PLLIP Summit Law Librarian Panel–The Way Things Were, and the Way Forward: How We Coped, Managed and Succeeded in Unprecedented Times

An earlier blog post by Linda-Jean Schneider, Manager of Digital Access, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, covered the keynote address for the American Association of Law Libraries’ Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals’ annual one-day Summit.  Linda-Jean’s second post provides a summary of the law librarian panel that followed the keynote address. 

Following the rousing keynote address by Ari Kaplan, the 2020 PLLIP Summit continued with a second session focused on law firm information professionals’ responses to the recent seismic changes to the industry. The intrepid Jeremy Sullivan moderated a panel which featured knowledge repository leaders from a cross-section of firms.

Panelists:

  • Amy Eaton, Director of Library & Research Services at 1100-attorney Perkins Coie, based in Seattle with 16 staff among 4 offices;
  • Tina Dumas, KM & Library Manager at 140-attorney Nossaman LLP, resident in northern California with 3 staff members;
  • Andre Davison, Research Technology Manager at 600+ attorney Blank Rome, staff of 4 FTE plus some part-time contractors.

Jeremy occasionally weighed in with responses too, based on his role as Manager of Competitive Intelligence & Analytics at mega-firm DLA Piper.  In addition to the panel member comments, there were audience polls and chat questions eliciting responses and observations throughout the session.

The six questions tackled by the panel covered a range of territory–how  quickly staff members pivoted to remote working, along with an examination of firm policies for WFH; identifying changes in attorney request/response tools prior to and after the conversion to remote work; the difficulties and challenges of migrating from print to electronic formats, which segued into identifying specific tasks no longer deployed; and the impact of the stressful changes on staff.

Each of the panel members recounted that their staffing was already pivoting to working remotely, if not already there, and that the majority of their research and administrative operations had been primarily online. With the addition of some equipment and accessibility for Technical Services staff, the firms were all fully WFH in a few days, all by mid-March of this year. As for firm policies changing in response to the situation, there were definitely adjustments for non-exempt staff, but a predominance of attorneys and professional staff were permitted to work remotely pre-pandemic. The audience poll confirmed that about 32% of attendees reported they had ‘situational’ formal firm policies allowing remote work; 21% said they did have permission through the firm edicts; 24% including Amy said “No, but changes were in progress;” 18% said only attorneys had permission to work remotely in their policy.

The panel next highlighted their existing pre-pandemic operation systems, and how those had changed with the lockdown. Andre reviewed his firm’s prior deployment of the Quest request-tracking system; a OneNote notebook with a taxonomy consistently updated as a team knowledge repository; and Research Monitor to manage passwords and resources, which were all still being utilzed.  There seemed to be no change for attorneys according to Amy, but staff has been able to focus on back-end administration and projects, which has been a boon. Tina declared that backlog projects and operations reorganization are still on her wish list. She does not have a separate tech services team to focus on those tasks, as her staff primarily performs reference. However, they have been able to implement some digital initiatives and create new content for the firm’s intranet since the ‘lockdown.’ Tina identified specific challenges with access to IP-authenticated resources, but this was also a chance to connect with the attorneys and demonstrate staff capability to provide personalized service.

Next, to respond to attorney requests for both research and content, the panelists dived into a discussion of how to transition from their usual protocols, “specifically when migrating from print to electronic content”?   Amy posited that their digital initiative was already in place, but this pandemic pushed the project in a fast-forward fashion. This reflects the “fundamental shift that has been happening” all along. She also stated: “Print puts staff at risk,” as someone needs to have contact with the format, whereas digital is ‘safer.’ Amy also referred to the ‘unbundling of agreements’ as essential for the full transition. Amy says this transition to electronic is in fact a great equalizer. She expressed surprise at the very few requests for print since working remotely, and how attorneys and staff are rapidly familiarizing themselves with digital formats, leaving their print comfort zones far behind.

Andre echoed that this would definitely be the year to address this commitment to the transition from print to electronic, and look at the available e-book platforms, which have greatly improved in the past few years. His firm has been renegotiating with all of the major research platforms. Their current policy is “If the content is already owned online, no print will be purchased.” (A standard that should be welcome everywhere!) Blank Rome has a committee to approve any print expenditure that might be proposed.

Tina has seen the need for everyone to work remotely as a tipping point with management, and an undeniable opportunity to accelerate to full transition. The audience poll reflected similar situations among the firms represented by attendees. In response to “What impact has the pandemic had on your plans to migrate from print collections?”, the results were: 53% are ramping up electronic content; 41% had already transitioned to a high degree; 6% are maintaining prior systems; and 0% have even purchased print recently.

In response to the question of whether there are tasks from which you have pivoted after discovering they were being done routinely, without questioning or evaluation, the panelists named the routing of newsletters, papers, or print of any kind, as well as massive orders of numerous deskbooks—e.g., individual copies of the IRC for the tax group, both of which strategies result in tremendous savings. Amy identified the opportunity for staff members to attend Practice Group meetings, to be invited to provide more print-to-digital training, and to command increased flexibility with vendor agreements.

A question about the impact of the stress and demands of the situation elicited recommendations to encourage staff to take advantage of “Emergency Care Time,” or ‘mental health days.’ Andre discussed flexible work schedules, with a firm-wide wellness program. Tina shared that trivia contests, using Skype and random check-ins, were beneficial. She uses Skype to ask about favorite library jokes or most useful freezer items, and initiated a firm trivia contest. Perkins Coie has granted an additional 30 hours off to assist with personal issues. The Research Staff created a Spotify list of staff-recommended music — *LIBRARY will get you there. (Your humble reporter’s staff has enjoyed a variety of team activities–sharing favorite food, books, movies, dream vacations, etc.)

The final question to both the panel and the audience was “When do you think we will get to the ‘New Normal?’ ” The results were enlightening: 5% said the end of 2020; 21% said things will stay in flux; a combination of 74% said either mid-2021 or year-end 2021. Of the panelists, Amy selected the end of 2021 (seeing increased reliance on training videos, increased digital, reduction in real estate, limitations on travel, and a chance to radically ‘de-clutter’ offices and streamline the various collections). Andre agreed with Jeremy that everything is “in flux,” and that this is an opportunity for knowledge repositories to pivot, focus on professional development, and re-purpose the Vision and Mission Statement for the Research Department. Tina concurred, specifying that even with the vaccine, people on the front lines should get the vaccine before lawyers or our staff, and that everyone will be forced to increase our collective digital ‘savvy’ in order to move forward in the practice of law. The recurring theme was: Reduced office space, more WFH!

Overall, this session was a thoughtful, insightful examination of how firms are coping, managing, and thriving in response to the issues, changes, and challenges currently faced by legal information professionals. The bottom line, as always, is to be able to adapt to ongoing situations, and to be flexible in our efforts to provide a high level of content curation and research services to our respective users.

Throughout our 2020 PLLIP Summit law librarian panel session, The Way Things Were, and the Way Forward: How We Coped, Managed and Succeeded in Unprecedented Times, we received a variety of questions from attendees which we were not able to address due to time constraints. A good number of inquiries centered around the transition from print to electronic materials, and whether the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated that process. In my subsequent discussions with our panelists, consensus seemed to be that there were opportunities to be seized upon in this area – whether from revitalizing stalled digital initiatives, marketing the ubiquity of electronic sources and training reluctant attorneys on their use, or bringing vendors to the table to revamp their sales approach to the print/electronic mix. Additional, related questions had to do with staffing concerns – if you move away from print, doesn’t that make your technical services and paraprofessional staff vulnerable? Here too, the panelists were optimistic. Electronic materials still need to be cataloged. Staff can be cross-trained to focus on higher level work or spend their freed up time addressing dormant projects. Perhaps with HR’s help in tweaking job descriptions, and as long as staff are interested in these new opportunities, there’s no reason to think that those jobs need to go away.
Q&A summary submitted by panel moderator Jeremy Sullivan, Manager of Competitive Intelligence & Analytics, DLA Piper

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