market research.

We queried our experts on how firms are using or contemplating using advanced technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), predictive analytics, and what third-party tools they are adopting. Our respondents report great interest among firms—even if still tentative—in adopting AI and growing usage of data analytics programs, particularly Lex Machina:

“Some are exploring how to use analytics tools for training, some are using them for contract analysis and many are using data analytics to predict possible outcomes.”

Ron Friedman, LAC Group’s Chief Knowledge and Information Officer, believes the most common uses for AI, ML and natural-language processing in the current legal market are: 

  1. E-discovery.
  2. Contract analytics—due diligence in law firms and provision extraction in corporations, to populate contract lifecycle management systems.
  3. Legal analytics such as CaseText or Lex Machina.
  4. Time recording—accurate classification and recording of time to complete a matter or project.

Says another LAC expert:

“I’m seeing AI all over the place in terms of discussion of how it can be implemented—mostly in the exploratory phase. I see a big rise in tools such as Lex Machina, Westlaw Edge and Bloomberg Analytics, which provide analytics on judicial outcomes, attorney practice, common themes and trends in litigation.”

Clearly, legal librarians will need to stay ahead of the curve with these technologies, even those that fall outside the reference and research arena. It’s another way to remain indispensable to their firms.

What does the future of the law librarian role look like?

We also asked what skills need to be enhanced by law librarians as a profession. All agreed that librarians should focus on these three priorities:

  1. Promoting their roles and the library’s services.
  2. Running the library as a business.
  3. Being more proactive about identifying and addressing unmet needs.

And the following were close behind:

  • Ramping up support of firm marketing and business development efforts.
  • Improving vendor management, RFP and contract negotiation skills.
  • Aligning legal technology expertise with firm investments.
  • Developing subject matter expertise to match firm practice areas and clients.
  • Breaking down silos and increasing firm-wide collaboration.

While seen as less urgent, our respondents also cited the importance of developing a greater understanding of the firm’s strategy, mission and goals; and coaching, mentoring and making information more accessible to colleagues at the firm.

Versatility equates value

Another LAC expert summed it up this way:

“No matter how you label library services, it’s in an excellent position to integrate knowledge management, the acquisition of content and information, and curated research to support these changes and initiatives—but it will require the library’s leader to be extremely proactive. No more sitting around and waiting for assignments.”

Law firms are undergoing continued upheaval and most are trying to reinvent themselves to maintain or achieve a competitive edge. When asked how they see firm leaders viewing the library function in 2019-20, 60 percent of our experts predicted that it would continue to be viewed as a necessary function. Yet a sizable minority of the remaining 40 percent said it could fall under greater scrutiny due to advancing technology and digitization.

We want to hear from you!

Now it’s your turn to tell us how you think law librarians can best position themselves to be an integral part of the law firm of the near future. Please complete our reader survey here.

The first 20 readers to respond will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card, and results will be announced in a future blog post.

John DiGilio

John DiGilio

John DiGilio is the Vice President of Research & Intelligence at LAC Group. He has written for numerous regional and national publications as well as taught college and graduate courses in such topics as business ethics, e-commerce, fair employment practices, research methodology and business law.
John DiGilio

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