Legal Mutualism

I’ve just returned from the 2007 American Association of Law Libraries Annual Meeting in New Orleans. I spoke on “Bringing the Library to the User: the Theory” – a title conferred by the conveners. It was a companion session to one subtitled ‘the Practice’. They were both well-attended despite the fact that barely half of the attendees were from libraries based in academia. Without explicit coordination the sessions were also fairly complementary. The ‘practice’ session was given by Casey Bisson, David Lindahl and Emily Lynema with each focused on the ‘next generation’ catalog work that they are leading. I talked from a system-wide perspective about many of the themes that we’ve written about here and in our Information Context document. I addressed Web 2.0 characteristics (again at the suggestion of the conveners), explicitly emphasizing being in the network, supporting workflow and used Lorcan’s protologism – networkflow – hopefully getting it some new traction.

The most illuminating moments for me came from the time in the exhibit hall where the vendor group was very different than the group at more general library conventions.

Here, of course, it was dominated by divisions of Thomson (West, Gale, Global, etc.) and Lexis-Nexis. Everybody else was decidedly second tier. Not surprising given the ubiquity and centrality of these information providers to legal practitioners. What hadn’t been clear to me was the extent to which they are embedded in the applications that support legal workflow. From what I could see these information sources were seamlessly featured in the processes supported by case management, research documentation, and other software that’s central to a firm’s business. In some cases Thomson or Lexis-Nexis are the providers of those applications but the field seems to have plenty of competition.

I remarked to a vendor rep acquaintance of mine about how this seemed to contrast with the competition and/or indifference between the information and system providers in the academic library world. She allowed that the clients demanded it, it was necessary condition to compete and that in this industry it wasn’t thought of as a zero-sum game. There was plenty of money to go around. I expect that’s true but more importantly the metrics of legal practice including financial success seem to have imposed a discipline on process design that has extended through to the functionality of information resource provision in these enterprises. Those metrics and that discipline have been missing or far less prominent in the academic enterprise. The culture of service among law firm and corporate librarians is quite evident. They are embedded in the workflow of those that they support. They judge success around helping to get things done and saving the practitioners time. That’s reflected in the tools they purchase.

Side comment: I didn’t have time to be a tourist but I did manage to see a set of Glen David Andrews & The Lazy 6 – a family band of mostly first cousins who delivered spirited traditional New Orleans jazz. I’ve seen a lot of jazz but never at any price a group that worked harder. Preservation Hall was full on a Sunday night with a tourist crowd of which about half seemed to be native English speakers. They loved the music and knew it. I was slightly disconcerted and then delighted to have the Japanese couple standing next to me sing along with “You are My Sunshine” at full volume. And they knew all the verses.

P.S. I was lucky that this night a youthful trumpeter named Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews – another family relation – was sitting in with the band. He was extraordinary. If there’s any justice lots more people will hear him in the future.