Evolving Roles for Law Librarians and Legal Technologists

Caroline Young, chair of the Computing Services Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries, graciously invited me to be the breakfast speaker at the section’s business meeting during the 2015 annual meeting and conference of the American Association of Law Libraries. Here are my remarks, lightly edited.

By now everyone here is well aware of the upheaval that we’ve witnessed for at least the past seven years in both the legal practice market and the legal academy. Whether or not our job title includes the word “librarian,” and whether we work in a law school, in a firm, or in a corporate law department; whether for a publisher or other vendor, in a government agency, or are providing contract services on our own; whether we’ve been in the profession for forty years or are seeking our first professional position, each of us has been significantly affected by the crash of these two “engines of economic activity” in recent years. And despite last week’s several optimistic reports that “our long national legal nightmare is over,” which followed the report that the number of summer LSAT takers increased slightly, we will continue to feel the effects of substantial change for the foreseeable future, and certainly for the remainder of my professional lifetime.

Since the very earliest days of our formal education, we have been told to expect change; that society is constantly evolving, and that we must change also. For a moment, think of the many changes you faced as you prepared for the transition from young child, to teenager, and then adult. New schools; the addition of new family members and, perhaps, the loss of a loved one. You learned that life is dynamic, and not only did life’s lessons demonstrate that to you, but plenty of writers reinforced it for you. “Change or die.” “The only constant is change.” We look forward to some change, like a vacation, as a welcome break in routine, or like a graduation as a mark that we have completed one phase of life and are about to embark on another. But as Anatole France said, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Of course, during the last century, law schools, and law librarians experienced change, albeit at a more gradual rate, or at least so it seems to us as we look back at that period. The foundings of the Association of American Law Schools and AALL were six years apart; later came the merger of equity and law in the courts, and still later the custom of granting the J.D. degree instead of the LL. B. In law libraries we saw increased specialization in positions and the progress of technology, moving from books and the card catalog, through micro-formats, into the introduction of computerized access to legal research, while not leaving books behind. That pace accelerated quickly at the dawn of this century as the synergy of faster computer processors and cheaper data storage as predicted in Moore’s law, and the spread of high-speed, interconnected networks made it easier for everyone to seek their own answers: in a phrase, mass disintermediation.

As the last decade drew to a close, these trends collided with the worst recession since the great depression. Reductions in state revenue accelerated the move by many states to finance less of public education with tax dollars and instead rely on tuition increases, with much of that tuition being advanced through federal student loan programs. Bankruptcies and business downsizing led companies to grow more frugal on spending for legal services, and the middle class, which already avoided engaging attorneys as a general rule, was even less able to afford obtaining legal advice. Large law firms stopped hiring new associates, and began shrinking, consolidating with other firms, or closed down. Upstarts such as LegalZoom took advantage of technology to offer low-end services that had been the bread-and-butter of solos and small firms. And law schools, dependent on growing or at least stable student enrollment to sustain their activities, found themselves in a quandary. Department of Labor statistics showing a surplus of attorneys and press reports questioning the value of the J.D., some of them well-founded, some of them hyperbolic, further persuaded potential students to avoid law school as a career choice. As a result, enrollment of first-year law students has decreased by more than a fourth over the past five years. So while our profession has experienced change throughout its history, and many of its members have even thrived on it, the disruptive changes of the past few years have shaken many of us to the core.

In a moment I will give examples of how many of us are responding to these fundamental changes. First, however, I want to say what I mean by “we” and “us.” The people in this room, and our fellow AALL members, go by many titles. These include librarian, legal information specialist or professional, legal technologist, and even informationist. Whatever our title, we share the primary mission to foster access to legal information and the legal system, and we work with partners who include attorneys, paralegals, faculty, deans and other administrators, judges, and other government officials.

I also should note that because I have been working in the academy for the past twenty-six years, more of my examples will be drawn from academic law libraries. But make no mistake about it, those of our colleagues who work with and for law firms and other private enterprise, not-for-profits, and government employers are facing similar challenges and they also provide many examples of law librarians stepping up to meet the challenges.

So what exactly are we doing?

All of us are rebalancing our collections in an age where accessibility has largely replaced ownership. Last October, David Dunlap reported in the New York Times on the move of Kaye Scholer to a new flagship office, and that it had left behind most of its law library. To read the quotes of the partners, you’d think that it was merely the books that made up a library. Several weeks later Jean O’Grady wrote in her Dewy B Strategic blog about the outrage felt in the law library community concerning the naiveté of the author, who ignored the trends we’ve all been witnessing for the past two decades. She then went on to rightly point out that the appearance of the space that the partners call the library has little to do with the efforts made to ensure that they still have timely access to legal information. As Jean wrote, “The hero of the story is not the architect who designed a law office without a room designated as a ‘library,’ but the information professional who crafted the complex plan, reengineered the workflows and aligned the licenses and resources on which the digital infrastructure rests. In Kay Scholer’s case the true hero of the story was [AALL member] Shabeer Khan, who was not mentioned in the story.”

In Chicago June Liebert, who developed her professional skills as a librarian in academia and went on to be a law school CIO and then the library director at John Marshall Law School, now serves as Firmwide Director of Library & Research Services for Sidley Austin. There she is optimizing the delivery of legal information and reorganizing resources to enable the firm to better compete in today’s market.

At the same time that law students have adopted a more consumer-oriented attitude toward law schools, the ABA has adopted new accreditation standards that focus on educational and career outcomes, rather than the traditional measurements of dollars spent and the number of volumes of books on the shelves. AALL member law librarians are at the forefront of several schools’ moves to adapt.

At the William Mitchell College of Law, Associate Dean for Information Resources Simon Canick is playing a key leadership role in the launch of the school’s hybrid online and residential J.D. program. Research and Instructional Librarian Janelle Beitz is teamed with Instructional Designer David Herding and Chad Johnson, Director of Information Technology, in developing and delivering their hybrid program that puts students on campus for 55 hours of residential instruction during each of prep week and capstone week at the beginning and end of the semester, respectively, with asynchronous instruction sandwiched in between the two. The courses are designed by focusing on student competencies, and unit and lesson outcomes aim at teaching and assessing subcompetencies along the way. Here Janelle has moved well beyond the traditional role of a reference librarian to be a full partner in the development and delivery of new programs for law students.

At the very young University of North Texas Dallas College of Law, Jennifer Wondracek, Senior Law Librarian and Associate Director of Instructional Technology, is also working with a team to deliver courses that define learning outcomes, rely on rubrics, and offer formative assessments for students along the way. Jennie works alongside faculty including Assistant Professor Eric Porterfield and Beth Donohue, an expert in question design who used to work with the National Conference of Bar Examiners and now is with BarBri. Jennie’s familiarity with technology and educational design is helping UNT prepare for compliance with the new ABA accreditation standards. The law librarians at UNT may be setting the pace by adding preparation of assessment questions for adjunct faculty to their services.

It should go without saying, but it is nevertheless important to remind especially lawyers and law school administrators, that law librarians have long been the most qualified teachers of legal research. Whether in the informal setting of a firm associate’s office, a faculty lounge, or the more formal setting of the classroom, law librarians understand both meaning and context and can help new and experienced legal practitioners to better use their time and their client’s funds. Simply put, law librarians practice skilled discernment whether tackling a legal research problem or reviewing the latest upgrade to an electronic research system.

If you know me at all, you know that I espouse the duty of law librarians and legal technologists to teach law students and lawyers both the basics and the finer points of using technology in their jobs. While our former colleague John Palfrey wrote of millennials as digital natives, most of today’s law students have the mere passing familiarity of a quick google search or using a social network to find friends, arrange a meeting, share photos, or beef about a class. What they and many otherwise experienced practicing lawyers don’t understand is the way to ameliorate unintended risk from sending emails, publicly opining on cases even without mentioning a client’s name, or answering a question on a website. Our colleagues are often well-versed in both new technologies and the Rules of Professional Conduct. We can reach out in the familiar environment of our firms and schools and in the more unfamiliar realm of leading CLE programs and writing in bar journals.

Working with their faculty and I.T. colleagues, librarians like Roger Skalbeck, formerly at Georgetown and now the new director at Richmond, Steve Melamut, about to retire at UNC-Chapel Hill, Emily Janoski-Hahlen at Valparaiso, and Jennifer Behrens at Duke take different tacks on leading their technology courses. Their students will be ahead of the game when they use technology to communicate with clients and the courts, and ultimately to run their practices.

In government libraries, law librarians are working hard to improve access to the legal system. Rita Dermody, who will be retiring as Director of King County Public Law Library in Seattle, is a member of Washington’s statewide Access to Justice Board. As Utah State Law Librarian, Jessica Van Buren served on the state’s Committee on Resources for Self-represented Parties. With Jessica’s help, the committee obtained a grant to pilot a virtual self-help center housed in the state law library. This resource center provides administrative support to a small staff of attorneys who provide services to pro se litigants all over the state.

In Virginia State Law Librarian Gail Warren urged the state’s chief justice to appoint a law librarian to the new access to justice commission, and Gail was the first librarian to serve on it. She has used her library’s resources to set up a wiki for the commission’s work and is an advocate for both A2J and for involving law librarians in the commission’s work. Mark Estes in Alameda County, California reached out to the local legal service providers’ consortium to offer library services and John Adkins in San Diego County spearheaded the founding of a similar consortium there. Work such as this accomplishes the twin goals of advancing access to justice and showing all the players the important contributions that law librarians can make to the effort.

Finally I want to briefly circle back to the challenges facing academic law libraries as a key component of their institutions in the tough environment we’ve all be working within the past few years. As I wrote in Law Library Journal, I am more optimistic about our future than Jim Milles was in his article. I admit that I have no sure way of knowing what the future will bring to us, for as I said earlier, the only constant is change. So like all of us should, I try to plan for an uncertain future by looking at some of the possible paths to take, those I would choose and those that would be thrust upon me, and then try to allocate or acquire the resources to help us make a success on any of those possible paths. Let me close by quoting two wise sages who said and sing it more eloquently than I can.

Steve Jobs is best known to the world as the founder of Apple Computer, where he proved Thomas Wolfe wrong successfully going home again. While you think of him of a prescient designer and marketer of computers and other consumer goods, our son, Micah, admires him for saving Pixar Studios and bringing about the merger that put it at its rightful home, the Walt Disney Company. Jobs was often invited to give commencement speeches, and at the 2005 commencement of Stanford University, this is what he told the graduates:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference.

I have only a few hard and fast rules when I perform karaoke. First among them is that I would never try to sing Dylan. But it is very appropriate to close with these words that he wrote more than 50 years ago.

As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’

Post © 2015 Kenneth J. Hirsh

Originally published by Kenneth J. Hirsh at Ipso Facto. Reprinted with permission.

Director, Library and Information Technology, University of Cincinnati College of Law