What is it about lawyers and librarians that we spend so much time thinking, talking and trying to change the way our professions are perceived? A search through the literature of both disciplines reveals what amounts to an obsession. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised, given that “client-focused” is a key characteristic of both groups. We worry about how we are perceived because otherwise we run the risk of losing business. If we don’t articulate our value, we’re expendable.
SLAWyer Jordan Furlong has taken on the task of articulating the value of the legal profession in his Law 21 blog. In his thoughtful, thought-provoking way, he has challenged lawyers and firms to rethink the practice and the business of law. Complacency is not an option. In his December 22 post, “Ready or not, here come the clients”, Furlong looks back on the significant changes in the legal culture, and sketches out his vision for the future.
Lawyers have long felt like a special breed, in part because the loyalty and concern we show our clients sets us apart as a profession first, a business second. Noble sentiments, easy enough to espouse when we run the show. How well are we going to express those sentiments now that we’re losing our grip on power in this marketplace, sharing it not just with new competitors but also with clients? If we adopt the approaches of the music, media and automotive industries before us — ignoring the changes, fighting with our customers, raising barriers to competition, insisting that “we’re different”– we’ll end up in the same graveyard.
How can the future of the law librarian be any different? The profession has arguably grown up on the margins of firms, government departments and other organizations, seen in hard times as a handy opportunity for cuts, and even in good times a luxury according to some. Relegated to the ranks of “support staff”, we’ve never had the power mentioned in the quotation above. Libraries have always existed at the sufferance of the funding powers, and a library’s continued existence is by no means guaranteed.
The latest issue of the Canadian Law Library Review includes an article by Anh Huynh, Justifying your existence during the economic downturn (vol 34, no. 4, p. 178). In it, she suggests strategies to help you make irreplaceable. Her ideas are based on building relationships and effective communication. She also pushes her readers to consider offering a more refined information product for client development, including offering analysis and including an executive summary in your response. I like the article, because it challenges us to think about untapped opportunities – delivering services to existing clients in new ways, finding clients we hadn’t previously recognized.
At the Legislative Library, we’ve been interviewing candidates for a new position in Reference. I love interviewing young professionals – it’s a chance for me to reconnect with the reasons that I went into this career. It also gives me a chance to tap into ideas used in other libraries, and steal adapt them to my library. I’ll share one such idea: A large American university library system assigns a “personal librarian” to their freshmen. This person is the first point of contact between the library and the student – they aren’t necessarily the person who will deliver the training, answer the question or provide the service, but they are able to guide the student through the wealth of information sources, and a friendly face at a scary time. How can you adapt this model for your new hires and articling students?
Want to prove yourself as an innovator and as someone who understands technology? Consider offering help to colleagues who haven’t quite figured out the e-book reader they got over the holidays. I’m not suggesting that you have to devote your budget to the purchase of Kindles and trashy novels, but if you know how to download content from the Toronto Public Library’s e-books collection and get it onto a Sony reader or i-phone, you may win some friends. Know someone who envies the lucky e-book recipients? Show them how to add Mobipocket or another reader to their Blackberry or i-Phone.
Looking for alternatives with more substance? If you’re one of the six people on the planet who have not yet read (or read of) the SLA’s Alignment Project, I urge you to do so. The library literature is full of articles advising us to understand, reflect and support the needs of the business – it appears that we still aren’t doing that. According to the results of the Alignment Project survey, business executives are open to librarians participating at strategic levels of the organization. And librarians are not seizing the opportunity. Can it be that we don’t know how? Or is it that we cannot embrace change? I hope that the SLA Executive doesn’t let the name-change controversy derail this initiative. We have much to learn from their boldness and vision.