Most lawyers in private practice do not have access to an in-house reference librarian’s service. When I moved to Canada, I was surprised at the research lawyer market, because I hadn’t noticed a similar commercial research option in the U.S. It fits in and above a typical law library reference service. The appeal is obvious and it’s a way for legal professionals to bypass a law librarian, but is there a way for law librarians to push into the same space?
Research lawyers can be found in Canadian large law firms and you can find freelancers pretty easily (I looked in the US, but only found one new lawyer in Kentucky to ask about it). The closest I ever saw was a lawyer who went to a non-ABA law school who was hired in to the firm as a paralegal, but was doing more detailed research. And US-styled law clerks, often law students, would range up and down the research-to-analysis chain as well for the firm lawyers they support.
But that’s not most lawyers. The context I’m considering are the solos and small firm lawyers that are the majority of the North American legal profession in private practice. The American Bar Foundation‘s lawyer statistics report (2006) identified 70% of lawyers in solos to 10 lawyer firms. The Canadian Federation counts firms, and solos are solos even when they work with others, so it’s harder but the skew is still towards the 1-10 firm size. And while many firms may have someone handling collection, it takes a certain number of lawyers to tip over to having a reference service that could absorb both research and analysis. I saw a report that said the tipping point was somewhere around 40 lawyers.
So this is a market of lawyers that could be tapped by courthouse law libraries who are either free to access or are subscriber-supported through membership fees. And it’s the market that reference and research attorneys (or lawyers as they’re called in Canada, never attorneys) can also tap into.
I hadn’t really thought too much about them until I saw this Thomson Reuters ad go by for their reference attorney service.
This is a service that all commercial legal publishers provide, as far as I’m aware. It existed in some form when I was in law school, and I don’t mean to pick on Thomson Reuters (today) or other publishers. It’s an obvious service to provide to complement their legal research content – a legal research help desk for a legal research software company.
And it’s really legal research, but done by a lawyer so it’s … what, compared to a law librarian providing it? The Thomson Reuters reference attorney roles align perfectly with what a reference service provides:
Some of it is focused on teaching the tool set, or explaining perhaps, since most lawyers will have seen an online legal research database at some point in their practice. Or used Google. I’d love to know what sort of call volume the legal publishers get, and how far up that value chain they find themselves.
A law library could do worse than to benchmark themselves against this Thomson Reuters checklist of activities. Public-facing courthouse and other law libraries may not be able to stretch all the way along that spectrum with self-represented litigants, but they can with lawyers. At the end of the day, the lawyer is responsible for the work product, and so the law librarian can partner to provide a higher level of value without tripping unauthorized practice of law limitations.
A reference lawyer goes further beyond that spectrum, though. Here’s a recent job posting for the role at a Canadian law firm:
That’s much further up the value chain into the the realms of analysis and outputs. I talk a lot about where law librarians can add value and I’m often visualizing this very old chart from Outsell/ Quantum Dialog, and which I’ve referenced in posts like this one on law librarians as data scientists. It’s clear that we’re all operating in the bottom left quadrant (the colors and labels are mine), although there is a cap in relation to self-represented litigants so public law librarians working with them may hardly slide up the left hand scale..
I think law firm librarians, government and other private law librarians, and private reference lawyers can regularly create information products that are further to the right. The question is, how far to the right can a law librarian go?
I don’t have a particular answer, other than I think we can probably go further to the right than we typically do. It depends on whether the librarians are comfortable with the added-value tasks – a librarian with a law degree may feel more familiar with a wider variety of outputs liked memos or draft briefs – so it won’t work for all law libraries.
From a consumer perspective – the lawyer – there is cost balancing between going to what may be a free-to-me law library and getting reference help and paying a reference lawyer. It’s complicated because most lawyers are also operating in the lower left quadrant when it comes to legal research. And there’s an awareness issue – lawyers may not even consider that librarians could provide that role, and I have seen qualitative research that says they would never consider a law librarian providing anything more than guidepost support.
It seems to me that there is a sweet spot – in the yellow area to the left, and as high up the right as possible – for law librarians to be to market high value services. Not necessarily services that no-one else can offer – even the legal publishers are in the bottom left quadrant – but enough to make law librarians more competitive against other research alternatives. A remaining challenge – because I know law librarians that have attempted this – is that it may be impossible to monetize this higher value through direct payments for service. I’ve talked about premium membership tiers, among other ways to monetize higher value services less directly. That may be more successful than setting up an hourly approach.