The Tension Between Library Collections and Other Work in Law Libraries

There has been an interesting trend in law firms recently of gradually reducing staff in libraries, but adding information specialist positions with various job titles to business development groups. It seems like a missed opportunity for firm libraries to redefine their roles, and for library staff to explore interesting work that increases the return on investment of the library budget. Wondering why this is happening in this way, I started to think about what work takes the majority of library staff time in a firm. It seems that the likely target is the commitment to maintaining print collections, which still take up so much of law libraries’ resources.

Over the last several years, corporate libraries in many industries have been closed as print resources become less important to employees’ daily tasks, office space has become more expensive, and professional staff in many fields are expected to do many things for themselves that they used to have done for them. This has been less prevalent in law firms than in other sectors, though law libraries have also been pressured for space and budgets. Partly this is because the opportunity costs of having lawyers do unbillable tasks for themselves are high and partly because the cost of the risks associated with incomplete research are higher still.

The reasons for this include a common preference for print information among lawyers, a lag on the part of legal publishers in getting materials online in a usable formats, among others. Which is not to say all legal publishers haven’t made their content conveniently available online, rather that one can’t significantly reduce the size of a collection of required print resources unless a critical mass of materials needed are available this way. The relative slowness of technology adoption and increase in publishers’ walled gardens have also resulted in a situation where applications like citation managers haven’t been adopted as successfully as they have been in other fields. This is starting to change with applications like Lexhub and the legal extension of Zotero.

There has also been a resistance on the part of publishers of subscription services to forego the revenue streams that labour intensive services like looseleaf services provide, and on the part of lawyers who don’t want to assume the perceived risks associated with not having the most up to date resource possible. All of this combines to create a situation where collection maintenance takes up considerably more time in law libraries than it does in comparably sized libraries in other sectors.

My observation from attending law library conferences is that many law librarians see maintaining libraries’ collections (print and online) and helping people navigate them through instruction, direct research, and direction as their primary roles. Anything outside of this is treated as an additional project. Given those priorities it isn’t surprising to me that the information needs of business development functions may be better met by staff reporting in other departments.

I have been to the offices of librarians of various job titles who work very closely with the people doing the primary work of the organizations that employ them: medical librarians with offices and all the materials they need accessible through their computers and mobile devices; academic librarians with access to the university library, but housed with and funded by the academic department, with no responsibility for the “library” as space. The information specialist staff in legal business development departments are similar to those positions in many ways, and may not deal with legal information as such.

Those positions have interesting differences from those working with legal information. One of the tensions for law librarians is the limit on expressing a legal opinion and navigating the difficulties that come from that. This is obviated for librarians focusing on business development, so the librarians can express opinions and make recommendations about future developments based on their research, which is an appealing freedom. Also, as they don’t have the same responsibilities for other library work, the depth they can bring to individual projects may be deeper. All of this is very appealing, but it relies on having access to a research collection, which likely needs to be managed by library anyway.

If the library isn’t in place to provide access to required materials, much more time would need to be spent acquiring content for their work. So maybe business development departments would start to look more like libraries. Possibly, law firm libraries don’t include the materials business development staff need, and the competing priority of supplying content to be applied in legal practice makes it difficult to do that work there. It seems to be against current trends, but maybe it’s time to make the business case to transfer budget from business development to libraries as a more efficient way to achieve law firms’ wider informational goals, which include competitive intelligence.


  1. As someone who works in Marketing-oriented legal research and CI, and has reported in to both libraries and marketing departments, I’d say it can work either way. Some larger firms are even creating an entirely new CI/Research function – separate from both the Library and Marketing. I think one of the keys is that it is a specialized function, and requires training and an orientation towards analysis and writing. My current role reports in to a small Marketing group and is a hybrid role, and I also work closely with our Librarian.

    I believe the evolution of all these functions will create opportunities for new knowledge functions which combine competencies from law librarianship, knowledge management, CI, analysis & writing and marketing technology, similar to what exist in large professional services firms.

  2. Cheryl Niemeier

    While no doubt some law firm libraries are still very hardcopy/print centric, I believe that the majority are not and have taken on the very role you suggest they do. My law library now called Knowledge & Research Services which more accurately describes what we do in today’s legal information environment, has very few books left and our focus is on making our online/digital collections accessible to our users, training them on how to use them, and offering a great deal of research services that we bill to the client and which our attorneys and paralegals take great advantage of utilizing.

    I do agree that if today’s law librarians don’t take charge of the future in the services they offer and the tasks that consume their time, do so to their own detriment and likely demise. Years ago, I decided that was not going to happen in my library department on my watch and it has definitely been a very wise and strategic move.