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SLA 2011: Doing more with less

The final theme from SLA 2011 I want to write about is something we’re all having to deal with: being asked/expected to do more with less. Although this is something that is increasingly important in times of shrinking budgets, arguably it’s something we should focus on even in times of budget plenty. Jim Matarazzo and Toby Pearlstein pointed out in their session that even in good times, you’ll never have enough resources to do everything your clients want. In fact, trying to do everything you’re asked for without considering how you are resourced can cause greater problems later on, as the more you start off doing, the more demanding your clients are likely to get! Trying to be all things to all people will only squander resources, so better to identify client needs and focus your service on areas you know you can excel in.

Amy Plympton, Lynn Donches and Susan Cronizer‘s session on “Strategic Information Initiatives” also touched on this idea, when discussing how to set your department’s strategic objectives. All three panelists argued that it is important to know when to say no: if you’re being asked to do something that isn’t an area where you can add value, you don’t have the resources for or could be better handled by another department. They also made the very important point that if you are pressured into agreeing to do something that you don’t have the resources for, or don’t have management support for, ultimately all that will happen is that it will reflect badly on you when you can’t deliver what’s been requested.

I also attended a Legal Division session on cost prevention, which while not entirely relevant to a UK law firm (we handle cost recovery very differently to US firms), contained some very useful advice on minimising costs generally. One of the points I found most interesting was that, due to law firm clients often disputing and refusing to pay charges for legal research, there has been a move away from relying entirely on external resources such as Lexis and Westlaw (which, in the US, generally charge per search rather than the flat rate we pay here), and back to making more use of internal knowledge within the firm. In this way, knowledge management can actually become a cost reduction tool. The panel talked about overhauling their training procedures to ensure that all new trainees, for example, know that not all information lives in the big legal databases, and that they have a wealth of knowledge within their own firms that they can call on without having to charge for database searches.

I found this interesting as I don’t think it’s something that’s particularly focused on within UK law firms. As far as I am aware, we generally don’t use databases which charge per search, so the subscriptions costs are overhead rather than being chargeable to a particular client/matter. I do think that encouraging trainees to talk to the experts we have within our firm before they go hunting through Lexis and Westlaw (or, more realistically, either Google or every trainee’s favourite database, PLC) is an excellent idea, and I am involved in some work within my firm to find a way to make sure that the knowledge and expertise our senior lawyers have is accessible to all rather than just being locked within their heads. I was also interested in the suggestion that there may be a backlash against using vendors to provide training on their own databases, as they may not really understand the practice areas our lawyers work in and will therefore only be able to give an overview of the product, rather than explaining exactly how it can be best used for the particular work each fee earner is engaged in.

I do like this idea of making use of internal knowledge rather than just paying for expensive databases and expecting them to do the work for you. This was also touched on at the Legal Division “unconference” I went along to, where among several topics discussed was the challenges law firm libraries were facing, particularly around budgets. One point made, which I almost started applauding at, was that it’s very easy to assume that you couldn’t possibly do without a particular product until you actually have to cancel it! Exploring alternative sources and finding new ways of researching and managing information without having access to all the shiny databases arguably makes you a better librarian. I’ve touched on this before: having moved from a smaller law firm library to a larger one with many more resources available to me made me realise how having less resources actually made me a more creative searcher. It was suggested in various places that being asked to do more with less, and getting pulled in unexpected directions, should be looked on as an opportunity rather than a threat. Aside from noting that people who say this kind of thing probably haven’t just been made redundant, I am inclined to agree. Being forced to do without resources you’d previously considered indispensable, and explore new ways of delivering high-quality services with less time, resources and possible even staff, allows you to flex your problem-solving muscles and prove your future-readiness.

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