Not lesser. Just different.

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.

But how?

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

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8 thoughts on “Not lesser. Just different.

  1. Great post and good rules to work by. But don’t say “no problem”. Make sure lawyers know your job can be and is difficult and that you are under pressure too. Instead you could say “I’d be very happy to do that for you and I think I can renegotiate a deadline with so and so to fit it in” or “gosh, that is a really challenging piece of work and I’m looking forward to doing it for you” etc. Actually maybe don’t say “gosh” either – does anyone apart from me say gosh any more?

  2. An excellent post and some good advice on how to work “with” fee-earners rather then being seeing as an overheard and irrelevant. I’d also add that it’s important to understand how fee-earners approach their work, so that you can “tailor” any approach or work you do with them to ensure it’s relevant. For example most fee-earners will be very analytical so will want to know as much from the outset as possible. I think it’s fair to say fee-earners are also time poor so if you want to sell something to them do so with impact but bear in mind that a lof of fee-earners can be risk averse and will have an eye on the finances at all times!

  3. Pingback: Things I’ve been reading – October 2012 « Libraries, the universe and everything

  4. Why do law librarians have to constantly prove our worth to lawyers? I don’t want to socialize with them, as only a few nice-non-ego ones will be interested in you. After many, many years in this profession, it does not work. I give them excellent research results and meet their deadlines. I have done “personal” research for their wives, children and mother-in-laws. It is time lawyers put aside their egos and acknowledge librarians. From my experience, lawyers who have NOT worked in large law firms, coming from government or corporations have done their own research and are not spoiled by the perks in law firms.
    I have reminded these attorneys I am here to do their research .They are most grateful and sadly they leave as they do not fit in with the bigger-ego attorneys.
    Let’s spend our time improving our skills and mentor each other. Enough pulling out of the bag of tricks to get lawyers to notice us.

  5. Why do we constantly have to prove our worth to lawyers? Because lawyers are the ones who employ us, appraise us and our services, and decide whether or not we will remain employed. If we want to be employed in this sector, we have to demonstrate why we’re an asset…and that means being all-singing, and all-dancing, if that’s what holds their attention and reminds them that we’re relevant to their needs. If our budgets were controlled by other librarians, we’d be doing the same for them, but in law firms, lawyers hold the power. That’s just the way it is, and it’s unlikely to change just because we dislike the situation.
    There’s a variety of personalities in every workplace: some are grateful for your help, some barely even register your existence – you just have to keep doing your best, regardless.

  6. I’ve worked with lawyers for a whole lot of years, and though I too am quite tired of the constant need for self-promotion, I also think that Lorna is correct. It’s important to be visible in whatever way you can be. Not necessarily in every way that Lorna suggests – that might not be possible.
    And when you don’t think you can be of any help or the request is just not doable, I’m a firm believer in saying “Let me think about that”, “I’ll see what I can find”, or even “Not sure I’m the right person for this, but I will look for someone who can help you.” In other words, don’t say No right off the bat – this should be librarianship 101 and I think most of us do this.

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