Agile libraries: Case studies from the world of law

Clare Brown
February 8, 2019

This is the fourth in our BIALL 2018 Conference series, and I can recommend you read it in conjunction with our other piece on agile working. Vable uses agile methodology to manage workflow, and it requires a mental shift if you are accustomed to a more traditional workplace. The more we collaborate and share experiences, we can make new ways of working possible in a corporate/legal library environment.


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‘The Library in the Agile world: Case studies from Gowling WLG and Withers LLP’ with Diane Miller and Timonie Green provided a brief introduction to the ideas behind agile and activity based working. Both firms are at different stages: the move is imminent at Withers; and Gowling WLG have already implemented the move. Although experiences have varied, they face similar challenges.

What does agile working mean in a law firm context?

It means working effectively from anywhere in the world for the benefit of clients. Legal has been slower to adopt agile working; law firms are still in the experimental stage as it’s a major cultural and organisational shift. There are challenges around IT security requirements, the traditional nature of legal, and building/maintaining trust in staff.

When people are used to being in an office, it is hard to adjust to a new working environment. After all, legal staff remain embedded in their practice and need the same access to resources, training, and knowledge sharing as before. The new tech - video conferencing, accessing systems, phones - can be a real challenge to a smooth transition.

Working agile means new library challenges

The information service must be able to provide the right information to the right people at the right time. Careful preparation and planning is needed to facilitate agile library team working, whilst still maintaining the same high-level service standards. In my experience there is very little that cannot be successfully achieved from remote or flexible working.

Some collection management requires a physical presence, for instance cataloging, loose-leafing etc. How this is managed is all part of the consultation and planning stage which will involve re-prioritising library plans and re-deploying library staff. This could include training and creating training materials, catalogue maintenance, and an intranet overhaul.

Communication is essential. During this preparation time it is important that trust is established between teams and co-workers. Agile requires regular team meet-ups, as well as an adoption of a transparent workflow. It has been noted by library teams that they see more of one another through agile working, through videoconferencing and a heightened awareness of other team members - a definite benefit.

People require exceptional IT training to ensure a seamless transfer to agile, with a need for a certain level of self-sufficiency. There have been many issues regarding IP authentication and access to online resources. When people are outside the firm’s network it can be a challenge to remember passwords.

Being agile isn’t just about cost savings

Withers took the opportunity to ‘go agile’ when faced with an office move. They carried out a full consultation which included everything from the philosophical ‘work life balance’, to the practical cost saving benefits. They discovered that only 54% of desks were in use at any one time so agile working meant they could move to smaller premises.

Although cost is an important consideration, it’s not the full story. One ‘test’ department went agile to ensure that the proposed new space would work. The library approached the move with a full review of its holdings. With most material being available online, they were able to revert to a traditional style centralised library with a limited collection - and a quiet study space.

The tax department insisted on keeping books which could have had negative repercussions if practice management believed that library staff were to blame for hard copy on hot desks. However in reality, this online vs. hard copy challenge opened up channels of communication, and demonstrated that the library was on board.

Whatever your firm’s approach, embrace the change

These two case studies outlined the different approaches taken by law firms towards agile working. One firm encouraged the library and information services to be involved with implementation from the start. On the other hand, if libraries cannot - or are not - included in the initial plans, it can still be a success. Librarians are naturally agile thinkers and always open to new challenges to ensure the success of their services. Embrace it all!

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