Working within a law firm, there is a very clear division in staff: there are lawyers, and there are non-lawyers. Lawyers believe that they are important, intelligent, innovative, indispensable, and all sorts of other “i” words. In the eyes of the lawyers, us non-lawyers are often seen to be none of those “i” words…we are other i’s – irritating, in-the-way, inconvenient. Which can create quite a number of problems for those of us who make up that generic mass of non-lawyer staff, particularly librarians.
It can mean we’re cut out of the flow of essential information about our workplaces – the business priorities, the objectives, the future plans. Without that information, we’re not able to work with full efficiency and support those plans.
It can mean we become demoralised, as we and our work are regarded as unimportant.
It can mean our initiatives and projects are not implemented or progressed, as we’re not viewed as being important enough to be given the required time and resources.
It can mean we become demotivated, as we’re frequently reminded of how little worth our work has, and how little respect we personally have.
It can mean that our skilled positions can be seen as handy areas to place underutilised lawyers in, because lawyers are viewed by other lawyers to be better than non-lawyers at everything.
It can mean our budgets are slashed without consultation, when other departments claim priority on available funds.
It can mean we aren’t given the charging codes for research performed, as the enquirers don’t wish to have to admit to needing the help of non-lawyers.
It can mean our specialised skills are unnoticed, as they are not “doing law”, despite their relevance.
Together, these elements can combine to create a library department and staff that feel undervalued, are viewed as non-essential by those in positions of power, are sidelined from knowing about or helping with core activities, and are at risk of being managed out of their roles in favour of lawyers.
Of course, the examples above are the extreme, worst-case scenarios, but if even a few of the elements are creeping up on you, you may want to start taking some action to increase your visibility.
Well, you’re an information professional: you’re likely to be qualified, with at least a degree, and possibly a postgraduate qualification. Since you worked hard to get those qualifications, display them! Have you got a degree, a postgraduate qualification, recognition from your professional body? Frame it! Sit it on your desk, put it on the wall, get your postnominals on your business card, get a name plaque for your desk with all those letters on it too. Yes, it feels like showing off, but you can tell lawyers that you are just as well qualified as them until you’re blue in the face – it’s just not information that they will keep in their head. Without a visible reminder of your competence, you will continue to regress to being that indeterminate person who just sits near the books.
Be helpful. Be very, very helpful. I know you’re probably already doing this, but volunteering information that you know will be of interest to individuals makes them feel that what you’re doing is very special, and being done just for them. If you have information going into your current awareness service that will email an alert out in the morning, and you see something that you think an individual would like to see now: send them it! They’ll remember that time when you were the first person to tell them X, or you remembered that they were interested in Y – it makes the thought “oh, they know what I want/need” lodge in their head.
Schmooze. Get yourself invited into every meeting of every team that you can, or volunteer yourself to go to any events that look like you could be useful in. Try and wiggle your way into involvement on project teams, especially in areas where law firms don’t expect librarians to have much knowledge, like technology or social media. Pipe up with ideas of how you can help those teams or projects, If you’re lucky, you can get access in this way to people who hold power in these areas, and get a chance to show them that you’re just as capable with cloud computer as with research.
Socialise. Even if all you want to do at the end of the day is drag yourself home, and you like to keep your work and your personal life separate, it’s worth showing face at the occasional corporate event. When you’re working in an environment where time is literally money (all hail the Chargeable Unit!), the chance to just get to know your lawyer colleagues without feeling that there’s an invisible billing target clock hovering over their head is a precious thing. And being able to show them that you’re a real person, with real interests and a real life, not just an email service or a voice on the phone is an important thing to establish. These are the people who, if you’re lucky and have bonded outside of work, will be the ones dropping useful information into their next conversation with you.
Most of all: be nice. Be so nice it hurts. Be cheerful and helpful to everyone, even the ones who are busy sneering at you, because if they’re sneering at you, they’ll be doing the same elsewhere, and your handling of awkward situations and people will be noted. Being the friendly, happy one makes you a refuge for others when they’re having difficult times, and they will remember that when you may have difficult times. Being nice can help you make you good workplace allies.
Yes, I know this all sounds a bit exhausting, and it involves a fair amount of dedication, stamina, immense confidence, and the ability to plaster a happy smile on your face and say “no problem” through gritted teeth, no matter how you actually feel. It’s not exactly a fun prospect, but then again, neither is the thought of having to explain the intricacies of copyright and intellectual property law to the under-utilised corporate lawyer that’s been moved into the Library to “help out” the Library staff, because nobody put in a word for the staff, or pointed out why that was a silly idea….
Posted on behalf of a Scottish Law Librarians Group member