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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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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Successful Onboarding: Creating an Environment Where New Employees Can Succeed

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 25, Number 3 (January/February 2021), pgs. 18-20.

By Janeen Williams, User Services Librarian at Texas Tech University Law Library and Allison Reeve Davis, Librarian Manager at Littler Mendelson

Strategies, guidelines, and a checklist for creating a structured, purposeful, and engaged onboarding process.

Onboarding is exciting for both new employees and the law library. The organization has likely operated short-staffed for a few months, and new librarians are hopeful for new challenges and opportunities. A methodical orientation program is the first step to creating a successful environment for new staff and the institution. Employers provide training and orientation to welcome new hires to the law library, make them feel part of the team, align them with institutional initiatives, and teach procedures. These goals are not reached as a result of a few emails or brief meetings. It takes time for someone to feel confident in a new job. It is also imperative for managers and existing staff to recognize that they possess institutional knowledge and acknowledge that an expectation of early retention of all new information is untenable. Structured, purposeful, and engaged onboarding will alleviate future struggles with integrating a new hire into projects and the library’s culture. Additionally, a standardized onboarding process helps to ensure that all new employees are given equal opportunities to succeed.

Goals for Orientation and Onboarding

New employees lack three areas of knowledge necessary for job success and satisfaction: policies and procedures, institutional culture, and colleague personality. Policies and procedures are passed down through manuals and training. The other two types of knowledge are tacit and challenging to transfer. A manager’s response to continued inquiries from a new librarian should not be to ask them to memorize or refer to previous emails, because new hires should feel comfortable contacting colleagues, requesting meetings with management, and asking questions. However, gaps in knowledge need to be addressed early in a librarian’s tenure. The goal is to provide undocumented information in a methodical trajectory that also encourages collaboration and continued communication throughout the first few months after a new hire begins.

There is a balance between spacing out information and keeping a new hire engaged. We all remember new jobs where, during the first two weeks, we read manuals front to back with little hands-on experience. This scenario creates boredom and confusion over the job description. Instead, offer a variety of emails, videos, meetings, and task training to keep the day interesting. Below are strategies for creating successful onboarding programs that can easily be adapted across various institutions.

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Novel Responses: Helping Law Firms Answer Clients’ COVID-19 Questions

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 25, Number 1 (September/October 2020), pgs. 12-15.

By Cynthia Brown, Sr. Director of Research Services at Littler Mendelson and Allison Reeve Davis, Library Manager at Littler Mendelson

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought Littler Mendelson, a management-side labor and employment law firm, an unprecedented number of advice and counseling requests from clients. This work typically requires a client to speak directly with a shareholder who is an experienced attorney in a narrow area of law, and it does not initially sound like an opportunity for the library or a research team to assist. Indeed, client questions into novel areas of law rarely require heavy research, but rather rely on the experience and knowledge of the attorney. Littler’s first coronavirus question came in late December and was handled directly by a workplace safety attorney. In the early days of the pandemic, the library was not contacted with questions other than the occasional request to direct an attorney to the firm’s newly created Coronavirus Task Force.

By late February, however, the volume of direct client inquiries was beginning to overwhelm the shareholders. Library leadership was invited by the Chief Knowledge Officer to a strategic planning meeting to address the increased volume and urgent nature of these requests. Following this meeting, the needs of the Task Force attorneys were quickly matched with the unique skills of the firm’s librarians and legal information professionals. Littler’s Knowledge Desk and Knowledge Management Department were offered as key partners to meeting pressing client needs.

As client inquiries and concerns increased daily, the majority of their questions raised novel issues. A decentralized response process can sometimes lead to incongruous answers and to the frequent “reinvention of the wheel.” Providing consistency in the advice and counsel provided was paramount. The original Task Force grew exponentially as new areas of employment law were implicated in the situation, and transitioning from workplace safety issues to leaves of absence and compliance issues and matching the client’s need with the most focused subject-matter expert (SME) was critical.

Getting the Library Involved

With these issues in mind during the early stages of the strategic planning, library leadership offered to match the skills inherent in the research department with the needs of the Task Force. There was an immediate need to track incoming questions, assign the appropriate SME, and balance workloads among the Task Force members. In reviewing questions the Task Force received, it became clear that existing firm work product could assist in answering many of the repeated client requests. As documents were both identified and created, the information was categorized, curated, and stored for future use and easy accessibility. The Task Force needed better communication tools to share lessons learned with the firm, and there was both a need and opportunity to issue-spot and identify trends to enable the firm to provide proactive advice to clients. Finally, as the virus continued to spread, local, state, federal, and international laws were changing literally by the hour. The Littler Knowledge Desk and knowledge management (KM) department set up detailed monitoring of news and legal updates to keep the firm and clients informed. Each of these issues presented unique challenges and risks, but information professionals are well versed in averting such risks. We collect questions, answers, build repositories, and, with frequently needed information, create novel databases or tools for reuse. Applying these skills to provide much needed service to the Task Force proved invaluable.

Littler’s Knowledge Desk collaborated with KM attorneys and the KM Innovations team to build an internal SharePoint page of COVID-19-related resources structured with Littler’s taxonomy. These foundational resources provided a cataloging system that would be ready for the next wave of arriving materials supporting client counsel, as the pandemic and its employment law implications continued to evolve.

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