Library analysis of law firm “big data”

Big data has been a buzzword for some time now, but it wasn’t until I attended this session at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) that I got a clear sense of what big data might mean to law firm librarians: “Discussing Big Data Opportunities with Firm Partners, from ‘No-Brainers’ to ‘Game Changers,’” presented by John Bowers, Jobst Elster, Gina Lynch, and Emily Rushing.

If big data means data “in varieties and volumes never encountered before,” then law librarians have been on the cutting edge of big data in the legal field since long before it became a buzzword. From the time the first legal codes were put into place in human history, the amount of legal data has only increased since then. Every year, more laws are passed, more regulations are promulgated, more cases are decided, and so on, bringing the total amount of legal data to a level never previously seen, and law librarians handle it as just part of their job. However, the main focus of the presentation was not on historical legal codes, cases, statutes, regulations, or other government-created data.

The presenters suggested a new role for law firm librarians: making the library the clearinghouse for internal law firm data from disparate departments such as accounting, human resources, information technology, library, marketing, and records. The librarians would not only collect that data, but would also analyze it in tandem with external data the librarians collect about competitor firms, existing clients, potential clients, and new developments in the law, in order to provide actionable information to firm leadership.

One presenter told of creating an Excel spreadsheet to try to determine whether heavy users of their firm’s library services were more profitable lawyers. The informal study found that most library users at that firm are partners. The next question was why associates used the library less frequently: were they more self-sufficient, or less aware of the firm’s library services?

After thinking about this question, which the presenter left open, I think the answer might be found in a law firm’s compensation data. Typically, associates’ profitability stems only from the hours they bill themselves. Partners, on the other hand, may be rewarded for bringing in business in a number of ways, often by receiving credit for a percentage of hours billed to that client by others in the firm. In a firm that uses such a system, associates are essentially penalized for delegating work to a librarian (time spent by the librarian cannot be billed by the associate), while partners may be rewarded for doing so (a portion of the librarian’s time working on the research would be credited to the partner). It would be interesting to get data on this question (for example, by comparing firms that use this system and firms that do not), and see if this could be the reason for the disparity.