The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) recently concluded its 110th Annual Meeting and Conference. From the outset, it was abundantly clear that the organization’s members, consisting primarily of legal sector library, research, and knowledge services professionals, are more than ready to make themselves heard. Outside in their communities, within the legal services sector, and inside their own organizations, they are making a difference in a multitude of ways.

Promoting Justice

During the run up to the official conference opening, AALL issued a stinging rebuke of the current political climate in the state of Texas, the host of the 2017 conference. In a letter signed by outgoing President Ronald E. Wheeler and delivered to the mayors and directors of convention and visitors bureaus of major cities in the state, AALL declared that it “would hold no future meetings in Texas” until certain state sanctioned discriminatory policies were changed (a reference to actions by Texas’s governor and state legislature on the subject of the adoption of children by LGBTQ families and the threatened regulation of access to restroom facilities by transgender persons).

The move underscored a theme fundamental to the conference itself. Event programming carried a tagline urging conference goers to “Forgo the Status Quo” while the opening keynote was delivered by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. In a rousing address titled, “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference,” Stevenson issued a call to action to those in attendance beseeching them to step outside their comfort zones and assist those that are on society’s margins.

AALL should be commended for doing just that. In its public pronouncement, the organization stated that diversity is one of its “core values,“ and it took action noting that it could not “stand by as Texas enacts legislation that discriminates against a vulnerable community.”

Navigating Change

Firm librarians have always been asked to deliver value to their organizations, but in recent years, that task has become both more important and more challenging.

The 2008 Great Recession altered the landscape in which law firms compete – even within Big Law revenue growth for the Am Law 200 as a whole has slowed considerably. Prior to the Great Recession, firms tended to rise and fall together. Today, growth is no longer a certainty as firms are confronted with increased competition not just from other law firms, but also from their legal department clients and an emerging group of alternative legal service providers.

Moreover, in the face of these tough economic conditions where doing more with less is the prevailing mantra, library leaders are successfully managing the transition of their organizations from print to digital operations.

Combating Misconceptions

Featuring lively discussions on topics such as statistics, analytics, and competitive intelligence, the educational sessions at the annual conference demonstrated that a library’s worth should not be reduced to a question of the square footage in its floor plan and the number print copies maintained. Though in some corners those views persist and unfortunately have often placed the profession on the defensive.

However, the tide appears to be turning, a fact that did not escape Bob Ambrogi, veteran legal journalist and respected industry expert. The conference sessions highlighted the role of technology in the legal sector, and placed librarians and other research professionals directly in the center of this unfolding revolution.

Ambrogi took note on his LawSites blog writing that “this year it struck [him] just how much [the AALL Annual Conference] has become one of the leading legal technology conferences” declaring “something bigger is happening with the legal professionals we’ve long called law librarians. They are wearing an increasing number of hats these days, and a major one has become legal technologist.”

Delivering Value

In the post-recession new normal, libraries and knowledge services departments serve as an indispensable resource. Figure 1 below, reflecting responses to ALM Intelligence’s Survey of Knowledge Management, Library, and Research Professionals, illustrates just how many functions critical to the success of firms are performed by their libraries.

Those key functions include libraries and their staff filling their more traditional roles in legal research support. As clients become more cost conscious, firms can source legal research to their library staff as an efficient, low-cost alternative to billing the same tasks to firm attorneys. And they also include the effective procurement of the growing array of technology-based research and analytic solutions fundamental to the day-to-day operations of today’s firms. In evaluating the effectiveness of tools and negotiating subscription details, libraries are responsible for identifying new tools and controlling costs through negotiating favorable contract terms.

Next, there are the roles that library staff are increasingly filling as researchers in support of firm business initiatives (Figure 2 below).

Those business research responsibilities are growing to the point that many survey respondents expect the number of business research requests to eclipse the number of legal research requests in the near future.

Finally, as information and research experts, libraries and knowledge services departments are perfectly positioned to facilitate knowledge sharing within the firm through activities such as conducting training sessions and curating newsletters on key subjects. Furthermore, because knowledge not shared is knowledge lost, for law firms operating in the age of the lateral move, knowledge sharing can also be a key mechanism promoting institutional stability.

Law firm libraries are making a positive impact by promoting justice, combating misconceptions, and navigating change. And most importantly for the legal services sector, they are delivering value by conducting legal and business research, managing the procurement of critical research tools, and promoting the exchange of knowledge. Going forward, library managers and their staff will ensure that they never settle for the status quo if they continue to harness the same spirit of engagement and activism that punctuated the start of this year’s annual conference.

ALM Intelligence Notes:

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Steve Kovalan is a Senior Analyst at ALM Intelligence. A member of the District of Columbia Bar, he holds a JD from the West Virginia University College of Law and a BA (summa cum laude) in History and Political Science from West Virginia University. He can be reached via email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.