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Library Services and the Mobile Lawyer

Technology, mobile devices in particular, has reduced the need for lawyers to be in a specific physical location. Lawyers can do their work from home, at a client’s workplace, or while on vacation. This mobility does have its downside: a lawyer of my acquaintance claimed to have holidayed in North Korea simply because no-one would expect him to check his email there.

The ABA Legal Technology Resource Center’s 2014 survey found that 91% of lawyers used smartphones (with the majority using iPhones) and 49% used tablets (with the vast majority using iPads). While these lawyers were primarily using their mobile devices for email, a smaller number did use these devices for legal research.

Law firm libraries need to support these “mobile lawyers”. If a lawyer is not in physical proximity to the physical library collection, then the library needs to provide access to library materials through other means. This may be by digitizing print materials or by providing access to materials that already exist in electronic format.

The provision of online library services does have some challenges. When deciding what resources to offer and how to deploy them, the following may need to be considered:

  • How are the lawyers going to access these resources? Will they be using a mobile device or a computer? Not all electronic resources are optimized for mobile devices, making some websites difficult to use on a smartphone.
  • Does it make sense to use an app? The advantages of using apps are that they are designed explicitly for mobile devices. However not all apps offer the same functionality as websites. For example the Quicklaw app only allows users to pull cases by citation; it does not allow users to search case law. Another consideration is not all electronic resources have apps and not all apps are available for all devices; for example, some apps are available for tablets but not for smartphones.
  • Passwords or IP authentication? Another challenge is password management on mobile devices. If library resources use IP authentication, a user on a mobile device may not be able to access them.
  • Increased resource costs. The electronic version of a print resource can cost more than the print version.
  • Licensing restrictions. An electronic resource may have to be licenced for named users; this limits who can use the product.
  • Does the resource use PDF documents? PDF documents are often difficult to read on smartphones, since the print is so small. A resource that heavily relies on PDF documents is likely to be frustrating for smartphone users.

These problems notwithstanding, there are certain things that will ease the deployment of electronic resources:

  • Be clear sighted about what users really need. Do users need all the options found on the full version of the resource? If not, an app with reduced functionality may be more useful than a website with all the bells and whistles.
  • Get familiar with electronic resources. Library staff should be familiar with research resources for mobile devices so that they can provide assistance to lawyers using these resources. They should also understand how the apps and websites work on mobile devices so that they are aware of any pitfalls or challenges. They also need to be aware of changes to apps, since these may change the functionality.
  • Test resources. Library staff should, where possible, test those legal research apps that their lawyers are likely to use. This can be particularly challenging in a BYOD (bring your own device) firm, since staff may not be able to test resources on all the different devices being used. Testing may be difficult if resources are licensed for specific named users.
  • Keep usage information. What apps and websites are being used, by who, and how often? Electronic resources generally provide usage information.
  • Get feedback from users. In addition to the quantitative information provided by electronic resources, it is also useful to have qualitative information. Do users like the apps and websites they use? If not, why not? Is it that users are not using the app correctly or is it that the app doesn’t meet their needs? This feedback can be used to make recommendations to users and to give feedback to publishers.
  • Provide assistance. It can be a challenge to provide support over the phone or via email. If a question is particularly tricky or is asked frequently, it is useful to have a guide for library staff that includes screenshots. This gives staff an idea of what the user should be seeing on their screen as well as an easy way to cut and paste information to send to the user.

Comments

  1. Another great column full of practical tips, Susannah.

    I think one of the best ways for libraries to assist mobile lawyers is to become mobile ourselves. The sooner we uncouple ourselves from the idea of library as place, the better we will be able to serve mobile users. It’s been relatively easy to convince lawyers of that; librarians are the ones who are really struggling with it. It’s a breeze to do research while I’m sitting in my law library, surrounded by thousands of tomes; it’s a much different matter when I’m working remotely from home. I have done that on occasion recently and I start to feel the same frustrations that that my lawyers no doubt experience when they work in buildings other than headquarters and cannot easily access certain library resources.

    My own recent experience of being mobile has steeled my resolve to more fully shift our organization’s library from a physical space to the digital realm, which necessarily must include an awareness and assessment of how our resources interact with mobile devices. We don’t have much control over publisher platforms or even the devices staff use to access those resources, but as you mention, we do have control over things like awareness, training, collecting user feedback and communicating with publishers. Most importantly, we also have the ability to take an empathetic approach to access by stepping away from our physical libraries and at least understanding, if not entirely replicating, the working styles of the clients we serve.

    As an aside, one of the other issues we have with digital resources, in addition to the ones you listed, is that barristers often need to access texts in court; not all courts have reliable (or any) wifi, and many publishers don’t provide offline downloads of their digital texts. This is one of the sticking points preventing us from going Full Digital, the other being that looseleafs just won’t die.

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