Law libraries and technology: “The Times They Are a-Changin'”

June 19, 2020
Clare Brown

Here we are at the start of summer and it seems like a long time since any of us stepped foot in a physical law library space. But even prior to this global pandemic, times were changing. The law firm library was moving away from hard copy, and becoming more reliant on a variety of technology solutions. As the latest BIALL COVID-19 Industry Survey 2020 confirmed; 

A vast majority of respondents (91%) predict that COVID-19 will lead to a more pronounced shift towards virtual libraries

This blogpost is inspired by recent tech-related discussions taking place within the legal information community; lis-law, BIALL and various blogposts. I’ve also been creating case studies using information teams’ experiences of transferring from manual to automated news aggregation and current awareness. Tech is here to stay. 

current awareness is a new beginning

Why is this book not available online?

Although it’s been a challenge for information staff to remain physically visible, working from home has actually raised the profile of digital collections. The slow move to agile meant more books were online, but it wasn’t always clear to end-users. If the resource wasn’t immediately visible on a shelf, they would wrongly assume that it wasn’t available.

A recent article echoed the BIALL survey, "the COVID-19 crisis has turbo-charged technology adoption. Lawyers who had proudly defined themselves as Luddites have been forced into Zoom rooms for meetings and have been deprived of their books."

Rather than being deprived of books, I prefer to think of end-users now having a world of online research opened up! When the only option is the online version, then that lifts any uncertainty. Information people have risen to the online challenge and are offering endless refresher training, as well as negotiating emergency new e-resources deals with vendors. 

As one law firm information service reported - the only negative comments they've had regarding the pandemic, was when they had to resort to physical / print resources and were asked "why isn’t it online?" Perhaps law firms are going to have to revisit their library finances, especially if 25% of information people are reporting a decrease in their budgets. 

Make your argument for resources - NOW!

Has it had an impact on the quality of legal research?

And what if it is all online, how is the quality, are people finding what they need? A pre-COVID-19 lis-law survey stated that there were no reported issues with quality of research when using online sources. Publishers and information professionals are aware of the functionality challenges, and during training sessions they highlight the different approaches needed to get the best out of online books. 

For instance Chitty on Contract online contains the same content as the hard copy version, only with convenient links to cases, legislation, and other books and material. Annual supplement updates are incorporated into the text, and it also has download options. These make online books superior to the hardcopy. But research isn’t just about following links, so training has to address the entire approach

As a 2007 survey found out, "print resources could be more effective for learning about the law, providing a 'floodlight view' rather than ‘the Lexis laser beam’. Print resources are better for grasping the big picture of an area of law." (p5) This is an excellent way of explaining it, but online is here to stay, so we need to revolutionise our training. 

Transforming current awareness provision

Tracking all the news related to COVID-19 has been one of the biggest current awareness challenges that information departments have ever faced. Some teams were already rolling out content aggregation platforms before the pandemic, and were well placed to create either automated alerts, or manually curated newsletters for the benefit of colleagues and clients. 

As a reminder, points of frustration faced caused by traditional, manual current awareness delivery include;

  • Time saving: Maintaining, administering and coordinating news alerts and curated feeds is time consuming so save time with an aggregation platform
  • Specialisation: Creating and covering multiple industry and legal areas can be divided between individuals which means annual leave cover is a challenge
  • Inflexible: A manual checking and scanning process meant limits on frequency, timing, sources covered and customisation requests. Elevate your standing with a can-do attitude. 
  • Branding: Don't let your information department's image suffer with old fashioned, inconsistent branding. Impress your readers with a fresh, contemporary look
  • FOMO: Lawyers need news, but in a controlled, targeted way. With excellent current awareness, they'll never experience the dread of missing potential business opportunities 

Furthermore, now that people are working remotely, there is more need than ever to collaborate. Vable enables collaboration because everyone can work on and contribute to current awareness, on a single platform from any location. 

FOMO? Discover how this US firm found a simple solution  →

Did you keep up with all the webinars? [Don’t worry, no one did]

Technology has provided a way for people to connect, recharge, and learn - when they feel it is appropriate. There have been reports that people have continued their professional development via online learning during the past few months. 

In a poll conducted during a recent OCLC virtual town hall, 81% of attendees reported that they have engaged in more professional development since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  BIALL also reported that recently members have undertaken between two and three personal development activities. For example, how to use technology to keep in touch with colleagues, as well as participating in online training sessions around library/information topics

However, everyone has recognised that we must take care of ourselves. This has been a time of unusual pressures - both at work and at home. In the recent virtual BIALL conference, there was a presentation on "Mental Health and the Legal Profession" which was well received.

This was also reflected in the BIALL survey which found that 51% of respondents were embracing further activities to support mental and physical health. I have found the increased number of webinars by BIALL, CLIG, SLA-Europe - and other information industry bodies to be helpful. These have been directly related to new working circumstances. 

 

In my opinion, it’s safe to say that legal information services have made the virtual leap - permanently. And as law firms make this commitment to technology, it is against a broadly positive financial outlook, they need to be prepared for anything. Our current remote working practices have been thrust upon us, and some businesses have been more prepared for the changes than others. 

The future of the organisation is bright when the library, research and information teams are involved. Let Vable help you transform your business and legal current awareness. 

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