Changing Data, Evolving Librarians

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 23, Number 2 (November/December 2018), pgs. 12-15.

By Zena Applebaum, Director of Professional Firm & Corporate Segments with
Thomson Reuters in Canada

For many years, I have advocated for law librarians to be actively engaged in firm  initiatives in competitive intelligence, knowledge management, business development research, and other areas of law firm administration that are increasingly becoming
important to a firm’s ability to compete. As competition in the legal world increases, firms are hiring fewer administrative professionals. The ones who are hired are expected to do more with less, take on additional responsibilities, and execute on more sophisticated projects. This necessitates not only a broadening of skill sets, but also a reimagining of roles and titles. To me, this is where librarians, especially more recent graduates with digital skills—but really any librarian with organizational, business-minded skill sets—can really add value to their law firm.

The deluge of available information is not decreasing; it is only increasing at a crazier rate each year. The amount of unstructured data, let alone the structured content that is streaming through firms at any given moment, is overwhelming. Cue the law librarians
and legal information professionals to help us make sense of the data, turn information into intelligence, and still deliver research while managing collection costs and physical spaces.

Following my experience at the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) 2018 annual conference, I wrote a post for 3 Geeks and a Law Blog about the importance of law librarians and their ability to bring a broader—or I would argue, a more business-minded—focus to their skill set. The post, “Bored Walk and Profit Place,” was a riff on the board game Monopoly—which is a game of strategy and skill as much as chance. (View the blog post at

Below is an excerpt on the topic from the blog post:

“As the legal market for the buy side and the sell side is changing, so too is the market for law librarianship. As we encourage firms to think about their business as a business within a business, we must also encourage law librarians to acknowledge that the comfort zone has changed. It is wide and it is deep, and the 2018 Canadian Association of law Libraries conference barely scratched the surface. The law library, much like the information technology (IT) or accounting department, is a necessary part of the business. No one asks the IT department to recoup the cost of the MS Office Suite that is used in drafting legal documents, nor would we ever suggest a firm function without that software. Similarly, research and practice tools are necessary parts of the business. We need to stop lamenting that the recouping of library costs is being decreased year over year from 80 percent in the 90s to less than 40 percent in some cases today. That model is broken; it is dead. Would a firm ever consider practicing without research tools or word processing software? That’s table stakes and the effectiveness or value of the library should not be measured by the percent of costs recouped. As the eloquent Judy Harvie of Norton Rose Fulbright said in the same SWOT-ing (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) session, (I am paraphrasing here), “It’s time to leave the past behind us and move forward.”

Librarian Skills Sets and the Law Firm
So, what does this actually look like inside a firm? What are some examples of how librarian skills can be amped up and reach deeper into firms? Let’s look at how data has evolved and created new opportunities for law librarians in the digital age, allowing them to leave the past ways of analyzing and curating data behind and move forward in a new, but analogous, direction.

Imagine that you had one place where all communications and touch points from research done in support of a client file—from billings to continuing legal education to client event invites, as well as external information (client press, 10K, Twitter feeds, etc.)—resided in one place. Law firms, by nature, categorize and track more information than companies in many other industries. The library is a perfect neutral home in which
such a client database should reside in the new world. A good dot connector, such as a law librarian, trained in legal research and logical dot connection, can leverage this to his/her advantage.

It’s not just about connecting different cases, citations, or secondary sources, it’s also about telling the story of the firm’s internal data, as it is combined with external research. The dot connectors would need the keen eyes of a curator, a cataloger, and an analyst. Not to mention the collection would need to be culled and simultaneously grown over time. Any initiative or change in behavior would require a significant investment in training and development—another strong skill set of existing librarians.

Now, imagine if all of the administrative groups, including the library, could not only access the database, but also be trained to appreciate the importance of it as it relates to the business of the firm, and then encouraged and empowered to comment on the information in the system on an ongoing basis. How much better would your firm be at
supporting and even anticipating those clients’ needs—from legal research to policy changes, to internal events of interest? And while it may be a burden for law librarians to retrain themselves and their processes to think this way, because of curated and analyzed data, the end result is happy clients.

We all know that happy clients are the mainstay of law firms. The role of the law librarian could be utilized to make connections with the other administrative  departments to engage collaboration and dot-connecting for competitive advantage.
In some cases, the solution may be to connect the various software programs housing the data from accounting, marketing, and through running reports, and including this data as a standard input in data intelligence reports. In other cases, the solution may lie in educational and outreach programs to other departments to feed a data program with relevant data sets and information through a hotline or email box. Depending on a firm’s
appetite and budget, a law library, in conjunction with other groups, could look into buying third-party software, such as AWDC FirstLight, ComIntelli’s Intelligence2Day, or Manzama’s platform, to capture most of the data and match it with external research (as this would be outside of the usual and typical comfort zone of the library, it would allow law librarians to create fulsome and robust opportunities for their firm from within their neutral and respected library).

Law Librarians and the Future
Data, as outlined above, is just one of the many places that law librarians can create and provide added value for their firms. There are of course knowledge management channels, as well as a whole host of other avenues, including competitive intelligence, request for proposal support, and UX design. In fact, I am sure my own age and  experience limit my perspective in terms of all of the opportunities that exist for law librarians in firms. I will say that as much as the future looks bright and shiny, to get there means we have to leave the safety, security, and coziness of “the thing we have always done.” Law firms are leaving profit on the table. I do believe this, and I further believe that law librarians as well as others are already and will continue to play a significant role in the exploitation of that opportunity. Firm culture will dictate what change initiatives work and what change initiatives fail, but departmental insights and attitudes will tip the scales. Let’s make sure that when it comes to law librarianship, we are amongst those driving the change and making this happen, so that we turn the bored walk into the profit place.

Related article by Zena Applebaum:
“Competitive Intelligence and Your Library: 10 Best Practices for Starting (Or Growing) a CI Function for Small and Medium Firms,” in the September/October 2016 issue of AALL Spectrum at

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