Crowded Collaboration c.c.

In a recent Bloomberg interview, I speculated that in the future, law  libraries may look like Apple Stores. My point was that while we may replace law books with desktop virtual libraries, the need for  spaces for  research consultation, collaboration and “just in time learning” will continue.  As I mentioned in an earlier post  on strategic interventions using an iPad, lawyers are facing “customization overload” and  we should be prepared to “just say yes” and offer concierge services which resolve problems and offer solutions enabling lawyers to focus on core client support activities.

What Do Lawyers Need? About 12 years ago in preparation for a library redesign, I surveyed lawyers regarding the new library space. Lawyers wanted 1) clearly designated place where they knew they could find people to help them and 2) a quiet space where they could work… away from their offices… in proximity to other lawyers… although not necessarily talking to them. Note the top requirement was not books but access to people with expertise – research librarians. Today I would describe these design concepts as “crowded collaboration” and “social solitude.”

Examples of these concepts have surfaced recently in press pieces about the transformation of law firm space.

Social Solitude. Yesterday there was an article about WilmerHale’s New Office in the World Trade Center. The architect highlighted the creation of a new “library space” referred to as “The Commons:”

“One example of how the new offices differ from the old: the space traditionally known as the library is called the “Commons.” While it does contain some books, it also has room for lawyers to work remotely with wireless Internet, take a break with a Wii video game system, and sip a latte at the coffee bar.”

OK, I think the Wii bit too cute and uncomfortably reminiscent of the now defunct Foosball rooms that appeared in law firms before the bust. Since I spent 4 years sneaking my coffee cups into the Fordham Law Library… I can only say “amen” to the library coffee bar.

Sadly there is no mention of research support staff, as if both technology and research were completely intuitive and immune from the need for expert support. Did the Commons design omit the most vital component of the law library – the law librarian? I doubt it… but this was not an important feature in the architect’s eyes. Need I say… “a Wii is no substitute for a research expert.”

Technology Can Be as Frustrating as it Can be Enabling  Let’s face it self service is about shifting work from one group to another. Since lawyers are the primary drivers of revenue we have to carefully assess how the drive to “self service” may be impairing or enabling a lawyer. While research remains primarily an intellectual exercise and not a technological process, there are so many new platforms, passwords and profiles that libraries by any name should be viewed as  spaces for human intervention, collaboration and consultation. These value enhancing qualities should  not be lost in the drive to reduce space. There was recently a story “Self check out on the Wane” about how grocery stores had begun to remove scanners because the technology wasn’t as reliable and intuitive as expected. Customers decided it was simply quicker and preferable to deal with a human being who could instantly resolve any technical problems or address other issues.

Crowded Collaboration I have been wildly fascinated by the crowds in the Apple Store since my first visit. I think that the attraction of the Apple Store is not merely the hip design of the products, but the sheer number of apple employees who are available to direct, consult and troubleshoot. There is also The Genius Bar where you get a real training session and which requires a payment and an appointment.
The Social Life of Space In the rush to shrink libraries and reduce law firm real estate spending, planners should be careful not to overlook the social life of space.

The paradox of technology is that it seems to simultaneously escalate both efficiency and complexity. We are constantly driving change into a community of lawyers where there is no universal consensus of what (product technology, platform, interface ) is truly intuitive and which is “not worth the effort.” Many research functions have gotten easier over the past decades. With Google you can always find something. In high stakes litigation you must find “the right thing.” Complex research is not going to be as easy as flipping a light switch. Even simple research tasks are not so easily replicated by technology.

Researchers Can’t be Replaced by Siri. Yesterday a there was an article in the New York TimesThe Initial Romance with Apple’s Siri Goes Sour ” about the voice activated research assistant. The article illustrates the frustrating short comings of this innovative technology.  Author Nick Bilton writes that since last summer “we have had some major communication issues. She frequently misunderstands my questions, Sometimes she is just unavailable. Often, she responds with the same repetitive statement.”

Firms should consider how to balance and accommodate the two types of space, noisy and crowded collaboration space as well as  quiet spaces of social solitude.

In case you missed it — here is a link to the Bloomberg interview where I discuss the future of law libraries.

July 9 (Bloomberg) — Law firms are moving in the direction of having libraries the “size of a phone booth,” as research has moved from a central location to the attorney’s desktop, says DLA Piper’s Director of Research Services and Libraries Jean O’Grady. Libraries are becoming more like the retail hubs of Apple, “a place where people go to collaborate and learn how to do things more efficiently,” she tells Bloomberg Law’s Spencer Mazyck. That means librarians increasingly have to focus on highly specialized research, so law firms can deliver more value to clients, she says.
O’Grady: Law Firm Libraries Becoming Like Apple Stores.