By Brenda Wong
The librarian in a law firm setting is part of a profit-making business, which inevitably leads to a different type of role than a librarian in a university or public library. One of the main differences is that they have an ongoing relationship with their clients. Often librarians will attend practice group meetings to keep abreast of what files the lawyers are working on. They are highly specialized professionals, involved in research, library administration, and collaborating with other departments. This article will primarily deal with research.
Most legal reference questions are complex, and even the basic ones require some subject knowledge. A basic question could involve retrieving a list of cases for a brief of authorities. Frequently the questions are more complex:
I remember a recent case in Alberta involving a homeowner who sued a golf course over golf balls that landed in their property. Can you get it for me?
The librarian must parse the question, frequently asking for more details. It also helps to know that every lawyer is very subjective when it comes to the term “recent.” Complex reference questions can mean many hours of labour or pulling in other staff to assist. Legal research is satisfying and intensive work as there is often a time crunch. It is not for the faint of heart. Research is often the most visible responsibility of a law librarian.
Another, more invisible, role the law librarian plays involves collection development, or ensuring the library maintains current information to meet the practice areas of the law firm. Sometimes collection development also means canceling looseleaf services, if the same information is now delivered electronically. Librarians keep tabs on emerging fields of law and emerging authors adding to the print collection. Often librarians need to make some hard decisions about their budget so costs are manageable. They also undergo continuous training in order to be effective researchers using the latest features of commercial databases, like WestlawNext Canada or Quicklaw.
An overlooked aspect of having a law librarian on staff is that their effective research skills save the firm money. In private practice wasted time is a waste of resources and money. For example, the commercial database searches are the opposite of Google in certain ways. They work best with focused or Boolean searching, so plunking keywords into WestlawNext is a case of garbage in and garbage out. Not only is it an ineffective practice, but unnecessary searches can have other ramifications, such as driving up the cost of such databases. Librarians aim to train lawyers so they firstly reframe reference questions to find background information in textbooks before searching on commercial databases.
The advent of CanLII has been a tremendous boost to online research, but it does not have specialized tools like encyclopedias or newsletters providing context to the case law. It is hoped over time there will be more innovations from CanLII leading to even more secondary sources.
Some research will likely be handed over to the librarian as it may be time-intensive and very specialized legal research. Historical legislative research tracing back how an act has changed is fascinating and complex. It involves a deep dive into annual statutes and consolidations, laying out the print volumes to see how they relate to each other.
Although this article has explored the research process, the law librarian is also involved in administration like budgeting and contract negotiations of databases, as well as collaborating with other departments. Collaboration can look like implementing a memos database with IT or developing competitive intelligence projects with marketing. Librarian Shaunna Mireau of Field Law in Edmonton, for example, is involved in overseeing firm-wide knowledge management projects so information is shared and used effectively.
The law librarian plays an integral role in research at a private firm. The information will feed into an opinion letter to a client or legal memo. Librarians save the firm time and money with their honed research skills, freeing up lawyers to complete other tasks. “We support our users by giving them the answer, not teaching them how to get the answer – most of the time,” said librarian Karen Sawatzky of Tapper Cuddy in Winnipeg.
Some of the research time may be billed to clients, too. In firms in which the librarians bill their time, they can be directly contributing to work product as well as generating revenue. Librarians billing their time, however, is another topic to be explored.
Many law librarians will say that research is their favourite part of their day as it is never boring and always challenging. Librarians strive to do research using both print and electronic resources while also training lawyers to improve their skills. After working in different types of libraries, I must say that legal research is rewarding and fascinating because it has real life implications.
Demers, A., ed, Legal Information Specialists: A Guide to Launching and Building Your Career, (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2012).
Lambert, G., “In the the age of Google, law librarians manage your time, people and money” (January 12, 2016), 3 Geeks and a Law blog, online: http://www.geeklawblog.com/2016/01/in-age-of-google-law-librarians-manage.html.
Brenda Wong has been a law librarian, library technician and library consultant in firms from Toronto to Vancouver and a few places in between. She believes strongly in the positive contributions librarians can make in law firms and the legal profession in general. Through her varied experiences, she has seen how law libraries have evolved in the last decade, and she understands that the common thread is to create knowledge through the connection of information and technology.