The design, operation, and usage of a law firm library requires that it be actively managed as part of a law office's greater managerial responsibilities. This article will go into the specifics of law firm libraries, including what a law office should have in one and how to get started. Options and resources for managing a law office's law library will also be discussed.
What Is A Law Firm Library?
A law firm library is rather self-explanatory: it is an in-house library that contains books and other texts on different legal topics. Most law libraries act as a research source for members of the legal team to use in order to prepare for cases and keep their legal knowledge up to date. They often act as a separate business within the law office, as they tend to have their own staff, structure, resources, and business needs independent from the main system. 1 It may be different in some law offices, where the firm's law library is an unmanned section of the office.
With an unmanned law firm library, the upkeep of the library's materials is added to the responsibilities of the office's managerial and administrative staff. Smaller law offices with their own law library may simply have all staff members are equally responsible for its upkeep, using an honors system to ensure that it is maintained. However, some law firms may choose to forgo the time, space, and expense of an in-house law library. Most public libraries have some of the same materials and resources, available at a much lower cost to patrons. Some major cities, like New York City and Washington D.C., have law libraries that are stand-alone institutes or are branches of the Library of Congress. When there are other options available, law offices do not see any justification or value in having their own law firm libraries.
What Can Be Found In A Law Firm Library?
The typical contents of a law firm library are going to include books, documents, law publications, and even software or data disks. Everything in a law firm's library is going to be included because it fills a need that the firm needs. 2 Materials available in the library are often items that have been collected over time, so it's perfectly acceptable for law offices to start with a small library. Information changes over time and resources that can be included in a law firm library's catalog may not even be available or exist yet at the time the library is started.
The Law Librarian-Also found in most law firm libraries is the law librarian. These are staffers who truly are experts in their field and can be valuable resources in their own right. The knowledge of the materials and resources found in law libraries carry their own value that cannot be found with any other resource. Often, a law librarian will know what works the best for law firms better than the lawyers who run them! 3
While the primary function of a law librarian is to maintain a law library-making them an integral part of law office management-they often go beyond that task. They are trained in matters of the law as well as any lawyer or paralegal, which means that they have the same knowledge set. Most law librarians will have a more in-depth understanding of the resources available to the legal team, and are able to devote more time to research and knowledge management than any other law office staff member is.
Law librarians also operate as the business managers for law libraries, both independent law libraries and law libraries located within a law firm. On average, law librarians are responsible for planning the library's budget, teaching visitors how to use the materials, testing and implementing new technology, and updating materials. 4
Why Should A Law Office Have One?
In-house law libraries provide a number of benefits and resources that law offices and their legal teams need in order to continue their success in the modern legal system. Many law offices that do not have their own personal law library are dependent on outside sources for information. This has proven problematic, especially in recent years as the internet has become an increasingly prevalent, but occasionally unreliable, resource. 5
Publically accessible legal information and law libraries will have a wide variety of legal information that law firms will find interesting, but the information may be too vague. Law offices that have specialties or niches will need to have access to information provided by a law library that is applicable. Public law libraries might not see any reasons to justify including certain materials, which can make it difficult to access necessary materials. A public library with an adequate law section may not be accessible to a law firm due to issues such as distance. There is also the issue of how accessible a public law library really is. Technically, there are three different types of law libraries, not all of which will be entirely accessible: 6
Academic Law Libraries-Most law schools have an academic law library that is accessible to alumni. However, that isn't very helpful for lawyers whose practices are nowhere near their alma maters and can't gain access to them through the internet. They are designed primarily for research and teaching purposes, even those that are not attached to a school or university. Some library associations, like the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), grant access to academic law libraries and/or their materials to their members.
Private Law Libraries-Private law libraries can include law firm libraries, but those are not accessible to persons outside of that particular firm. Some private law libraries are associated with groups and organizations, and their contents are strictly for members only. Those who practice in law specialties may find that some private law libraries focus on different niches, and their materials are isolated to the associated topics.
Government Law Libraries-Law libraries under the government's jurisdiction are often available at the local, state, and national levels. They can sometimes be included as branches within public libraries. For the most part, government law libraries are for the benefit and usage of government agencies and professionals. Such locations are going to have material specific to the needs of the government, and may not even be accessible to members of the public.
How Do You Start One?
Address Needs-Why does the firm want or need to have a law firm library? What purpose is it going to serve as a whole and is that purpose going to change as time goes on? Asking such questions can actually help law offices figure out what they need to include in their law firm libraries. It can also help them plan how to expand it and what needs to be done for it to be maintained.
Gathering Materials-Collecting materials for the law library is going to be the hardest part of the entire process. Legal texts are not cheap and buying used copies can result in the library being outdated from its start-which kind of rendered the entire effort moot. Some law firms build up their library's materials with items from the personal collections of their staff members and with free materials gathered through their academics and the internet. Any material that does come from the internet is often checked for validity and accuracy before being added to the library. In other words, don't expect to find information pulled from a Wikipedia page in a law firm library.
Setting Up A Space-Once a law firm has begun to gather materials for their library, they need to figure out where they are going to put them. Simply stacking them in a corner of the office isn't going to work or be really effective. The spaces that law firms set their libraries up in are often situated away from the main traffic areas of the office. Material that is in a digital format can be kept as such, either on a device that is primarily for library use or accessible through the firm's main network.
Managing and Improvements-Deciding how the library will be managed is often the last step. Most law firms are not entirely aware of how to go about the task of managing their law libraries until they actually see the library take shape. The setup of the library's management may be treated as a temporary arrangement, especially if there are planes to make changes or regular upgrades. Deciding to make improvements to a law library, however, is a management aspect that should be considered a permanent part of it structure. This can include how to dispose of outdated materials, what to do to update information, how everything will be cataloged, and plans for the library's growth.
Any Known Issues?
The problems that arise with law library management are going to involve things similar to the issues found with knowledge management. Some issues may be found in all areas of law office management, or are caused by some of those other areas. However, there are some issues that have details specific to law libraries.
Justifying Expenses-The materials included in a law library can get very expensive in a short amount of time. Firms that do not have a big budget to begin with have a lot of problems trying to justify the cost of a law library. The expense associated with forming and maintaining law firm libraries are often the biggest reason why they fall into disorder or are just not developed. The rest of the issues mentioned in this article often have their roots in the cost, and their solutions are limited for the same reason.
Size Limitations-Depending on the physical location of the law firm itself, a law library may face issues with limitations of its size. Smaller offices may not be able to grow their law library beyond a few items because of the layout of the office or the space available. Solo law offices that do not have a physical location, but have a law library, are also going to encounter issues with the size of their library. Some law firms are able to bypass their space and size limits by creating a digital law library.
Upgrades-Making upgrades and improvements to a law firm library can include its own challenges. Sometimes, the material isn't easily accessible for purchase. Problems with upgrading law library materials can also be a result of management, which may have restraints in place for how frequently the library's contents can be modified. Again, it's usually an issue of cost, as some upgrade options-like the newest edition of a law text-might not be worth the expense. How often new material is made available in the first place can also impede the amount of upgrades made to a law firm library.