Innovation Is Changing the Role of Law Librarians—And They’re Ready for It

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 26, Number 5 (May/June 2022), pgs 14-16.

By G. Patrick Flanagan, Legal Research Manager, BakerHostetler; Jill L. Kilgore, Research Librarian, Littler Mendelson, P.C. and Jennifer Mendez, Director of Knowledge Management Innovation, Fisher & Phillips LLP

As AI and other innovative technologies continue to disrupt the practice of law, law librarians will continue to be at the forefront of adoption, training, and increasing productivity.

Law librarianship has evolved over the last several decades. Gone are the days when law librarians were thought of as simply the gatekeepers of stacks of books—so long Federal Reporter! Law librarians have been embracing and driving innovation since at least the introduction of microfiche, which may not seem like a disruptive innovation today, but its history proves otherwise. It’s no surprise then that the role of the law librarian has continued to evolve just as the technology used in law libraries has evolved. As evidenced by details in the 2021 AALL State of the Profession report, the role of law librarians now encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and impacts various groups within the organization—“84.8 percent of firm/corporate teams report that they are involved in partnerships and endeavors outside their department that utilize their research skills, technical knowledge, leadership, and adaptability.” While the report highlights law librarians’ collaborations and contributions to marketing, business development, management, litigation, professional development, and information technology, law librarians in our firms have led or participated in opportunities beyond those listed in the report and we think that trend is here to stay. (Learn more about the 2021 AALL State of the Profession report at bit.ly/AALLSOTP.)

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)

Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, have become all the rage recently. It seems every legal research vendor is either selling or creating an API. Because, at its core, an API is simply about giving the user access to the underlying data without an interface, law librarians have become instrumental in evaluating and procuring APIs.

Because law librarians are content specialists, they have a thorough understanding of all the data available via research platforms. They understand the coverage, reliability, and currency of the data offered by the myriad of research platforms and can make recommendations based on the question or use case. Whether you are looking to enhance litigation matter profiles automatically or normalize a list of judges or companies from within your firm’s systems, a law librarian will be able to make a recommendation based on their knowledge of the data and the tool.

As Jean P. O’Grady put it in her March 2022 Dewey B Strategic blog, “For years law librarians and knowledge managers have been begging legal publishers to free their data from their proprietary interfaces.” (View the post at bit.ly/MJ22DeweyB.) Now that vendors have set the data free, there is no group better suited to work with technologists and attorneys to leverage that data than law librarians.

Locating Preexisting Work Product

Whether it’s locating a case that has the requisite language to support a motion to dismiss, tracking down legislative histories, or digging up contact information for a potential witness, law librarians have long been recognized as the experts at locating the proverbial needle in the haystack. That expertise has been leveraged almost exclusively to use external legal research products to find what attorneys need to assist their clients. However, law firms generate massive amounts of content that, if made accessible to the entire firm, can significantly increase productivity and efficiency amongst its attorneys. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to locate preexisting work product in firms, but librarians are experts at finding things and preexisting work product is no different.

Whether the firm’s work product resides in shared drives, a document management system, or even if enterprise search has been rolled out, attorneys often don’t have the time or the inclination to construct searches or comb through pages of results. This is where librarians come in. Law librarians are increasingly assisting attorneys with locating their firm’s documents to use as a starting point and to prevent attorneys from reinventing the wheel. By adopting this role, librarians help to dismantle a barrier to knowledge.

They can help prevent attorneys from spinning those same wheels. Locating existing work product requires knowledge of the content as well as the skills to utilize the enterprise search platform. Librarians with experience searching and locating work product can also provide crucial insights into the highly requested materials. Analyzing frequent request trends can help inform the direction of projects and solutions to further hone in on the needs of attorneys. Magnifying this efficiency will demonstrate the sustainable value inherent in the skills of librarians and their transformative role.

Effective librarians have an open-armed approach to working with their clientele that can help encourage use of technology tools across the organization.

Librarians as Technology Liaisons

Law librarians understand both the technology and processes of the law business. They help bridge the gap between purely technical teams and practitioners. They have a long tradition in supporting lawyers with technical tools. The skills needed, say, to navigate the intricacies of print-based citators—patience and methodical application of abstract organization of information— look a lot like those needed for using modern technology tools. Law librarians also have the experience and expertise with the law and legal practice to provide content expertise for IT teams. In other words, they speak both languages.

In addition to the substantive knowledge needed to communicate across teams, law librarians’ work involves educating users. Whether during traditional training settings or through on-the-fly interactions—law librarians seek to increase understanding. This teaching based quality makes law librarians well suited for aligning legal and technical teams.

Further, they understand legal workflows and can help identify processes that might benefit from technological improvements. For example, a law librarian might support many phases of a litigation practice. They might support business development teams with new litigation alerts; the research needs for preparing new cases; and the organization and archival of the documents after resolution. Having a view into the entire process—and potentially making connections across even more disparate aspects—law librarians can identify opportunities to increase efficiency.

Breaking Down Barriers to Encourage Adoption

One of the biggest challenges with technology initiatives is adoption. Stories are mounting that firms have made big investments in technology improvements but lag in effectively deploying tools. Effective librarians have an open-armed approach to working with their clientele that can help encourage use of technology tools across the organization.

Beyond their charge to provide information services across their patron groups, law librarians often have collaborative relationships across many functions.

Managing sophisticated and expensive contracts has them working closely with finance teams. Expertise with current awareness and news tools has them elbow to elbow with business development teams. They serve attorneys across practice groups and client functions. Law librarians are in a good spot to offer encouragement for trying out new systems and methods across many disciplines—which is key to wringing value out of technology investments.

The Future Is Bright

As artificial intelligence, data analytics, automation, and other technology tools continue to disrupt the practice of law, law librarians will continue to be at the forefront of adoption, training, and innovation. They will continue to build bridges to help attorneys navigate these tools, embrace process improvement, and focus on the bespoke legal work that their clients demand of them. Innovation is changing the way lawyers work and the way clients expect work to be delivered, and law librarians are ready to help guide them through it.

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