Novel Responses: Helping Law Firms Answer Clients’ COVID-19 Questions

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 25, Number 1 (September/October 2020), pgs. 12-15.

By Cynthia Brown, Sr. Director of Research Services at Littler Mendelson and Allison Reeve Davis, Library Manager at Littler Mendelson

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought Littler Mendelson, a management-side labor and employment law firm, an unprecedented number of advice and counseling requests from clients. This work typically requires a client to speak directly with a shareholder who is an experienced attorney in a narrow area of law, and it does not initially sound like an opportunity for the library or a research team to assist. Indeed, client questions into novel areas of law rarely require heavy research, but rather rely on the experience and knowledge of the attorney. Littler’s first coronavirus question came in late December and was handled directly by a workplace safety attorney. In the early days of the pandemic, the library was not contacted with questions other than the occasional request to direct an attorney to the firm’s newly created Coronavirus Task Force.

By late February, however, the volume of direct client inquiries was beginning to overwhelm the shareholders. Library leadership was invited by the Chief Knowledge Officer to a strategic planning meeting to address the increased volume and urgent nature of these requests. Following this meeting, the needs of the Task Force attorneys were quickly matched with the unique skills of the firm’s librarians and legal information professionals. Littler’s Knowledge Desk and Knowledge Management Department were offered as key partners to meeting pressing client needs.

As client inquiries and concerns increased daily, the majority of their questions raised novel issues. A decentralized response process can sometimes lead to incongruous answers and to the frequent “reinvention of the wheel.” Providing consistency in the advice and counsel provided was paramount. The original Task Force grew exponentially as new areas of employment law were implicated in the situation, and transitioning from workplace safety issues to leaves of absence and compliance issues and matching the client’s need with the most focused subject-matter expert (SME) was critical.

Getting the Library Involved

With these issues in mind during the early stages of the strategic planning, library leadership offered to match the skills inherent in the research department with the needs of the Task Force. There was an immediate need to track incoming questions, assign the appropriate SME, and balance workloads among the Task Force members. In reviewing questions the Task Force received, it became clear that existing firm work product could assist in answering many of the repeated client requests. As documents were both identified and created, the information was categorized, curated, and stored for future use and easy accessibility. The Task Force needed better communication tools to share lessons learned with the firm, and there was both a need and opportunity to issue-spot and identify trends to enable the firm to provide proactive advice to clients. Finally, as the virus continued to spread, local, state, federal, and international laws were changing literally by the hour. The Littler Knowledge Desk and knowledge management (KM) department set up detailed monitoring of news and legal updates to keep the firm and clients informed. Each of these issues presented unique challenges and risks, but information professionals are well versed in averting such risks. We collect questions, answers, build repositories, and, with frequently needed information, create novel databases or tools for reuse. Applying these skills to provide much needed service to the Task Force proved invaluable.

Littler’s Knowledge Desk collaborated with KM attorneys and the KM Innovations team to build an internal SharePoint page of COVID-19-related resources structured with Littler’s taxonomy. These foundational resources provided a cataloging system that would be ready for the next wave of arriving materials supporting client counsel, as the pandemic and its employment law implications continued to evolve.

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Providing Career Growth at All Levels of the Library

By Allison C. Reeve Davis, Library Manager, Littler Mendelson

Reposted with permission from PEGA-SIS Blog.

Three years ago, we started discussing ways to provide career growth opportunities in Littler Mendelson’s library. As our library grows, new positions are often entry-level. Promotions to more advanced positions come along less frequently, even when a dedicated employee has learned, grown, and proven their skills for advancement. Here, we provide tactics for retaining valued employees and offering career growth, even without the availability of senior librarian positions.

The Problem

Over the years, law librarians have expressed concern and discouragement with the lack of senior librarian positions available in the job market. The danger for managers and directors is that they will lose their best talent to senior positions open at other institutions. Effective leaders provide their staff with professional development opportunities, challenging projects, and rewards for succeeding in career growth. Finding a solution to the conundrum of limited promotional opportunities for rising star librarians requires creativity and assessment of the library’s goals in advancement of the firm’s mission.

The Solution

Career advancement opportunities will look different at every institution. Our project may not fit everyone’s needs exactly, but the foundations hopefully provide all library leaders with a jumping off point.

Evaluation of current roles and the skills and tasks necessary to complete them is the first step. We looked at projects and tasks completed by all of our Assistant and Research Librarians and listed out the requisite skills employed. This was accomplished thinking in terms of job descriptions. For example, familiarity with legal research databases allows librarians to pull requested documents and train users on using the tools. Expertise with legal information sources expands the research and analysis capabilities necessary for a librarian to perform advanced legal research projects.

With all of the library’s work laid before us, we identified projects that wouldn’t necessarily require the expertise of a Research Librarian but that need expertise beyond an early-career employee. Those we designated as mid-level, or transitional skills: ones attained after an Assistant Librarian has mastered more than entry-level skills, but when they do not have enough experience to move into a more senior position. We also evaluated the extraordinary projects and contributions of Research Librarians, asking ourselves what it looks like when a Research Librarian has performed beyond their job description.

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New Law Librarian Orientation: Creating a Flexible and Welcoming Onboarding Experience

By Allison C. Reeve Davis, Library Manager, Littler Mendelson P.C.

Originally published in the PEGA-SIS newsletter. To view the original posting visit the PEGA-SIS Blog.

What We Had Always Done

When Littler Mendelson, P.C., moved headquarters to Kansas City from San Francisco in 2015, the new librarians received a wealth of training. The Director and San Francisco librarians spent countless hours training us on reference response best practices, labor and employment law-specific resources, proprietary projects like legislative and class action tracking, library orientation, and history of the library’s role in the firm. The transition was nearly seamless thanks to their dedication, and the Kansas City librarians were ready to train new hires as they continued to arrive the next couple of years.

In the past five years, Littler’s library staff has doubled, meaning we’ve had the opportunity to welcome and train a dozen new librarians. Managing the onboarding processes, I realized we had taken for granted our stored knowledge and undocumented best practices. New projects, changed procedures, even how we communicated was second nature to the 2015 crew, but new hires were still asking me questions about requesting time off, firm-wide events, and who’s who in firm leadership after a few months into their employment. I was repeating instruction and information Human Resources (HR) and I shared within the first two weeks of a new hire’s time in the library. I realized my mistake of assuming early information retention and taking for granted what was ingrained in our library culture.

Goals for Orientation

We provide training and orientation to welcome new hires to the law library, make them part of the team, align them with institution initiatives, and teach our procedures. These goals aren’t reached within a few e-mails or brief meetings. It takes time for someone to feel part confident in a new job.

A manager’s response to continued inquiries from a new librarian is not to ask new hires to memorize or refer back to previous e-mails, because staff should feel comfortable reaching out to colleagues, requesting meetings with management, and asking questions. However, gaps in knowledge need to be addressed earlier in a librarian’s tenure. My goal was to provide as much of our undocumented knowledge in a methodical trajectory that also encouraged collaboration and continued communication throughout the first few months after a new hire begins.

There’s a balance between spacing out information and keeping a new hire engaged. We all remember new jobs where, during the first two weeks, we read manuals front to back without much hands-on experience. This scenario creates boredom and confusion over the job description. Instead, offer a variety of e-mails, videos, meetings, and task training to keep the day interesting.

An Orientation Assessment and Team

How does a manager create a more informative, but not overwhelming, orientation? First, assess what already exists. You likely have an arsenal of e-mails, procedural documents, peer trainers, and HR videos at your disposal.

Make a list of those documents and communications, including contents, schedule of distribution, and deadlines for completion. I already had a schedule of e-mails I was sending to new hires, but these needed assessment for relevancy, content, and timing. Manager meetings with new librarians needed a set agenda, brief time slot, and frequent contact.

In most institutions, managers are unable to alter the orientation process at HR. Paperwork, technology training, and videos are mandatory and must be completed in the timeline dictated. Within your own department, however, lies more flexibility.

This should not be a solitary effort of just a manger. What do I know? I’ve been here for five years and have already admitted to myself that I’ve taken knowledge for granted. More recently hired librarians were extremely helpful in creating our new orientation program. I asked for their input inquiring, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started?” The response was greatly instructive and showed me exactly where knowledge gaps existed.

Our team already had a system of training new hires on their initial tasks. We reviewed this approach to ensure that (1) every Assistant Librarian trained the new hire on at least one task and (2) a new hire has a strong grasp on a duty before moving onto the next one. I also discovered that complex topics, such as online resource billing and law for non-lawyers, were pieced together through disparate conversations. The orientation team also suggested the brilliant idea of creating mentorship within the department.

Through the assessment of what I already had and a review of staff suggestions, my onboarding team set about reorganizing and formalizing the library’s orientation. The team included leaders from the Assistant Librarian team, a Research Attorney, recently hired librarians, and peer mentors.

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Leadership Academy Recap: Becoming an Effective Leader

By Whitney Brionez, Business Intelligence Manager at Holland & Knight LLP

Every other year, AALL holds a Leadership Academy, a program developed to guide participants on being effective leaders. I was accepted into this year’s 2020 Academy which was originally scheduled for Chicago in March, but ended up becoming a virtual program in August. The three day agenda included interactive discussions, leadership assessments (and what they mean), group coaching, collaboration, and networking.

There was much uncertainty and many questions leading up to the Academy, especially after the program was postponed and then became virtual. I was apprehensive about having the program in this format, as the greatest potential benefits to me were networking with peers, meeting new people, and sharing stories, and I was unsure how this would work in a solely-online environment. Thankfully, while we did not have those impromptu, passing-in-the-hall-on-break conversations, we did all get to meet each other and share stories over multiple break-out sessions.

Before the Leadership Academy began, we had the opportunity to meet our fellow participants in an afternoon virtual chat – a perfect way to start getting to know our colleagues. The first official day of the Academy began on the afternoon of August 6, and started with introductions from our facilitators, Karyn Nishimura Sneath and MJ Tooey, and our coaches: Julie Pabarja, Halle Cox, and Jean Wenger.

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Leading with Innovation: Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute Interview with Marcia Burris

As part of their Transforming Women’s Leadership series, Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute recently interviewed Marcia Burris, Director of Research and Knowledge Management at Nexsen Pruet, on her role in introducing knowledge management and collaboration platforms at her firm.

Innovation can be a loaded word in the legal industry, but broken down simply, it really means just introducing new things or methods to improve an established practice or process.

It’s a definition that Marcia Burris, Director of Research and Knowledge Management at Nexsen Pruet, knows well and has applied throughout the many phases of her career. Always centered around library services, Burris began her professional path as a legal entrepreneur and then as an internal library services manager at an Am Law 200 firm. She also supported law firms as a consultant, helping them optimize research and information services.

Burris joined Nexsen Pruet — a major regional commercial law firm with more than 180 attorneys in eight offices throughout the Carolinas — about two years ago. She immediately set out to innovate the firm’s research and library services and ultimately drive efficiencies in attorney workflow by identifying and removing barriers to information access.

In addition to expanding legal research training and resource awareness programs, Burris worked with firm leadership to revamp the firm’s approach to online costs so that attorneys could conduct research without concerns about these potential costs to their clients. To make online access more seamless for users, she also worked with vendors to remove client matter entry screens and implement a single sign-on to eliminate the need for passwords.

These changes have spurred growth in use of online tools, enabling the firm to cut print materials and save administrative time on cost recovery efforts.

On the knowledge management side, Burris said she is seeking to enhance access to internal firm knowledge and determine how the firm can do the same for clients. Internally, Burris launched a new intranet platform that integrates financial data dashboards and organizes other common information sets, paving the way for future enhancements and team collaboration sites. Externally, the firm is adding portals to facilitate client access to work products and case management information, and creating virtual deal rooms to add efficiency to those transactions. These sites help to strengthen client relationships through added practical efficiencies and partnership with clients.

Burris’s approach in creating collaboration platforms, both internal and external, is to start small with one or two targeted projects for a small group of users. This “first step” allows her to learn from each user group and incorporate that as she rolls out collaborative platforms to new user groups.

In the external client project, Burris is creating client-facing sites with basic functionality like file sharing and then enhancing the sites based on what the clients want. “It’s not just about the technology,” Burris says. “We’re trying to be strategic to have conversations with the firm’s attorneys and their clients and make sure we are providing content that is going to help them manage their legal matters.” This client-centric approach is enhanced through use of user-friendly tools over which attorneys have significant control.

This approach has worked well. When a seasoned attorney, who was piloting the tool for firm-client collaboration, built his own homepage with no formal training other than Burris opening up the tool and giving him a quick tour, she knew the platform would work well for attorneys throughout the firm.

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