Lawyers Won’t

I was working with some law library colleagues recently, discussing an implementation plan around a project.  One of them explained why an idea wouldn’t work, which I’m open to – there’s more than one way to skin a flagpole.  But I had a hard time getting past, “Lawyers won’t X, so we should Y” as the basis for the idea.  If “lawyers won’t”, it’s important to understand whether that’s true or not.

“Jolly won’t eat spinach.”  Really?  Is Jolly’s mouth sewn shut?  Soup? Quiche? Raw? Smoothie? Nothing?  Sometimes when Jolly won’t do something (no, I don’t have a kid named Jolly; think Johnny + Sally), it may be that there are individual reasons why.  Allergies? Taste? Lack of teeth? Sometimes we won’t do something at one point when we will do it at another.

I’m not a huge fan of thinking of all lawyers – or all law libraries even – as being the same.

Law libraries tailor our collections to small groups and individuals all the time.  In one library I worked in, the BNA Tax Management Portfolios were on low shelves.  Lawyers in skirts had to squat or kneel in more awkward poses than those in trousers, so we shifted this high use collection to higher shelves, swapping it with a less often used collection.

I tend to believe that people will be willing to do what is in their self-interest, even when there’s a bit of work involved.  So when I hear “lawyers won’t”, I am immediately flooded with questions:

  • all lawyers?
  • this exact process or just something similar?
  • … with this exact product or resource or service or something similar?
  • when – fog of the past or recently?
  • what was it, particularly, they won’t do?
  • why do you think they wouldn’t do it? interface? complexity? time? timing? location? other people included?
  • was it the same reason for everyone?
  • did *anyone* participate?

I have said to my kids to think before they use the words never and always.  “Jolly always gets the spinach while I never do.”  When it comes to service delivery, there are also rarely absolutes.  If lawyers really won’t do something, then the service hasn’t been thought through enough.  But saying “lawyers won’t” doesn’t persuade me that’s the case.

I’ve been fortunate to work in a couple of environments where the librarians had been there for decades.  One in particular would laugh and say, “oh, we tried that back in aught 6” or whatever.  I loved the fact that she didn’t say, “Lawyers won’t because they didn’t in aught 6”.

Her perspective about service delivery was that it was cyclical: sometimes you’ll come up with a service that, for whatever reason, doesn’t click.  If you return to that idea a few years later, it may now resonate – changed audience, changed approach, changed interface, changed delivery method, changed hours, etc. – in ways it didn’t.

The librarian who said this week that “lawyers won’t” explained to me what they wouldn’t do, and why an alternative, librarian-centric approach was better.  This is, to me, almost as big a red flag: if the process demands a librarian be involved, is there a capability or value the librarian brings to the process?  Library staff are the most expensive, most valuable resource in a library and deploying staff time should be on high value activities.  In this case, there wasn’t anything professional involved; it was a matter of would lawyers access a resource in a given way or not.  Law librarians shouldn’t want to be involved in that kind of interaction.

If someone on my staff uses “lawyers won’t”, I immediately head into question mode.  Usually it’s an opportunity to either dispell myths or identify anecdotes as foundations.  Sometimes the person just uses it as shorthand – or a passive introduction – for why a specific approach needs rethinking.

If the person isn’t on my staff, I’ll let the statement ride if it doesn’t impact the service delivery.  In these cases, we’ve moved from a service design choice discussion to a disintermediation or change management discussion.  When “lawyers won’t” in a particular library branch or when working with a particular non-library department (IT, whatever), it’s very hard to dig into what’s behind the statement.  If it’s change resistance or fear of disintermediation, there are other questions to ask, at another time, to sort out what’s going on.

Law libraries aren’t unique in this way.  IT has “not built here” and most organizations have the parallel challenge of “we’ve always done it this way”.  But I think we can miss opportunities if we see lawyers as a group that won’t, rather than a group that, perhaps, didn’t once.