How law firm librarians are reinventing themselves

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(Reuters) – When I started covering legal affairs 25 years ago and first did the Big Law Dating Tours, visits invariably included a look at the library of the firm.

The showcase spaces conveyed both intellectual gravity and quiet luxury: shelves laden with gold, black, and red volumes, flanked by racks of newspapers and magazines.

These large libraries were already on the way out as companies moved to reduce their real estate footprint.

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The pandemic has all but sealed their fate. In the past two years of working remotely, not a single attorney I’ve spoken to has ever mentioned being bothered by a firm’s lack of access to physical books.

But what about law librarians, those kings and queens without castles?

Once easily pigeonholed within a company – they were the people who worked in the library – their roles now spill over into IT, marketing, business development, customer services and beyond. Need a new database to track transactions? Competitive intelligence? ESG expertise? Combining research and technical skills, a law librarian could be the go-to person.

Already operating in a largely virtual environment, some librarians say the pandemic has actually allowed them to increase their visibility within their businesses. But will it last?

Greg Lambert, director of knowledge services at 400 Jackson Walker Lawyers, told me that when practice group leaders moved to holding their meetings on Zoom, they expanded the number of guests to include librarians from cabinet and other staff.

“People who weren’t normally included were there,” Lambert said. “It allowed us to step up and point to resources,” directly reminding lawyers of the value librarians can add.

Lambert said he’s worried about retaining that access when meetings stop being virtual. He fears that the lawyers, good intentions aside, will fall back into their old habits and neglect to invite those who are not part of their group. (Flashback to cool middle school parties.)

“I tell my search team that they have to come into the room,” Lambert said. “Otherwise, if you wait for (lawyers) to think of you, they won’t think of you.”

An amorphous sense of what law librarians actually do may be partly to blame. The title “librarian” does little to clear it up.

“Is the library a space? And is the librarian linked to this space? said Colleen Cable, principal of HBR Consulting, which specializes in issues related to law firm libraries, research and information services.

The title “doesn’t reflect what the role is today,” she continued. “It is a service profession, focused on providing and finding solutions to questions and queries.”

His HBR colleague, Senior Director Kris Martin, added, “What makes a librarian a librarian? It’s a set of skills.

Still, the alternate job titles I’ve come across don’t strike me much better. It is mostly a mixture of terms such as knowledge manager, information resource manager, global research analyst and knowledge strategist.

Lambert, whose title is “head of knowledge services,” said he was asked, “What is knowledge services?”

“The librarian,” he replies. To which he said the typical reaction is, “OK, I get it.”

Two years ago, when John DiGilio joined Sidley Austin as director of company-wide library services, he said it was the first time “in a long time” that he had “library ” in its title.

“I was a little nervous at first,” said DiGilio, who earned a master’s degree in library and information science in 1997 after her JD in 1996.

But sophisticated lawyers understand, he said. They “understand that the library is a real service versus an old-fashioned physical location.”

Sullivan & Cromwell co-president Robert Giuffra agreed, noting that his company “has long had a skilled group of research librarians.”

“We still have a law library with books, but the most important work (of librarians) is now done online,” Giuffra told me. “I am amazed at how they can search for information on almost any subject, including the most technical and obscure.”

In some ways, law librarians find it liberating not to be tied down to a physical space.

“The library is bigger than ever,” said DiGilio of Sidley. “We are no longer limited to what fits within the confines of our space. The universe is digital.

The question for the librarian becomes, “Of all the resources that change almost daily, which should our lawyers use?” If you had told me 20 years ago where we would be today, it would almost have sounded like science fiction.

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Jenna Greene

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, the faces behind the cases, and the quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime columnist of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Contact Greene at [email protected]

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