Leader Profile: Chris Laut

Chris Laut, the 2020-2021 President of the Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals (PLLIP) Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), has been a long-time active member of the law library community.  Chris has served as the President of the Association of Boston Law Libraries and has participated on the PLLIP Summit committee since its inception over 10 years ago.  He’s also been a member of the Westlaw In-House Counsel Law Library Advisory Committee, Bloomberg Law’s Knowledge Management Advisory Committee, and the AALL Advisory Board for the 2019 State of the Profession Survey. He currently serves as a Board Trustee for the Insurance Library Association of Boston and as a Trustee of his local town library. Chris is the Director of Library and Knowledge Services at Sullivan & Worcester where he is responsible for the full spectrum of the firm’s research, knowledge management and records management services.  He has worked in-house at Liberty Mutual Insurance as the Director of Law Libraries and Knowledge Services, as well as at various Am Law 100 firms such as Ropes & Gray and Goodwin Procter. 

Answers compiled by Patricia Barbone, Director of Library Services, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP.

You recently changed jobs and moved from a corporate environment to a law firm.  What’s been the most striking difference? 

I had worked at Ropes & Gray and a number of other private law firms prior to my 12 year stint in-house at Liberty Mutual. So, I understood the different dynamics at both.  Still, there are big differences, the most obvious of which is who holds the ultimate power of the purse and pulls the reins on the strategic direction of the organization.

In-house lawyers must be more responsive to the leadership of an organization, and pivot quickly to structural and business objective changes.  It is public knowledge that Liberty Mutual, in my 12 years there, eliminated internal distribution models for agents and brokers, spun off billions of dollars of asbestos liability, sold their life insurance business, engaged in multiple multi-billion dollar acquisitions, and closed down and opened operations in at least five countries.  Each time one of these events occurred, the legal department responded by restructuring, which sometimes meant sending certain operations to other companies, or developing wholly new legal structures.  Although the lawyers almost always remained the same, they had to have the qualities of embracing wholesale changes and finding ways to get to “yes”.  There were no lawyers at Liberty Mutual who were not good communicators.  Furthermore, their bosses were unequivocally business people; not other lawyers.

At law firms, the equity partners still hold the ultimate power. Many Am Law 200 law firms developed new C-level roles, wresting some advisory powers away from the equity partners into the hands of the management committee, which often includes C-level roles. When the C-level roles are filled with experts in their given fields (operations, finance, marketing & business development, innovations & knowledge services) and granted firm-wide decision-making power, then non-attorneys can help firms to accelerate change in the evolving legal market.  If these positions are subjugated, or filled with practicing lawyers, then the opportunities for developing to new paradigms is often lost. 

In general, I find lawyers at law firms to be brilliant practitioners with strong academic credentials. In-house attorneys may not always have the same credentials, but they usually make up for it through strong communication skill sets and an ability to adapt quickly.

What is your top priority for your year as Chair of the PLLIP-SIS?

I don’t have one top priority. So, I will name three.

  • As an organization, I’d like us to purposefully adopt tactics to be responsive to institutional racism and confront those issues that the Black Lives Matter movement has help bring to the forefront of our nation’s conscious. In that vein, to help us reflect on our own individual responses and develop a more affirmative approach to diversity, equity & inclusion as an SIS, Cynthia Brown, the chair of the Summit Committee, has agreed to hold a late winter summit on DE&I.  We will make every effort to collaborate with other diversity caucuses as well as the new Black Librarian SIS. We will also make every effort to influence the efforts of the AALL Law Librarianship as a Career Guidance Review Special Committee to ensure we are doing everything we can to help underserved communities and people of diverse backgrounds know about the great opportunities in our profession. Which brings us to the second priority . . .
  • Our PLLIP Strategic Plan hasn’t been updated since 2014.  This is our roadmap for our SIS and incorporates goals, objectives, and action items.  I’d like us to bring this up to date, and add DE&I objectives and action items.
  • Last but not least, PLLIP information professional directors currently have no forum to discuss difficult issues.  We will work to develop a “My Communities” board for PLLIP directors.

What’s your favorite thing about being an informational professional?

I love being in the thick of decision-making and knowing that each day brings opportunities to engage in completely new client solutions.

What do you do to relax?

I watch a lot of Premiership soccer.  It isn’t always relaxing, but it is so much fun!

What historical figure would you most like to meet?

Martin Luther King, Jr., in my mind the most inspirational thinker, speaker and activist for civil rights, poverty and peace in American history.  He was fully aware that his efforts to eradicate racism and institutional roadblocks to equality put him in grave danger.  Yet, he never shied away from leading and pushing a radical message of love and equality using nonviolent tactics.  His ability to speak and write with eloquence, authority, and clarity on incredibly difficult subjects has always put me in awe.

What is something that people don’t know about you?

I played soccer for Hartwick College in the mid-1980’s, when the school was a national Division I powerhouse.  I spent a lot of time cheering on great players from the bench!

Final thoughts?

I am both honored and humbled that my PLLIP colleagues chose me to lead them this year.  I consider myself a middling law librarian, at best.  However, one of the many great things our membership has always done is chip in and be of great use to our SIS.  This thought, that I am surrounded by brilliance and initiative, gives me some confidence that the year will go well.

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