By Bill Hannay, Partner, Schiff Hardin, LLP
On June 11, 2020, the Practicing Law Institute hosted a webinar entitled “Covid-19 and Issues for Legal Librarians.” While the focus was on law libraries, many of the points discussed are of relevance to academic and research libraries.
The panelists on the program were Steven A. Lastres, Director of Knowledge Management Services at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and Kathryn McRae, Director of Research & Knowledge at Hawkins Delafield & Wood LLP. Both firms are headquartered in New York City, with Debevoise having 655 lawyers worldwide and Hawkins Delafield having 90 lawyers around the U.S.
The starting point for both speakers is that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a permanent and irreversible shift in how law libraries will be used, what they will look like, and what role librarians will play in law firms in the future. (It doesn’t take much of a stretch to hypothesize that a similar shift will affect academic and research libraries.) Their remarks did not at all address Covid-19 related health and safety issues in, for example, entering, using, or working in traditional libraries.
In fact, neither speaker supposed that things would ever go back to the idea of traditional libraries filled with long tables and shelves filled with bound volumes of cases and law journals with young associates busily poring over print books. The move away from that idea has been in process for years but Covid-19 has caused it to accelerate at warp speed. Now and in the future, it is all about digital, electronic collections, made easily available to remote users online.
The speakers generally put a positive spin on these changes by highlighting the “opportunities” for libraries that can flow from the pandemic. They outlined a series of steps that law librarians can take to prove their worth to their firms in these times of stress and, incidentally, to safeguard their jobs in the process. For example, they recommended that librarians envision a new way of providing library services, identifying four “Long-term Opportunities” that the pandemic provides:
a. Eliminate/Reduce remaining print collections,
b. Enhance your digital footprint on your firm’s Intranet,
c. Expand virtual training opportunities and focus on task-based training, and
d. Proactively manage your library budget and negotiate more value from legal vendors for electronic content.
The emphasis on trying to find ways to save money in library budgeting is part and parcel of making libraries and librarians appear to be more useful to management.
The speakers pointed out that, while librarians as well as lawyers and paralegals may be working “virtually,” law librarians should create opportunities to be more visible in firm meetings. They suggested, for example, participating in practice group meetings by making short presentations on electronic resources relevant to the group.
The presentations also emphasized that librarians should think more “strategically” and try to identify ways to help their firm meet its long-term strategic goals and initiatives. For example, one law librarian described playing a meaningful role in helping the firm develop expertise in Covid-19 legal issues; another librarian described providing research support for pro bono activities in light of #blacklivesmatter. More broadly, the speakers recommended proactively engage in client and business development as well as competitive intelligence research projects.
Finally, the speakers emphasized the importance of developing or expanding virtual training programs, which they said will now become the “new normal.” Training in law firms must acquaint all levels of attorneys and staff on the availability of legal resources and be sure to include training in artificial intelligence and data analytics resources.
Some of the lessons discussed in the program on law libraries can have value for academic and research librarians as their institutions develop their own “new normal” that will undoubtedly include increased use of remote classes and projects, continued shift away from print texts, and continued pressure on library budgets.