Risk and Innovation in Law Firm Law Libraries

I will be speaking later this month on February 25, 2009, in New York at the Ark Group conference Best Practices & Management Strategies for Law Firm Library & Information Service Centers.

I chose to speak at the session entitled “Risk & Innovation: Aligning Technology with Explicit Business Goals” in part to give and receive ideas on some of the technology-related initiatives we are undertaking in my department (and I will not necessarily focus just on technology since such a focus can distort the importance of non-technological ideas).

From the 40,000 foot level, innovation with technology in law libraries has revolved around the increasing digitization of primary and secondary sources of law, the impact of the Internet, the organization of access to information via an Intranet portal and the delivery of services and training using technology.

While I have largely prepared my presentation, I am still hung up on the conference organizers use of the words “Risk and Innovation” and what those words mean (and I realize I may be reading too much into what is likely a “teaser” lead-in to the topic by the conference organizer). However, what does it mean for an “information centre” to take risks? By nature, most “information centres” are ordinarily quite risk-adverse since risk contemplates mistakes. Clearly, a risk that is not innovative is likely foolhardy. In relation to technology, is choosing a search engine from Vendor/Product ABC over Vendor/Product XYZ a risk? Perhaps, but generally any decision of consequence (i.e., involving a lot of money) generally entails a fair bit of due diligence and “buy in” by others in the organization, so the risk is minimized. Is this then proof of lack of innovation (by being too careful)? In other words, does good innovation involve risk?

I am looking forward to the conference and will blog my impressions afterwards.


  1. Ted:

    I think there are those who would interpret the use of primary material from sources other than West or Lexis as “risk”. And I suspect that there are many more who would treat any discussion of legal research that took its cue from the real economics of information-finding (as opposed to blindly asserting a need to be comprehensive) as actively dangerous. There is a sense in which legal research is insurance — and the thing is, people only buy insurance up to the value of the goods. But you won’t see much discussion of how that influences the behavior of those who use those services, or how librarians should respond to that economic framework.

  2. Ted,

    Aspects of risk and innovation that come to my mind are:

    – The risk that attorneys won’t find relevant information. As you said this might be because product ABC has been used instead of XYZ. Going one step further, even if resources are available there’s a risk that attorneys won’t use them effectively. Perceived barriers to using resources can stop an attorney from doing so, ultimately creating risk to the firm. Simple things like training can break down these barriers, thereby reducing risk. Clearly technology innovation has a part to play here too – e.g. providing password-free access to resources or just designing a good intranet.

    – Complying with license agreements & associated risk. Budget conscious libraries – i.e. all of them these days – can’t afford to provide online access to all resources for everyone. Accurately determining which licenses are needed, whether people are sharing login details, etc requires technology innovation.

    – The recent discussion on alternative billing extends to the information centre too – Innovative ways of communicating or passing on costs to clients or practice areas could move an information centre from being a cost centre towards cost-neutral. But at risk of rocking the boat?

    I think Thomas’s comments are on the money too – there’s a clear trade-off between being comprehensive and being economical. Actively managing that trade-off and understanding how researchers are using the resources they have is important.