Today American Lawyer posted an article about what the author described as a “growing trend in law library outsourcing.”  Nuance doesn’t grab headlines, and this article
raises more questions than it answers.  A  few key clarifications are in order.  Are law firms throwing away institutional intelligence instead of just tossing the books? Will they pay a high price later for a short term savings?

1. Outsourcing is not new – I suspect that 100% of ALM 200 firms engage in some level of outsourcing, looseleaf filing, cataloging,  document retrieval and repetitive technical processes are the processes which are most commonly outsourced. Functions involving deep, specialized knowledge and  high levels of expertise are not.

2. Outsourcing is not unique to law libraries – many large law firms have outsourced lower level repetitive work  from many different departments including HR, IT, conflicts, marketing, accounting.  The key metrics which determine whether to outsource a job are: the complexity of the work, a short learning curve, high repetition, low decision making authority. Outsourced positions anticipate high turnover  with low impact on service in order to maintain savings.

3. Most importantly… What exactly do they mean by “law library?” Are any two people  in the article talking about the same thing
when they refer to” law libraries.”?
Is Your Law Library a Time Capsule? 30 years ago most law libraries operated according to a fairly standard template focused mostly on maintaining print resources,
overseeing book circulation, routing  newsletters and magazines. Research support  was generally confined to “ready reference fact checking.”
Since 1986 the spectrum of  services offered by information professionals has exploded as they have taken the lead introducing firms to online research, the internet, Knowledge Management, analytics, competitive intelligence, project management and listening platforms. Sadly there are firms and law librarians who have perpetuated the “time capsule version of a 1986  law library.” Clearly law firms who have failed to hire strategic knowledge leaders will find the savings offered by an outsourced solution very attractive– but this doesn’t mean that the lawyers will be
getting what they need to compete in the 21st century knowledge economy.
Is Your Law Library an Intelligence “Force Multiplier?” Most ALM 200 firms are well down the road to eliminating print, automating operations and outsourcing or eliminating repetitive low
level work. Any firm that has not begun these transformations is way behind the curve. Before law firms jump on the outsourcing band wagon leaders and partners
should do some “soul searching” and consider  what kind strategic information support they currently offer to their lawyers and what kind of
intelligence they want to integrate into  their business and legal work processes to compete in the 21st century.
I have observed at least 3 different tiers of legal information support in ALM 200 law firms and there are probably more.  But for purposes of assessing the value of “outsourcing” to an organization you
need to define the central idea of the “law library.” What kind of support does your firm offer now and what kind of support do you need to maintain a competitive edge?
Low tier.  A basic library. Supports the management of print and electronic resources. Provides reactive, basic legal research.
Middle Tier. Research and Intelligence Center.
Provides proactive legal and business intelligence and complex legal  and business research services,  in-depth research analytics. Oversees the organization wide content acquisition  strategy informing  management and business decisions. Offers  a wide range of services including KM, competitive intelligence, practice aligned support, practice  portals and key client portals. Director/CKO assures that information polices mitigate ethical risks.
Top Tier. Strategic Knowledge Services .
Director or CKO oversees integration of workflow and resources  functions including research services, conflicts, dockets, records, intranet, competitive intelligence, knowledge management. investigates emerging technologies, AI, machine learning, process improvement and advises firm on  development of
integrated desktop workflow solutions.
Open Questions?

 It is not at all clear how an outsider, even if given a “Director” title with no “seat at the management table” can help a law firm build out their 21st century knowledge enabled desktops and
workflows.  Information professionals are in demand across a wide spectrum of jobs in the emerging fields of competitive intelligence, pricing, process improvement and data analytics, so positions in marginalized “library” operations are unlikely to offer an attractive career option for innovative information professionals. Who will want to take these jobs?

Let‘s be frank  there are law firms which have tolerated law libraries staffed by “book tenders” which are rightly at risk for drastic measures such as 100% outsourcing… and then there are firms who had the foresight to hire professional knowledge strategists who have spent the past decade transforming law libraries into strategic intelligence units that are driving competitive insights and analytics through all legal and business processes. It is one thing to throw out the books and another to throw out the information professionals who act as “force multipliers” in assuring that the firm always knows more and looks smarter than their clients or the competition.

SEE ALSO Greg Lambert’s response to the American Lawyer article on 3 Geeks and a Law : Law firm libraries can not simply be a service: they need to be a strategic partner.