Providing non-traditional library services in a law firm: an interview with Steve Matthews

Some readers may recognize Law Librarian Steve Matthews as the Founder of Stem Legal Web Enterprises; but for those of us in the Vancouver legal community, we remember Steve in his prior role as Knowledge Services Director at Clark Wilson LLP.  For almost 10 years, Steve had a evolving position that combined the firm’s support services for legal research, KM, and online development; including working closely with both the firm’s legal marketing group and IT department. I caught up recently with Steve, asking him to recount how his position came about, and what law librarians could possibly learn from it in guiding their own professional future.

Were you initially hired as Knowledge Services Director at Clark Wilson, or did you start as Librarian?

None of the above, actually. My beginnings at the firm came in preparation for the pending Y2K disaster! (Insert joke about the Y2K consulting scam here).  For 18 months prior to the year 2000, I worked as a contractor on the firm’s internal Y2K project —  documenting all the firm’s technology systems, preparing a disaster recovery plan, identifying various supplier’s Y2K policy statements and recommending different courses of action. Way more work, in hindsight, than was ever warranted. But it’s hard to look back with any regrets — it got my foot in the door!

Also in hindsight, I swear I was brought in on a project basis just long enough for the firm’s Chief Operating Office to figure out what to do with my skill set. During my interview process I recall spending as much time talking about building web-enabled databases (something I was dabbling in at my prior firm — circa 1996) as we did on the firm’s year 2000 preparations.  As it turned out by the mid-way mark of 1998, the COO had me framing out the firm’s first Intranet. Shortly thereafter, I was brought on full-time, and assigned the role of Intranet Administrator.

Things just kind of expanded on me from there. Over the next five years, my role seemed to grow each year: I added responsibility for the firm’s public website, then the firm’s librarian retired, and being the only other librarian in-house, I was tagged with the firm’s library services. But perhaps the biggest opportunity I had to drive change during that period was still the Intranet. Right from the beginning, I had meetings with practice group leaders, and it had become a repository for as many paper-based collections as we could find and digitize. These activities turned out to be the foundation of the firm’s Knowledge Management program.

My interests in KM were spiked very early; and that had a lot to do with the firm’s partners. Many of them were looking for a way to manage these important bits of information and smaller tasks. KM simply became a focal point for “not reinventing the wheel”, and making important information easy to find.

So to answer your question, I didn’t start as a librarian; but really felt that by the end of my tenure, I had come full circle and ended as one.

You had a very non-traditional library career at Clark Wilson; what precisely did you do?

As alluded to in the first answer, it was a role that grew as much by attrition as any master plan. Inventing a department, “Knowledge Services”, was pretty cool. But it was just a name, we named it after all these support roles were placed under one umbrella.

Our goal generally was to work with both the input and output sides of lawyers’ working knowledge.

Starting with the input side of legal research, we faced the same issues that all law librarians have experience with — getting the right information in front of the firm’s lawyers, and doing so at a reasonable cost. The input side also included working with firm practice groups to help with things like precedent collections: either acquiring new outside collections, or helping to properly describe and disseminate each group’s prototype documents. Two different approaches to collection development, but both with a similar final goal — aggregate something useful, and make it easily accessible.

To be honest, it’s difficult to recall all the different types of content collections we created and maintained. I think many of these would be familiar to someone working at a mid-sized firm: contract databases, expert witness collections, or research memo banks.  I remember we built our own web-based library catalogue very early (2001/2002), and wove it into a larger meta-search product. That was always my favorite project — and interesting because we were able to create a bit of a Google-effect internally — we simultaneously searched a group of of internal databases, and then delivered a single page of weighted search results back to the user.

While the technology was interesting, and important, I suspect my most important task was to meet with practice groups and their leaders. If I had one lesson to convey to other librarians, it would be this: There’s no better way to find out what’s important to your firm’s lawyers than to ask them —  formally and collectively as a group. It’s the quintessential reference interview — nothing more. Not only do lawyers know what’s important to their practice, but most are ecstatic that you’re willing to help them.  There’s no better partnership internally; and there no better way to create long-term assets that will be valued by the firm.  Client-driven collections (your lawyers are your clients) are critical to KM success.

How did your library training prepare you for this role?

Some people might laugh, but I believe the fundamentals of librarianship helped me a great deal. Take a look at these courses I took back in library school: indexing and abstracting, collection development, database development and entity relationship modeling, management, financial management, human resource management, records management, advanced records management, and archival management.

I have used each and every one of those courses on a daily basis, for years! Even archival studies, which non-librarians might be quick to scoff at, teaches you the lesson of ‘provenance’, and staying true to a document’s office of origin is very applicable to practice group arrangements.

Librarianship, in my view, will always be a profession first; and should never be about where our services are delivered. I tried to bring that librarian’s approach to the Knowledge Services group at Clark Wilson; and I know that my company, Stem Legal, has those skills as its foundation.

What would be your advice to librarians trying to increase their involvement in the IT side of their law firm?

Two of the strongest partnerships that law librarians can have in firms are with IT and marketing. Let me touch on each relationship separately, and then tie these two groups back together (with “law librarian” string).

Lots of law librarians see IT as a barrier to getting their new projects operational; or ignoring their willingness to get involved. I think the big problem here is timing. To be frank, IT departments are working to their own agendas; and like all support departments, are judged on end-of-year accomplishments. Trying to insert your library’s services (or the skills of librarianship, generally) mid-project, is rarely going to work.

Law librarians need to be involved in projects much much earlier. That means:

    • being a bit of a visionary, and seeing what the firm is not doing;
    • maintaining dialogue and ongoing discussion – especially during planning season;
    • bringing information to the table that helps IT make better decisions;
    • watching for ways to support IT’s projects, building some “good will”; and finally,
    • moving some of that good will towards IT-Library joint projects;

Most firm management groups will look favorably on joint projects; so while you, the librarian, won’t be the “rock star”, you will get credit for supporting departments outside the library. That’s a good starting point. Also, try to accept that IT is going to get most of the glory early in your relationship.  That’s fine short-term, and will paint the library as “team players”.  It also puts you in a much better position to ask for help from IT in the future.

Marketing is my other key group, and has the business context that most law libraries need their services to be associated with. The marketing-library relationship is actually much stronger than the IT-library relationship; but few marketers will see it until you show them. The products to deliver? Competitive Intelligence, internal business intelligence, and research support for marketing services. Most law libraries have BI & CI on the radar these days (or at least they should), but librarians can also have a role in marketing. Think about:

    • resource collections with a marketing draw beyond law (yes, they do exist);
    • getting the newest decisions to the blogging lawyers in your firm;
    • rounding up industry news, and helping your firm publish content as a service.

There are lots of examples. My company Stem Legal takes this kind of “librarian’s approach to marketing” every day.  This is a huge gap for a lot of firms, and most don’t know who will fill the role. Now, that’s not to say that this will be your entry into adding value to the firm’s marketing department, but I guarantee if you think about it, there’s something. Get creative, and don’t be afraid to push!

My last piece of advice is to try to see the “middle ground” between the IT and marketing groups. In many ways, the “rover role” I played at Clark Wilson was ideal. We would work with the IT group on a project; and then try to see how marketing could be involved; or the other way around.  It wasn’t about trying to play politics; but was about taking the time to learn what skills each department brought to the table. Librarians are detail oriented, and we need to use that skill in executing the projects we’re involved with — know the puzzle pieces, and then envision how they fit together.

One thought on “Providing non-traditional library services in a law firm: an interview with Steve Matthews

  1. Pingback: Providing non-traditional library services in a law firm: an interview with Steve Matthews | Errol A. Adams, J.D. M.L.S' Blog

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