Challenges of (Combined) KM and Library Services in a Law Firm

I am currently struggling with a challenge (but it is a good one).

The challenge is in having to combine Knowledge Management duties with Library Services duties in a law firm setting. In many (if not most) firms, the positions are split and separate. For now, I am (in theory) divided 50% between each function. A colleague with a financial background put his understanding of the situation in these terms: KM is all about harnessing the “internal” information (getting and organizing law-related information that is in lawyers’ heads and in their documents) whereas Library Services is all about the “external” information (getting and organizing law-related information that is available from publishers, courts and governments).

Although his understanding is overly simplistic, there is some truth to what he says. I find the challenge arises in part due to the different pace and focus of each department. Library Services tends to involve fairly concrete actions or steps (order a book, research a point of law, train students on how to use Quicklaw) with specified daily activities for library staff (check in new case law reporters, circulate newspaper stories from Lexis Publisher, catalogue new books, etc.). On the other hand, knowledge management tends to involve longer term planning that is much less defined in what daily steps need to be taken and what results can and will be achieved.

The danger of a combined role for overseeing these two functions is the difficult in evenly splitting one’s time since Library Services can absorb much of one’s day with the immediate needs for research assistance and other daily activities.

I know a number of colleagues who play or have played this dual role or who at least have a background in both disciplines (SLAW contributors Connie Crosby and Steve Matthews come to mind).

How do others out there with this dual role cope?

The simple solution to the dilemma is to formally separate the roles but I am not prepared to do that yet since there are a number of nice synergies between formal KM and formal Library Services: both involve information/knowledge, both are all about providing service and access to information, and both require similar educational and work experience. Current awareness and the use of Web 2.0 technologies is an example that could fit neatly into either department’s basic functions (or could be handled by a combined department)

Increasingly, we are seeing law firm librarians and library staff becoming more involved in KM at their firms (e.g., helping the firm organize and maintain the firm’s research memo and work product databases or helping design and maintain the firm’s intranet, to name but two examples) but we don’t necessarily see the opposite: it remains unusual for KM lawyers and KM staff to be involved with or integrated into library or research services. This may well be because most KM lawyers may only have a law degree (and not a Master of Library Science degree). Perhaps the two services – KM and Library – can never be fully integrated . . . .

I actually don’t expect comments or replies to this posting (but they would be welcome). Instead, I will continue to think about how to best integrate the two services or plan around them being separate for some functions. Perhaps a name change and a merger of both departments into the “ARK Group” (the Applied Research and Knowledge Group)? Oops, “ARK” is already taken.


  1. Ted, it may be helpful to move your mind to think in terms of a continuum when managing the two entities. To manage it as a life cycle of knowledge production, rather than two separate processes.

    If you can, empower your staff to work the entire process. Resource selection on the front end; arrangement, indexing and collection development in the middle; and technologies such as search, blogging, tagging and the addition of meta-data toward the end.

    The challenge, and opportunity, for library staff is to see their role in the big picture of the firm’s business operations. KM offers a lot more perspective to the firm’s operations. And open a lot of doors.

    As you know Ted, Librarians are information driven. It doesn’t matter whether we engage books, memos or contracts when it comes to using our skill set. KM lawyers on the other hand, may not have the same skill set, but usually have the advantage of ample research experience, and have practiced law. KM lawyers also tend to be better exposed to the larger firm picture.

    Sounds like a great team to me. :-)

  2. Hi Ted – I combined both roles at my last position, and there were a few things that worked for us. There were 10 offices, with libraries and KM lawyers in most of them. Whilst we delineated internal and external information management between the two, we had an annual meeting of everyone in the KM (we called the combined group Information Services because partners were anti the word Knowledge) team, and used that as a springboard to bring together the internal and external research and information requirements of the firm.

    In each office the teams were quite small, and we housed them next to each other where we could, so that they would get to know each other and share ideas and some workload. We also had a phone hook up every 2 weeks with each team across all offices, so they got to know each other and discussed joint projects. I found it comforting to continue work with the librarians, but also challenging to work with the lawyers, who knew their precedents, and specialisations, and who worked up a wonderful in-house resource for the firm as whole. And the librarians helped them with taxonomy, and those things, and we all worked together on the intranet.

    Within our combined group, we established practice based teams across all the offices so that the librarians and the km lawyers would meet with and be part of, a specific practice team in the firm; these teams met regularly, usually phone hook up, and the I.S. staff formed part of the team. That was a success, because it gave the lawyers a specific person with whom they could develop a working relationship, either in km or legal research, etc.

    I am sure you will get it to work well – good luck!