Guest author Kristin Hodgins is a project director and law library director working in the public sector in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Her article discusses how many do not know what law librarians do, which can be a very good thing.
“We have the freedom to experiment and innovate that legal counsel and paralegals do not have.”
Law librarians as a profession have a history of being remarkably adaptable to changing environments, technological advances and cultural shifts, arguably much more so than the legal organizations in which we work. The advent of Google was touted as our profession’s death knell, but the search engine did not kill us because, among our varied skill sets, rote retrieval was the least valuable. Google made our research more efficient and our jobs less tedious. Mass digitization of historical legal texts did not put us out of work; it transformed the corpus of law into machine-readable data points and allowed us to make discoveries and linkages we could never have made in book form. The looming adoption of AI in the legal industry is not a threat to our future; it is an opportunity to use a tool to augment our research, to become expert knowledge engineers and to more efficiently provide a better end product to our clients.
Despite our proven track record of adaptability and resilience, law librarians, as a profession, are experiencing an identity crisis and spend significant amounts of time debating what it is we actually do, the future of the profession, whether our skills are utilized, are we adequately conveying our worth and value to our organizations; and above all else, whether anyone else even notices or cares. The reality is that no one else in our organizations, our clients or the legal profession spend any time at all thinking about us. They don’t stop to contemplate the scope of our roles, the limitations or possibilities our skill sets might offer or how we might best be leveraged for optimal client service delivery. They don’t care—and I don’t mean that callously– but they have problems to be solved, needs to be fulfilled and it doesn’t matter who does it, as long as it gets done. If your role in an organization isn’t a lawyer, then it doesn’t really matter what your title or job description says; it is nothing more than a label and meaningless as a measurement of value or client service.
While legal industry ignorance and internal debate about our roles might feel distressing or even demoralizing to some, it is actually an incredible opportunity that we would do well to exploit. Because our profession is not bound or constrained by assumptions, expectations or regulations, we have the freedom to reimagine or redefine our roles however it best suits us in our organizations. If no one understands what it is we actually do, then they also aren’t in a position to say we can’t do something, either, and that is a wonderful gift.
What happens if, when a new project, file or initiative is developed within our organizations, we spend some time thinking about how our skills and knowledge can add value, and then raise our hands and say, “the library has the skills to do X and we’ll take that piece on if we can be on the core project team”, earning a seat at the table. Some in our organizations might express puzzlement and mutter, “I didn’t know the library could do that”, but it is unlikely that someone will say we can’t do it, because again, no one knows what we actually do, and what organization is going to turn down a department that volunteers for more work at no additional cost.
Law librarians are exceptionally well-suited to working on complex organizational initiatives and legal project work, which are traditionally areas we have shied away from. One of our strengths is in making connections between disparate pieces of information and seeing where there are knowledge gaps, and that includes with people as well. The library is often an organization’s network hub; we are usually well-connected to the whole organization and have relationships with legal counsel in all practice areas, paralegals, legal assistants, IT, finance and executive management. We know the major legal issues affecting our work, we understand both the core business of our organization (the provision of legal services) and the business of doing business (everything that supports the core business). We speak both legal and client languages, and we are used to seeing ourselves as a service provider. We have a viewpoint and knowledge base that is unlike anyone else’s in our organization, and we can offer a perspective and skill set on project work, particularly in knowledge organization and synthesis, that is rarely contemplated in projects but almost always adds value. In reality, the library has always done project work via the provision of research and reference services to lawyers. That work forms one piece of a larger legal project for the client, but we have rarely had the ability to understand or appreciate a project in its entirety–we’ve only seen what information someone else, usually a lawyer, has determined we need to know. It is only when we get a seat at the table that we are able to understand the work in its larger context and identify how it is that we can co-create value for the client.
As Sarah Sutherland of CanLII noted in a recent presentation, librarians are one of the few professionals in a legal organization that are not beholden to the billable hour and our salaries are not linked to the amount of business we bring in. We have the freedom to experiment and innovate that legal counsel and paralegals do not have, and our margin for risk is much higher as a result. Our failures aren’t logged on a client’s timesheet and we can learn and iterate from those failures. We have the latitude to figure out how we can best apply our skills and domain knowledge to new business problems. I am not suggesting volunteering for initiatives that we are wholly unqualified or unsuited for; we need to be aware of our own possibilities and limitations and push ourselves, but not off a cliff. But we should be proactively looking for new and creative ways to provide value to our organizations and clients. Our preoccupation with how others view our roles and debates about the future of our profession is self-defeating and it is holding us back. The key to the future of our profession what it has always been: we must be willing to fully embrace and exploit the fluidity and ambiguity of our roles. If we do that, we will continue to thrive in the ever-shifting landscape of legal services.
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