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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
July 2012 | VOLUME 13, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
Build It and They Will Come: What Business Are You In?
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»Build It and They Will Come: What Business Are You In?
»Siri as Reference Assistant?
»KM: It's Time to Evolve
»The Future of eBooks in Law Firms and the Future of Libraries
»Impact of New Legal Research Platforms on Attorney Research
»The iPad: How Did We Make Do Without It?
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Build It and They Will Come: What Business Are You In?Ronda Fisch, Director of Research and Library Systems, Reed Smith LLP, Pittsburgh, PA; Deborah Schwarz, Chief Executive Officer, LAC Group, Los Angeles, CA
If you were challenged to build a library starting with a blank slate, where would you start? ....

What would you do if the managing partner of the law firm, the CEO of your company, or the dean of your law school challenged you to step away from the library you are managing and design a new operation entirely from the ground up? No legacy contracts, no existing print collection, no physical space – nothing but a blank page!

Chances are not many of us have been given this assignment, but it is an extremely helpful exercise to undertake when developing a strategic plan for the future. Throwing out all that exists in the present is a challenge because it is only natural to look at constructing future plans through the eyes of established behavior and operations. At the same time, it is immensely liberating to start entirely from scratch! This article will explore steps you can take to let go of "what is" and focus on "what could be."

Where and how do you start? What information will you need in order to determine how your new department will function in the organization? With whom will you consult to obtain this information? Why are you being asked to develop this plan in the first place? Most of these questions can be answered by focusing on the foundation that necessarily drives all planning decisions: the mission statement. Think about the goals and objectives of the firm as you begin to design the new operation; even an entirely transformed library rebuilt from scratch will be successful only if it exists to support the organization it supports. The library's raison d'être must dovetail directly with the firm's strategic plan.

Understanding the strategic plan is key to ensuring the success of the new organization you are developing or changing. Where do you find the mission statement? The firm's strategic plan may be openly accessible or it may be limited to management. Some firms promote transparency, others are more covert, especially if a merger looms or a major lateral hire bringing in a new practice area is under confidential discussion. It is incumbent upon you to find out as much as you can in order to justify and develop the new enterprise. You may be a member of the inner circle of decision makers, or you may be on the fringes, but even if you aren't directly privy to the information needed to make your plan a success, find someone who is. You need enough information to form realistic assumptions upon which to build the foundation for your new enterprise. Bottom line: if you don't know, find out whom to ask and be ready to explain why you need to know.

Remember that the future is unpredictable, even to those at the top who are in the know. Just as the firm's strategic plan makes room to accommodate the unexpected, your plan must avoid rigidity and allow for change. The dizzying evolution of digital content alone is cause enough to build flexibility and adaptability into your new plan.

At this point, you may be considering a survey of your users to determine what they need or want from the library. Remember, your assignment was to throw out the present and start from scratch, so the purpose of a survey would be to build upon the future plans and not serve as a tool to assess the present or past services. To that end, attorneys and other library users who are asked to participate in a survey need to be let in on the assignment and directed to respond in that context.

For information professionals, it is second nature to leverage our network, not only to learn what our peers are doing but also to become "the expert" on trends and best practices. How information is obtained, delivered, and utilized is critical to making decisions on the information organization you are going to construct. Social media, conference papers, webinars, and publications abound that touch on trends and emerging themes as well as the advantages and possible pitfalls of employing new tools and technologies. A word of caution – this wealth of information can quickly descend into information overload. Put your organizational skills to work!

Armed with a clear understanding of the organization's strategic mission, you can begin to survey resources, staffing levels, and technologies needed to support the plan. This is the fun part because, at this juncture, you don't need to worry about the budget (remember, this is an exercise only). However, if you get to the point of implementing the exercise in the real world, funding principles will apply.

Suppose your firm's mission is a commitment to delivering high-quality service and developing long-term client relationships. Leveraging competitive advantage by delivering superior services to attract and retain clients, thereby increasing revenue, is central to this mission. How does the library support this mission and goal? Directly partnering with practice or industry groups and emphasizing business intelligence may be the cornerstone from which the new library is constructed. All other services and resources may exist only to support the research intelligence functions.

What about the tools and resources needed to support the functions? If a practice-centric approach makes sense, then perhaps a centralized library is never built. Print resources as well as library researchers might be located where the attorneys are (satellite collections with embedded librarians). Collection development activities will include the evaluation of materials, content, and virtual tools that are spread amongst the librarians supporting specific practice groups. As needs shift, resources keep step, and contracts and licenses are negotiated to the degree possible.

Administrative roles and responsibilities likely will change. The library director's role might focus on building and supporting the research team, as well as on internal marketing and public relations. This will ensure that the researchers are included as essential players in the firm's organizational structure. The purchasing power as well as fiscal accountability for all services, tools, resources, materials, and technology that support the research functions could remain under the director's responsibility or could be transferred as an administrative function within the department or practice group.

The research team might consist of librarians and research attorneys as well as subject matter specialists capable of performing analytical research. At least some of the librarians might serve as generalists to perform legal research that is nonspecific to a practice group, conduct legislative histories, write and develop content for a research portal, orient new attorneys and staff to services and resources, and conduct training on the use of electronic resources such as, Westlaw® online legal research.

There are a host of logistical factors to consider based upon the organization's size and number of locations. Answering research questions and providing training, content delivery, and resource support via a virtual platform accessible from mobile devices, in multiple languages is the "new normal" for most libraries. The new library operation will need to include provisions to expand this type of support. The operational design and workflow, as well as the staffing levels, need to be flexible and capable of mobility and scalability so any new technology or change in the firm's mission and strategic planning can be accommodated relatively easily.

In creating your new operation, you can certainly aim for a "build it and they will come" approach. However, to really ensure that the dream becomes a reality, build an enterprise that is firmly aligned with the firm's strategic goals and is nimble enough to shift or adapt in lockstep with change when it occurs. Stay focused on your blueprint and be creative with the resources you use to accessorize your new library environment. As "What if" transforms into "What is" – enjoy your new view!

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