Awkwardly, haphazardly, and very reluctantly, law firms are starting to change how they operate. The legal market environment has downshifted radically in the last few years, leaving law firms scrambling to adapt to a colder and harsher climate. Firms have now used up all the short-term tactics they could think of to protect their profits and market positions; their last remaining option is to change their behaviors to reflect the new environment.
Law libraries and KM departments have been hit as hard as everyone else by the disruption in the legal market. Law librarians and all legal professionals have witnessed the widespread decentralization of knowledge resources, the relentless pressure to cut costs and shrink physical footprints, and even the incursion of underemployed associates into territory previously inhabited solely by librarians. Now it's time to respond to these changes and gain control over the evolution of functions involving content management and its associated roles in KM, IT, client services, and analytics.
Starting now, law librarians and KM personnel have the opportunity to integrate themselves into the architecture of the burgeoning new law firm model. The collection, curation, dissemination, and application of knowledge will lie at the heart of profitably efficient law firms of the future, and they are the stewards of that knowledge. Accordingly, here are eight possible new careers with the potential to transform not just law firms, but also the entire profession.
1. Niche Expert Resource: Embedded within practice or industry groups, this knowledge professional becomes a sort of specialized "in-house librarian" with a deep and thorough knowledge of the laws, regulations, practices, and current events in a given area. The group's lawyers and staff draw upon this person's ability to locate relevant knowledge and rely on him or her to keep them up-to-date on important developments in the field.
2. Bespoke CLE Designer: Post-call education and training is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor: every lawyer has unique CLE needs and interests. This position, perhaps cross-posted with Professional Development, profiles every lawyer in the firm, in particular his or her current and future PD interests and requirements, and then selects a customized learning regimen that mixes substantive legal knowledge with business development training.
3. LPM Coordinator: Legal project management will play an increasingly significant role in improving the effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness of practice groups and project teams. Librarians and KM personnel with a knack for process would be ideally placed to lead the construction of LPM systems and the training of lawyers and staff in the appropriate procedures.
4. Business Intelligence Director: Most law firms, if pressed, would admit that when it comes to internal business information, they "don't know what they don't know." Law firms are swimming in roiling seas of business data, floating aimlessly about; if this information were organized and applied by an experienced knowledge manager, the resulting business intelligence would be an invaluable resource for the firm.
5. Legal Knowledge Liaison: Take the position of Niche Expert Resource (#1, above), turn it to face externally, rather than internally, and you have the Legal Knowledge Liaison: a subject-matter specialist available on call for the firm's best clients in a particular area. Not only would this be a tremendous service for in-house counsel, but it could also greatly enhance the job security of the knowledge professional who becomes an indispensable resource to a key client.
6. Expert Application Programmer: Powerful new software is emerging that can delve into the depths of the legal profession's knowledge resources and provide automated processes to answer straightforward legal and regulatory questions. Who better to program these applications than a librarian or knowledge professional, especially if the firm's own resources form part of the database.
7. AFA Coordinator: Law firms can't keep discounting hourly rates forever; the need to come up with truly innovative pricing is becoming urgent. Knowledge professionals can gather and integrate internal and external data to measure the firm's real costs of production and give lawyers the information they need to negotiate rational flat prices that can safeguard profitability while meeting client demands.
8. Client Knowledge Engineer: Whenever a customer logs in to Amazon.com, the system assesses his or her previous browsing and buying behavior and offers customized items of interest. Imagine a law firm applied knowledge engine that could do the same: analyze all recent client interactions with the firm and build a menu of recommended activities to reflect the client's needs. Better yet, don't just imagine such a system: let the law library take the lead in creating it.
Finally, whatever new roles are envisioned for law firm knowledge specialists, there are four principles that one should follow when helping to engineer the evolution of the entire law library function:
1. Delegate, outsource or automate wherever possible. Lawyers are taking these steps to streamline internal systems and reduce costs; libraries must do the same to keep pace and demonstrate solidarity with the firm's efforts.
2. Change from being receptive to active. Knowledge workers can sometimes tend towards passivity, waiting for someone to come ask for help. Become proactive, leading people out of the library and into lawyers' offices to find out what librarians can contribute.
3. Shift out of "neutral:" recommend, opine, and analyze. By no means should non-lawyers offer legal advice; but as the recognized experts in knowledge assembly and application, information professionals should feel confident making recommendations to lawyers about what the research indicates.
4. Start thinking about process, not just knowledge. As legal information becomes more widely distributed within law firms and across the legal market, knowledge—the "what" of law—is losing ground to process—the "how" of law. The future lies in "how." Knowledge workers need to think hard about becoming process workers.
Just as the day of the traditional law firm is ending, so too is the era of the traditional law library drawing to a close. What will replace it, and how that replacement will contribute value to the firm, is still within librarians' power to guide and influence. As the foregoing lists suggest, however, there is every indication that the future of the law librarian and knowledge workers will be more challenging, more sophisticated, and more fulfilling than it has ever been. It's time to take the next steps.
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