Law Librarianship in Today’s Economy: the New Normal

by Michele Gernhardt, Frosty Owen & Lisa Reinhard

Anyone reading the news about law libraries today or any other day since the economic downturn in 2008 comes across the same phrases again and again. “The new normal," “doing more with less," “cost-cutting measures,” “belt-tightening,” “shrinking budgets,” “shrinking headcounts,” “shrinking footprints,” etc., are constants in the literature.

All law libraries are dealing with these problems every day, and most library staff members doubt that things will ever go back to the way they were pre-2008. It really has led to a new normal. There have been significant staff reductions. There is less money for resources. Already busy, we are forced to do more with much less time and manpower and for as little cost as possible. It has also become more important than ever to demonstrate our value in ways meaningful to firm administrators and decision-makers.

Solution 1: Improving Reference Services Through Team-Building and Coordination:

We have implemented changes here at Hunton & Williams in order to maintain the highest levels of service to our users in this new environment. Once fairly isolated and self-sufficient, our offices share human and non-human resources to a much greater degree. This has fostered communication and team building between and within offices. One of the ways this cooperation is manifested is in firm-wide reference coverage through an e-mail address which requestors use after hours. Moving across the country we are able to provide live reference coverage from 8 am-9 pm ET. The west coast handles later hours and the east coast handles early hours.

We have several offices which have no library staff. Responsibility for requests from these offices rotates through our staffed offices by the day of the week. Requestors use the same firm-wide e-mail address to submit their requests. On Monday the Richmond office handles these requests. Tuesday the McLean office is responsible. Wednesday requests are handled by Washington, D.C., etc.

This cooperative mind-set has also increased inter-dependence and support. It is not uncommon for someone to send out an SOS if they have several time-sensitive or in-depth reference projects going at once and other offices are quick to assist. Since several of our offices have only one library staff member and those with more than one often run at less than full power due to vacations or illness, this is a great anxiety reducer when projects pile up.

The Richmond office also has a brief daily staff meeting where we discuss up-coming projects, meetings, training sessions, absences, and anything else we wish to cover which has led to a feeling of closeness and team spirit that we would not have otherwise.

Solution 2: Harnessing Technology and Education to Reduce Costs While Maintaining Service and Satisfaction Levels:

We are using technology to help us to thrive in the “new normal.” We take advantage of electronic resources and seek out all possible efficiencies to provide more valuable services than ever before. We provide more training, more reference assistance through the above mentioned firm-wide handling of requests from non-staffed offices, send out library services newsletters, e-mail a daily legal headline compilation, and set up alerts to monitor dockets, legal issues, companies, and other subjects so that our patrons can be kept up-to-date on whatever they need to know.

These new cooperative efforts have been very successful in providing a high level of service to all of our offices. Attorneys and staff report that they are just as happy, if not happier, with the quality and timeliness of services they receive from the library now. In firm-wide surveys regarding administrative departments, the library has consistently been ranked number one in overall satisfaction.

A significant potential pain point for librarians and their clients is the paring down of resources. Some duplicative and/or costly resources had to be eliminated. Other subscriptions had to be reduced; firm-wide subscriptions became limited access subscriptions. This can be very frustrating for users, who can no longer access their favorite resources. Adequate communication and education often replaces frustration with acceptance. The Library Services team uses reference exchanges, newsletters, and targeted communications and training to educate users about alternative resources that will meet their information needs.

Centralizing access to more costly subscription resources to the Library Services team (and in some cases select “sophisticated users”) has resulted in cost savings and often improves efficiency and satisfaction levels. Those who actually perform the research have much more training and experience, and are therefore more likely to produce meaningful result sets in the shortest amount of time. Once firm attorneys understand that we can still get them what they want, probably faster than they could have on their own, they don’t mind sending an e-mail to the reference desk.

Demystifying Lexis and Westlaw billing so users can do research without fear is another educational tactic that we have started implementing. We have offered “what it costs” sessions and try to answer any billing questions quickly and clearly.

Solution 3: Demonstrating Value:

In this new reality it has become even more important than ever for libraries to draw attention to the significant contributions they make to the firm. Demonstrating our value is crucial to our continued existence. Keeping statistical records of what we are doing is one way we can show firm administrators how busy and needed we are. All eight staffed U.S. offices at Hunton & Williams record reference requests in a monthly log. The data is compiled into reports that illustrate firm-wide reference demand. Team-wide buy-in has been absolutely critical to the success of this project.

We also record our time daily in the firm’s time entry program. This illustrates the “day’s work” for each librarian, and allows for the firm to potentially bill clients for research performed. Reference requests, training, billing/cost recovery, material processing, library maintenance, CLE administration, cataloging, etc., all are listed in a daily report.

Flexibility and adaptability are becoming more important attributes for librarians. Taking advantage of other opportunities to focus attention on the library is good business. We offer specialized training to different teams or groups in the firm. We do research for client and practice development. We assist attorneys by finding information for their speaking opportunities and articles. Through various newsletters and alerts we can offer regular and timely information about clients, industries, technology, practice areas, deal news, and breaking or potential lawsuits. We focus attention on the library during National Library Week with events and celebrations. Through all of these activities we can let our firm know that the library and its staff add value to the bottom line.

Solution 4 : Teamwork and Time/Project Management:

We are thrilled that we have been able to maintain such a high level of internal client satisfaction despite the reduction in human and non-human resources. But now that we have about half the number of librarians providing even more services than before the economic downturn, we all understandably have much less time to devote to non-reference work. Our attorneys need very fast, thorough, and accurate responses to their requests; therefore valuable and essential functions such as collection maintenance and development, cataloging, integrated library system and web development, and other projects must take a back-seat.

A positive approach, teamwork, and innovative time, task, and project management, have allowed us to continue to successfully maintain and improve our library. To complete routine tasks or to meet looming deadlines, a little teamwork can go a long way. The occasional request for help, typically in the form of reference coverage, never goes unanswered. For larger and/or longer-term projects, breaking the project down into smaller components helps maintain momentum, measure progress, and provide a sense of accomplishment for each completed goal or project phase.

Since each firm and library is so unique, there isn’t a single path to success. We have taken many steps to adapt and thrive in the “new normal,” but we know there is ample room and opportunity to improve. That said, we hope some of the solutions we have implemented at Hunton & Williams can be applied to your library and will bring you success in the “new normal” environment.

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