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.