By Marshall Voizard, Reference Supervisor, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP
When I started my career as a librarian approximately 15 years ago, I worried I was entering a profession in decline, but I liked the field enough to give it a shot anyway. Between increasing online access and shrinking print resources, it’s no secret that the traditional library model had been under pressure for decades. Old timers spoke to me of bygone times of larger staff sizes and law firm libraries that took up entire floors. There was a feeling of fighting a rearguard action, always losing ground, just trying to slow the loss of staff and print. An unsaid thought was, when the library finally winked out of existence, would librarians disappear too?
In a sense, the COVID-19 pandemic and our forced work-from-home experience has finally answered this question. For most firms, print and the physical library location was out of reach for at least a year, and yet in my career I’ve never seen as many job postings for law librarians as I have in the last 12 months. Correlation may not equal causation, but adding in a number a recent legal news articles on this trend along with many anecdotal stories from colleagues, I’m happy to say I think we can all feel confident that we stand on stable ground.
In particular, legal tech has breathed new life into our professional duties. The deluge of new legal research and workflow products and constant updates to current products can be overwhelming even for librarians — and it’s in our primary job description to understand these products! The expectation that an attorney would have intimate knowledge of dozens or more legal research or technology products, in addition to their full time job as a practicing attorney, is simply unrealistic. I believe that we librarians are well positioned to act as product guides, trainers, and even marketers.
Many legal research and workflow products have their own trainers, but an internal librarian can see the bigger picture of the firm’s resources as a whole. Ideally, a firm librarian can partner with outside vendor trainers and coordinate trainings where the product vendor is the expert on the product, while the librarian can explain how the product fits into the firm’s greater legal research and workflow ecosystem. Librarians know each product’s strengths, weaknesses, and costs vis-à-vis the firm’s other subscriptions, and are uniquely positioned as expert guides on appropriate use cases. Firms that understaff or underutilize their library pay the price in resources that are paid for but unknown and unused by their attorneys.
The forced crash course for the entire legal industry in MS Teams, Zoom, video conferencing, screen sharing, and the like has been a great boon for law librarians. So many of our resources had already migrated from print to electronic before 2020, and I remember the pain of many reference requests when I tried to describe over the phone how to construct a search string or access a database. How much easier it is now to demonstrate through screen sharing! These technologies have also presented new capabilities that were not available in person that we’re probably still in the early stages of discovering. For example, I personally have found success partnering with outside vendors in video trainings where we each have the capability to share our own screens at different portions of the training — something we never thought to do in person.
In truth, I already had become much more bullish on our profession’s future than my initial impression 15 years ago, long before our worldwide forced work-from-home experiment, because the trends I describe above started years before 2020. But these past 18 months have accelerated the changes, illustrating to all that the library is no longer primarily a physical place, but rather an entire ecosystem of electronic legal information resources. Our expert guidance is needed more than ever.