Embedded librarianship in law firms: issues and opportunities

By Sarah Sutherland, Manager of Content and Partnerships, CanLII

There has been a fair amount of talk recently about law librarians using embedded librarianship as a model to increase their relevance and centrality to legal practice. This is an interesting idea; however, I believe there are limits to what we will be able to accomplish in implementing the original concept of the embedded librarian as it was developed in the form of the informationist in the medical field. Here is a link to the article that first proposed this model.

The role of the embedded librarian in the medical field involves an information specialist integrated into a healthcare team; often this information specialist is separated from a physical library and relies on electronic resources. This role aimed to forward the goal of supporting evidence based practice for medical teams, which facilitates treatment using the best care available based on current medical knowledge. Different sources of information are treated as being better or worse based on a hierarchy of information, with the systematic review (a synthesis of available medical research on a topic) being the most respected down to a case study or anecdotal report.

The librarian is included on rounds and in meetings and looks up answers to questions in the literature as they arise. The librarian is generally also responsible for teaching medical staff and students best practices for literature searching to support evidence based practice, so that this improvement in care is expanded beyond what one person could accomplish. This model has been very effective in improving care as it reduces errors and the retention of outdated treatments by regularly checking the current state of the field.

This strategy has greatly increased the role of librarians play in the practice of medicine and has improved perceptions of the value they bring, to the point of changing the way medical professionals work. In many ways medical practice and legal practice are logical comparators, so it is not surprising law librarians would also want to achieve this measure of success in their places of work, but so far law librarians in general do not seem to be as successful in this aim as they would like. In this post I will outline some possible reasons for this.

The first limiting factor facing an embedded librarian model in the practice of law is the presence of de facto dedicated researchers in legal teams in the form of articling students: legal teams are already more advanced in consulting the literature when someone is not sure of something than many medical teams were before the introduction of embedded librarians.

The structure of the literature in medicine and law are also different: medical literature is mainly conveyed in the form of synthesized medical texts and articles, where legal literature requires regular consultation of primary content, which requires significant interpretation when applying it to a given matter. This means that a necessary component of the legal research process is to synthesize this primary information which librarians who are not also lawyers are not qualified to do.

The medical literature has also migrated to online format much more successfully than the legal literature has, especially in providing access to the majority of information consulted in one place in the form of PubMed with its extensive linking to online resources. Furthermore, medical research uses historical sources much less frequently than legal research does. As a result legal research has a greater reliance on print resources which makes the model of the tablet-toting embedded librarian following doctors on rounds, looking things up in the literature using wi-fi, much harder to implement.

This leads to a further barrier, which is that law libraries have not been able to let go of the existing work of maintaining their physical collections to the same degree medical libraries have. This means a great deal of work still needs to be done in managing print collections, which in turn leaves less time to spend on direct service.

The point of outlining these issues is not to discourage librarians from striving to develop and implement this exciting model of work, but to show that the fact law librarians haven’t been entirely successful implementing it is not a reflection on the competency of the individual librarians or resistance on the part of the institutions and individuals. However, there are elements that can be drawn from this model that can be used to better integrate into the core functions of the institutions and not only demonstrate our competencies, but also to increase our value through better leveraging what we do.

The first suggestion is that librarians should make an effort to attend practice group, faculty, and other meetings as appropriate. This enables the library to know what the priorities are for the larger organizations and to anticipate future needs. I have been told that at a local university every course being proposed needs to be vetted by the library before it is approved. This is to ensure necessary resources are available or obtainable before the university commits to provide them to students. In a law firm it is unlikely the library will ever have veto rights on practice decisions, but knowing what is in development will allow the library to address any deficits in preparation for the change and include a request for additional budget should it be necessary.

In order to attend practice group or faculty meetings it is often necessary to obtain permission. I have had a great deal of success in this by simply asking; I make sure I explain why I am asking and how I see it as making a difference to service to the group involved by placing it within the larger context of the practice. When presenting this way, I have had very few refusals. Should this be ineffective, you may also want to try “the thin edge of the wedge” – ask to present at the meeting and then make as if to stay. You should have something to say about what you are doing to improve service regularly and this is a good way to let people know about it.

While at practice group meetings, it is good to listen for gaps in information on what the lawyers need to know. There are often needs for information that is not legal in nature and often they go unaddressed – these are a good start to improve their perception of you. Offer to get the information and make sure you deliver. This is especially effective for information needs in developing areas that require regular checking and confer an advantage to those who know about developments first such as emerging policy.

A further way to improve the perception of your offerings to the organization is to provide excellent training to the articling students, who are in essence the embedded researchers, thereby improving their ability to integrate information into practice and research development. This may not draw the library staff into the process as much as they might like, but it can achieve the same organizational effect as if the model had been implemented. During the training, it may be prudent to suggest that if they are working on a project that is very research intensive, you would be happy to sit in on any meetings and contribute to that process. I have often found myself on a research team with a student or junior associate to work on a particularly difficult research project.

It is through assisting in the achievement of organizational goals that library staff can improve their standing in their organizations, and most goals in legal organizations have informational components. Organizational goals differ, so it is important to know what they are. In a hospital the organizational goals are simplistically to save lives and improve quality of care, but at any given time that may mean any number of things, such as to decrease the spread of hospital acquired infections, to increase the number of cutting edge treatments, or to improve patient morale. In a law firm the goal is simplistically to make money and provide excellent service to clients, but the current goals may be broken down into such possibilities as to increase the number of referrals from existing clients, to improve efficiency in client service, or to better leverage existing resources.

Library staff should consider how to best assist with these goals and work toward implementing the plan. Demonstrating that you understand and share the goals of the larger organization, and that you are working toward them increases your credibility whenever you ask for anything. This is the ultimate goal of seeking to embed library services within an organization and the best way to determine how to make a variation of this model work for you.


2 thoughts on “Embedded librarianship in law firms: issues and opportunities

  1. Beware the assumption that because you work in a law firm, legal information constitutes the sum total of the information needed by the legal and administrative staff of your firm. See my Models of Embedded Librarianship Final Report Addendum on the Special Libraries Association website or on my blog at http://www.embeddedlibrarian.com for a case study in which librarians are embedded in both practice groups and the marketing activity of their firm.

  2. A. Not everyone wants to be a Reference Librarian. B. If you want to be the research librarian – and not document retrieval you need the J.D. for Research/Reference J.D.! Firms need to require (as academic institutions) this subsject knowledge for Research. It is time we ‘give it up’ and welcome this degree requirement.

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