How Law Firms Succeeded During the Pandemic

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 26, Number 6 (July/August 2022), pgs 18-20.

By John DiGilio, Firmwide Director of Library Services, Sidley Austin LLP

Communicate meaningfully, set boundaries, celebrate successes, and be empathetic.

For most of us in the law firm library world, the response to the pandemic felt a like a fire drill that we have been preparing for our entire careers. We have long talked about electronic resources, serving clients at a distance, virtual learning, and so much more. Conference after conference and through innumerable articles, we have been lamenting the slow pace of change among firms when it comes to fully embracing these possibilities. Yet wise was the person who said that necessity is the mother of invention. All that hesitation ended abruptly when the world went into lockdown under the rapid spread of COVID-19. Not only did we successfully make that transition from office to remote, but we did so almost overnight. Rising to the challenge, however, came at a price. Staff reported being overwhelmed. Some even burned out. Currently, we are in the midst of a chaotic job market and what is being dubbed “The Great Resignation.” As a manager, I knew from day one that a big part of my job was going to be making sure that my team had the space, flexibility, and respect necessary to not only pull off a successful transition, but to do so in good health and good spirits.

Communicate Meaningfully

We knew immediately that electronic communication was going to be one of the keys to successfully move from in-office to remote working. But even when we were in the office, one of the biggest issues we faced was the ever-growing glut of emails, texts, and instant messages we were already receiving. “Email overload,” for example, was already a very real and pressing problem. Now that communicating was no longer as simple as walking down the hall to talk to colleagues and co-workers, we expected this issue would compound itself exponentially—and it did. Within weeks of going remote, we were all using at least three virtual meeting platforms and two instant messaging programs in addition to what we already had on both our computers and smartphones as well as tablets. We were wired for speed and confusion!

For my team, I made the decision that while anyone was free to make use of any of the tools being offered by the firm, there would be certain base expectations. Everyone was asked to stick to one of each of these communication platforms. This way we could easily see who was available, everyone was guaranteed to see important messages and announcements, and we did not have to do a lot of jumping between applications to connect with our colleagues. This helped reduce some of the communication fatigue that was evident early on. Everyone was also asked to attend one monthly all-department meeting in which the various service directors talked about projects completed and those underway.

I also decided to encourage a meaningful approach to virtual meetings. I knew we would be adding a good number of online social events to make up for our lack of in-person gatherings, so I wanted again to make sure that heaping those on top of an already busy schedule of administrative and work-focused meetings did not overwhelm our staff. We needed to reduce unnecessary meetings, or what I call “meetings for meetings’ sake,” and ensure that the ones we were scheduling were kept tight and efficient. Everything of importance would be recorded to take pressure off those with conflicts, pressing projects, or who were not even on the clock at the time of the meeting. Not only did I preach this gospel of efficiency, but I also had to lead by example. Entire schedules were rethought and redone. But it was worth it. With remote working likely here to stay, this practice is going to serve us well going forward.

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AALL Executive Leadership Institute: Listening a Key Component of Leadership

By Maureen Burns, Research Services Manager, Godfrey & Kahn

I recently had the privilege of attending the recent American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Executive Leadership Institute, which was held on July 28-29, 2021, following the AALL Annual Meeting. Thank you to the Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals (PLLIP) Grants Committee for the opportunity to learn, grow, and connect at the Institute.

The Institute provided relevant and timely leadership-related sessions, covering topics such as inclusive communication, collaboration, driving change during transitional times, and the integration of wellness into leadership.  Communication was a common thread throughout the one and a half-day Institute, coming up both in the excellent presentations and in small group discussions.  The word that kept coming to my mind as I heard each of the presentations and participated in discussions with my fellow attendees was “listen”.

While discussing inclusive communication and how to move from conscious bias to conscious inclusion, Dr. Daisy Lovelace presented us with ideas to help lead us to an inclusive mindset, recognizing that teams diverse in identity, background, and experiences lead to better problem solving.  One element Dr. Lovelace talked about was listening to understand, validate, and offer support. As librarians trained in the art of the reference interview, we are accustomed to asking questions in order to solve a problem.  When someone we lead comes to us with an issue, we should validate their feelings and seek to understand.  Listening, without fixing, is important in today’s world where often stress-inducing change is a part of our everyday lives.

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AALL Annual Meeting Session Recap- Legal Deserts in America: What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All?

Stephanie Huffnagle, a faculty member at Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY, was one of this year’s recipients of a Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals (PLLIP) grant for the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Annual Meeting.  Stephanie wrote the following recap.

“Legal Deserts in America: What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All” proved to be an informative and worthwhile session. The session not only provided statistics on the current state of affairs in terms of lack of access to legal services, but also highlighted the reasons behind this reality and presented concrete examples of programs aiming to fill the justice gaps throughout the country.  The presenters were all stakeholders in the battle for justice for all, and they provided their first-hand insight into the issue of legal deserts.  

Lisa Pruitt, Professor of Law at UC Davis, discussed her research, which served as the backbone to the legal desert information in the 2020 ABA Profile on the Legal Profession.  The findings of Lisa and her research team echo and expand on the idea of the justice gap, showing specifically where the gaps exist based on the number of attorneys at the county level.  Lisa explained that legal deserts are those counties where there are either no lawyers, or only one to two lawyers.  The research shows that 40% of counties have less than one lawyer per 1,000 people.

While Lisa focused on the why and some general tools to respond to the situation, her colleagues discussed ongoing recruitment and training programs designed to combat lack of access and legal deserts.  

Suzanne Starr, Director of Policy and Legal Services at South Dakota Rural Recruitment Program, outlined South Dakota’s response to the issue.  South Dakota initiated a rural attorney recruitment program back in 2013.  This is based on a financial incentive to get attorneys into rural areas.  It was interesting to hear how the program was started and to recognize the influence that one person/a small group of people can have by being change agents.

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Leadership Academy Recap: Becoming an Effective Leader

By Whitney Brionez, Business Intelligence Manager at Holland & Knight LLP

Every other year, AALL holds a Leadership Academy, a program developed to guide participants on being effective leaders. I was accepted into this year’s 2020 Academy which was originally scheduled for Chicago in March, but ended up becoming a virtual program in August. The three day agenda included interactive discussions, leadership assessments (and what they mean), group coaching, collaboration, and networking.

There was much uncertainty and many questions leading up to the Academy, especially after the program was postponed and then became virtual. I was apprehensive about having the program in this format, as the greatest potential benefits to me were networking with peers, meeting new people, and sharing stories, and I was unsure how this would work in a solely-online environment. Thankfully, while we did not have those impromptu, passing-in-the-hall-on-break conversations, we did all get to meet each other and share stories over multiple break-out sessions.

Before the Leadership Academy began, we had the opportunity to meet our fellow participants in an afternoon virtual chat – a perfect way to start getting to know our colleagues. The first official day of the Academy began on the afternoon of August 6, and started with introductions from our facilitators, Karyn Nishimura Sneath and MJ Tooey, and our coaches: Julie Pabarja, Halle Cox, and Jean Wenger.

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Kaplan Keynote a Compelling Kick-Off to the 2020 PLLIP-SIS Summit

By Linda-Jean Schneider, Manager-Digital Access, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

For more than a decade, the Private Law Librarian and Information Professionals Special Interest Section (also known as PLLIP) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) has organized a day-long Summit for members to focus on issues of concern to librarians in a firm or corporate setting.  The PLLIP Summit has provided a day filled with stimulating, firm-focused sessions and inspiring thought-provoking speakers on the eve of the AALL Annual Meeting. These have been held in nine locations across the country, with Philadelphia as the only repeat location. All the planning that goes into a day-long information-filled, energizing, motivating, and rewarding event of this magnitude must begin immediately after the previous one. So, in the customary fashion, the dynamic duo of co-chairs Christine Sellers Sullivan and Cynthia Brown gathered a rock-star Committee, came up with the overall theme, and began planning for the 2020 event in the summer of 2019.

Little did they suspect that the theme — Transformation 2020: Instrumental Tools for the Future — would prove to be one that they could both build on as a guidepost for the future of the legal information professional, and which stayed relevant while the entire legal industry and society as a whole had to pivot into an unexpected and challenging New Normal.  Even with the drastic challenges and demands of the current crises, the organizers made the necessary adjustments, transforming the in-person sessions of the past into a virtual offering with three informative, enlightening, and outward-facing presentations. Continue reading