Moving Closer to Organizations’ Core Businesses

I somewhat shamefacedly enjoy reading professional advice books (and fashion advice books, but I wrote that column already), and one of the most memorable pieces of advice I recall was that regardless of what career path one chooses, in order to have the best career prospects, one should aim to work in an organization’s main line of business. There is generally have more room to advance as an accountant in an accounting firm than in the accounting department of a company that primarily does something else. This is reflected in the different career paths and experiences of lawyers who choose to go into law firms and those who choose to have other careers, such as in-house counsel. And it puts law library staff in a difficult position, because generally libraries are housed within larger organizations: a firm library is part of a law firm, a university law library is part of the university, and a courthouse library is often part of a law society.

As the practice of law has changed, I see law libraries becoming removed from the core business of their parent organizations in some ways. Traditionally books were central to the practice of law. They were necessary as records of the law, and there was a large number required for adequate legal practice. They were also a substantial investment, because they were specialized, there was a small market, and there were a lot of them. This is leaving aside their role as prominently displayed status symbols — leather bindings aren’t cheap. All those books needed to be acquired, maintained, and navigated, which allied libraries closely with successful legal practice.

Over recent years the role of print books has diminished as online services become more comprehensive and fewer resources are required to maintain a viable legal practice. Now it is nearly possible to subscribe to a single online service and have access to everything a small practice needs, or to use CanLII or subscribed online services and supplement with a few additional titles. This is especially so in less research intensive areas of the law.

It has almost become uncontentious that the business value of many legal books like case reporters has become less than it costs to store them. Over my career I have spoken with several retiring lawyers who were willing to gift their law reporters to young lawyers for a charitable donation or something similar, but have never been able to find anyone to take them. This is simply to restate the common place observation that librarians’ role as guardians of books is passing from primary importance. If libraries and library staff don’t change, and the current trends of advances in computing and improved development of comprehensive resources, reducing the need to look in multiple places for legal resources, continue, the perceptions of funders will move away from the centrality of the position of the library.

Two buzz phrases of fairly long standing in libraries are knowledge management and competitive intelligence. They have gained varying levels of traction in different environments, but they both have important elements for the future of “libraries” in legal organizations, because both of them are ways of conceiving what information focused staff do in ways that bring it closer to where legal businesses derive their core values.

Knowledge management is about improving the way organizations work by improving access to the core value of a law firm: the expertise of the people who work there. Without the people a law firm has little of value but the art on the walls. Every incremental improvement in the ways the organization uses the knowledge and insights of the people who work there contributes to its competitive advantage as a whole. Selling expertise is the core business of law firms and any ability to improve that salable expertise is an incremental improvement in firms’ businesses.

Competitive intelligence is a different function than knowledge management, but it is also directly related to improving the core business functions of finding new business, improving access to the information that will enhance the expertise of the firm, and providing actionable intelligence to improve decision making. These two modes of approaching information work reframe the idea of libraries’ work that is often abstract to decision makers as concrete drivers of value to the core business.

There is a ready example of a career that demonstrates the different career paths of those who work in organizations’ core businesses and those who don’t: in-house lawyers. Lawyers in law firms are profit centres, and lawyers in other organizations are cost centres. I have spoken to a lawyer who moved from a large law firm to a corporation as in-house counsel, and she said she was happy with the move and that there were many benefits, but she was treated as overhead. The resources allocated to her couldn’t be offset by the money she brought into the company and she was under pressure to reduce costs.

That said there are benefits to these career options. It is my observation that, especially for those early in their careers, working as a professional in an organization that doesn’t focus on one’s professional area can be an exciting career opportunity. Many people I have spoken to, and I myself, have got to do work that we never would have gotten to do so early in our careers if we were in workplaces with more people in the same professions.

There are some excellent opportunities and potential pitfalls in working for an organization that has a different primary business from one’s professional focus. Hopefully information professionals can move toward being more closely aligned with the primary goals of the organizations they work for. This will ensure that the work being done is integral to the success of the whole and not perceived as a expense that can be dispensed with.


  1. Law librarians can teach lawyers these necessary skills so as to maximize the cost-savings that electronic records management technology can provide to law practice management:

    1. Maximizing the re-use of finished written work-product;

    2. Electronic Records Management Systems’ (ERMSs’) procedures for facilitating accurate access and re-use;

    3. The requirements of the National Standards of Canada for electronic records management systems;

    4. Preservation of legal materials that are not available online, particularly older editions of law books, etc., so as to make available the history of anything in regard to which all forms of in-depth analysis are dependent;

    5. Indexing skills for clients—the key to solving the high cost of electronic discovery proceedings.

    Therefore, see the following articles listed (as numbered) on my SSRN author’s page:

    12. “Solving the High Cost of the ‘Review’ Stage of Electronic Discovery”;

    14. “The Technology of Centralized Legal Research Can Solve the Unaffordable Legal Services Problem”;

    15. “’Records Management Law’—A Necessary Major Field of the Practice of Law—A Summary”
    (the full article is now published at, (2015), 13 Canadian Journal of Law and Technology 57-100.)

    17. “Indexing”.

    — Ken Chasse, member, LSUC & LSBC.

  2. Sarah Sutherland

    Thank you for your insightful comment Ken.
    I agree those would be excellent skills for librarians to bring to the table for law practices. Librarians could teach lawyers those skills or librarians could provide those skills to law firms depending on local resources and staffing.

  3. Experienced law librarians, especially those with combined experience for several employers and education in management, business analysis, business performance metrics, information systems design and change management, underestimate their skills that they can bring to the table.

    Management of services, staff, budget and evaluation at the strategic and operational level, makes law librarians a great fit for electronic document/records management. However it is my impression, that law firm records management may not have the same “profile”, as the law library, because if it is staffed with staff with no/minimal records/library management training, the library may have difficulty changing : perception, organization culture, never mind retooling strategic approaches on electronic document/records management for parent firm.

    I find it puzzling that one would NOT use an experienced electronic records management professional in e-discovery. In the development of an adequate e-document/records management, the e-records manager /specialist must learn of key business processes for departments that result in final records through workflows. The person knows key contributors and user-editors of such records. Mere keyword searches and records review through vast volumes of information is not the only method. It is this person that can save an e-discovery team / for legal holds, some initial/effort.

  4. Good information management procedures can greatly lessen the truth of the saying, “a law firm is only as good as the lawyers in it,” and replace it with this, “a law firm can be twice as good if it has good database management.” When lawyers leave a firm, they leave behind their finished work-product to be re-used, if the firm’s database management practices are of sufficient quality to enable the re-use of all previously created work-product. That can greatly lessen the impact of such losses of key lawyers. And, it can shorten the training of new lawyers and other personnel, as well as save a lot of money when drafting similar texts, such as legal opinions and pleadings. Maximizing the re-use of previously created work-product can greatly reduce the cost of legal services.
    My reference in my earlier comment today, as to establishing good database management practices for the law firm, does not require experts in e-records management, but rather the indexing and database management skills that enable a law firm to maximize its re-use of all previously created work-product.

    As to the use of experts in electronic records management, it is not yet the practice of lawyers to use such experts, but it should be because the Evidence Acts require it in order to use electronic records as evidence–e.g. s. 31.2(1)(a) of the Canada Evidence Act, and, s. 34.1(5),(5.1) of the Ontario Evidence Act, and the Evidence Acts of 9 other jurisdictions in Canada contain the same requirement (including the records provisions of Book 7 of the Civil Code of Quebec). Such requirements make necessary, evidence as to the compliance of the electronic records management system, in which the record is stored, with the national standard, “Electronic Records as Documentary Evidence CAN/CGSB-72.34-2005.”
    But so far, the case law ignores that Evidence Act requirement, except for one case that does use that national standard on the issue of admissibility: R. v. Oler 2014 ABPC 130 (Alberta Provincial Court). That was the result of a demand by defence counsel for the maintenance records of a breathalyzer machine. So, Ms. Uta Fox of the Calgary Police Services provided that evidence.
    However, there 2 other cases in which the state of electronic records management was provided, prior to admitting electronically-produced records as evidence. See my article, “Electronic Records as Evidence” at: (free pdf download, posted on the SSRN in May, 2014).
    — Ken Chasse.