Partnering With County Law Libraries As Law Firm Members

by Michael Ginsburg, Reference Librarian at Arnold & Porter

Collaboration has often allowed librarians to overcome challenges of access to needed information resources. Early examples include interlibrary loans and document delivery. services. As our firm libraries face new challenges of access, collaboration can again help us succeed, benefiting not just the attorneys we serve, but also county law library (CLL) users. In cities without membership law libraries, we should engage interested CCL colleagues to develop or expand member services.

Recent developments underscore the need to take this initiative. Online information services continue to proliferate, especially with deployment of “big data” analytics. New research needs have emerged as a result. Meeting these needs has burdened already strained budgets, requiring “tradeoff” decisions about subscriptions to add and cancel. Digital migration from print continues to accelerate, with escalating licensing costs that either outpace the rate of budget increases or further strain reduced budgets. Digital migration, in turn, carries licensing restrictions, preventing our libraries from sharing resources without print equivalents. But as we replace print publications with online equivalents, these restrictions also imperil the future of interlibrary loans (ILLs) among our libraries. While in some instances we can still borrow from academic law libraries, many of these libraries also have had to reduce expensive print subscriptions.

Despite these circumstances, attorneys at our firms expect “just-in-time” delivery of relevant information from an expanding range of venues, both online and in print. So we must leverage every available efficiency, especially given reduced staffing levels over the last several years. But “doing more with less” may increasingly entail doing without, unless we pursue other remedies.

CLLs need and deserve support from our libraries and our firms. They serve non-attorneys, including small business owners, government employees, and pro se litigants. They also serve the guardians of access to justice – legal aid organizations, pro bono attorneys, solo practitioners and attorneys in small firms. The economic crisis of 2008 took a heavy toll on CLLs, when their constituencies needed them even more. CLLs in several states closed or were threatened with closure, and in other states they were forced to reduce hours and lay off staff. Not surprisingly, CLLs continue to experience significant shortfalls in public funding. SCLLL-SIS Chair Larry Meyer recently said that the SCLLL “membership, as a whole, is deeply concerned about the twin pressures of decreasing budgets and increasing costs … Many of us have spent much time and energy looking at how to balance these two opposing forces in order to continue to provide the best possible service to our respective user communities.”

Doesn’t that balancing effort sound like a familiar challenge? In our libraries, we also must balance contending pressures. We must balance “just-in-time” expectations against rapidly rising costs, diminished or overstretched budgets, reduced staffing, restrictive licensing, and more limited ILLs. Why shouldn’t we try to face mutual challenges together with our CLL colleagues? We have an opportunity to do so. In cities where no membership law libraries serve our libraries and firms, CCLs may be able to offer or expand membership services tailored to firm needs.

Mikhail Koulikov, of the New York Law Institute (NYLI), has identified three key benefits of membership libraries: (1) “off-site storage of infrequently used materials;” (2) “shared access to online legal information resources;” and (3) “staffing multipliers.” The Membership Library Answer To New Law Firm Realities, PLI Perspectives, Spring 2010, at 14) Although some cities have membership libraries, only a few rise to the scope and level of service that the New York Law Institute offers, or otherwise serve large and mid-sized firms and their libraries..

Can CLLs offer comparable services in cities without membership libraries? In California, the Los Angeles County Library and the San Francisco County Law Library already do. State laws govern most county law libraries. Where not prohibited by law, CLLs may charge law firms for services limited to members.

Our libraries and CLLs can benefit from this public-membership model. CLLs will gain increased funding to enlarge their print collections, improving access for public users. The engagement of our firms will also help CLLs dispel misconceptions about the role of CLLs. Jonathan Stock identifies two such misconceptions that led to the proposed closure of 6 CLLs in Connecticut. (Saving Connecticut Judicial Branch Libraries, AALL Spectrum, February 2011.) These are “the presumption that electronic information makes books – and therefore libraries – obsolete,” and the idea that “Providence has intervened, making all necessary information ‘free’ on the internet.”

Our firm libraries would also receive significant value from membership in CCLs. Our libraries would work together to ensure that our CLL partners have print collections sufficient to sustain interlibrary loans of seldom-used publications that are not online or that our libraries have not licensed. We would have access to online research services that remain valuable to our firms, even though our libraries decided not to start on maintain subscriptions. And we would be better positioned to “do more with less.”

How can we advance this collaboration? We can start by contacting CCL Directors in cities where no membership libraries already serve our libraries and firms. If CCL Directors express interest, we must convince our firms that membership advances their best interests. We have direct evidence that it does, and not just from members of the Los Angeles and San Francisco County Law Libraries. Large and mid-sized law firms are members of NYLI, the Jenkins Law Library, and the Social Law Library. We can also show how supporting CCLs enhances the reputation of our firms, because CCLs provide information resources needed for pro bono representation, pro se litigants, and legal aid organizations. Our local AALL Chapters appear well positioned to aid a CCL-membership initiative, A local chapter can be enlisted to appoint a special committee for public outreach through such means as presentations to firms and publication in local bar journals.

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