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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The Great Resignation: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 26, Number 5 (May/June 2022), pgs 20-22.

By John DiGilio, Firmwide Director of Library Services, Sidley Austin LLP and Courtney Toiaivao, Director of Research Services, Holland & Knight LLP

What the Great Resignation can teach us about desirable workplace culture and happiness.

Much has been made of the Great Resignation, the buzzy labor market phenomenon that has seen millions of Americans leave their jobs since spring 2021. The question on so many minds right now is simple: Why? Why are people suddenly hitting the bricks in such large numbers? While it is easy to blame the ongoing pandemic, the answers—and they are multiple—go much deeper and are far more complex. Take for instance the fact that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that over two-thirds of people who left their jobs in 2021 did so voluntarily. Roughly 69 million Americans quit their jobs since 2021, which means that 47.8 million made up their own minds that it was time to go. (View the data at bit.ly/MJ22laborstats.) The numbers have staggered employers as they try to come up with ways to retain the talent they have, as well as replace the workers who have left. At the same time, a new world of considerations and opportunities has opened for those contemplating making a change.

What Is Causing the Great Resignation?

In many ways, the timing of the Great Resignation is a direct by-product of the pandemic. Parents (often women) left jobs to manage childcare needs; employees left the labor market due to COVID concerns; older employees retired early thanks to extra savings from being in quarantine or perhaps thanks to skyrocketing housing prices that enabled some to sell at profit; and across industries, countless employees left the workforce from a deep sense of burnout and dissatisfaction. This last reason is most distressing to employers and may embolden those pondering a dash for the door.

After anxious, stressful pandemic years, often with increased hours and blurred start and end times, employees saw the boundaries of home and work blend together. Beyond trying to keep children, partners, and pets from popping into Zoom windows, employees routinely found themselves working past the hours where they would have left for home. Time that was once dedicated to the commute was now being spent working. In short, productivity got a boost, but happiness did not. In a time of great work turmoil and with many employees working remotely for the first time, Americans found themselves questioning what they truly wanted from their lives and their work.

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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.

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Remote Work Proves the Firm Library Is More Than a Physical Space

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.

“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….we librarians are well positioned to act as product guides, trainers, and even marketers.”

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This question was posted to the PLLIP MyCommunities page on September 16, 2021. 

We’re Open!

  • We opened up on September 3.  Before that secretaries were coming in 2 days a week.  Associates are encouraged to be in the office, some partners are not coming very much.  I, the librarian, have been coming in 1 day a week for the last 16 months and I can continue with that schedule.  We are a firm of about 30 attorneys.  Most of the large firms in the area are not back in full time.
  • We have been asked to be in the office at least 2 days a week since July 6.  They had expected to change that to 3 days per week after Labor Day, but we’re still on 2 days a week because of the increase in cases.  This isn’t a hard mandate (I don’t know if they’re checking), and we’re not required to select the days and stick to a schedule.
  • Our offices are open, and we are welcome to work in the office if we want to, or need to, but we’re not currently required to be in the office.   There are no incentives for coming in, but they were rewarding those of us who are in with lunches or special afternoon snacks.  I think the lunch ordering became problematic, because that has stopped.  But, they did issue gift cards to local food places as a thank you for those who have been coming in. Nothing has been said about when we would be re-opening, or what the options would be once we do.
  • The office reopened after the July 4th holiday with a hybrid schedule.  They request 3 days on site and 2 days remote per week. This change is supposed to be permanent going forward.  They also relaxed the dress code so that we can wear jeans every day, and have been bringing in free lunch on Wednesdays. As far as I can tell it is working well.  The office is quiet and half full any given day, which is good for social distancing.  They’ve recently asked that we wear masks in hallways and common areas, but not at our desks, due to the unfortunate continuing wave here in the state.
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