Divergent futures for firms and academia?

Scott D. Bailey and Julie Graves Krishnaswami write in “The Future of Law Librarianship” (Chapter 28 of Law Librarianship in the Digital Age by Ellyssa Kroski) that law firm librarians and law school librarians face similar challenges and opportunities. I agree that broad trends in law, technology, and the economy affect all law librarians. Nonetheless, there are significant practical differences in how law librarians in various settings will approach the future, and I think Bailey and Krishnaswami are right to recognize this when they make specific recommendations.

Two suggestions that apply to firm librarians but not to academic librarians are:

  • Switch online research providers more frequently. Firms can, and the authors suggest they should, switch research platforms depending on negotiations with vendors. Firms may have hesitated to do that in the past due to concerns about users not being willing or able to get up to speed on a new platform quickly enough. But Lexis, Westlaw, and now Bloomberg Law are becoming easier to use, and users are becoming more tech-savvy and adaptable. Law schools, on the other hand, need to maintain access to all major platforms if they are to prepare all students for wherever they may end up working. My perception is that online research generally accounts for a much lower percentage of library expenditures in a law school library, as compared to a law firm library. If that is correct, then even if law schools could drop a platform, there would not be much potential cost saving there.
  • Increase billable rates. Often, librarians in a law firm can charge clients by the hour for researching answers to legal questions. Compared to past years, fewer clients are willing to pay a portion of the cost of accessing subscription databases, instead expecting those costs to be folded into the law firm’s overhead. The authors suggest the way to accommodate these clients without lowering revenue would be to adjust the librarians’ billable rate upward. In contrast, law school librarians generally do not charge for their time in performing research. As far as I know, law school libraries are dependent on the same sources of funding that support their law school overall. I’m not aware of any academic law library efforts to supplement law school revenue, but I would be interested to learn if there are any.