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Law libraries’ digital revolution

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

More firms are moving to e-Book collections.

When Marta Hernández Alvardo, who runs the Legal Information Center at Cuatrecasas (a law firm with more than 900 lawyers in 26 offices in Spain and worldwide), began moving her firm from printed law books to digitized online versions of them, she had a surprise.

No complaints from the lawyers. “I mean, we knew that the digital library was something that was going to be favored by our younger lawyers, but we thought our not-so-young lawyers might have problems with the platform,” Hernández Alvardo says. “Mostly because they were the ones that were complaining before they began to use the platform – they liked paper books. But at the end of the day, we didn’t receive any complaints.”

Cuatrecasas is not the only law firm making the move to digital libraries as the resources of money, office space and personnel required to build and maintain a quality law library can be increasingly daunting, even for the largest law firms. Satisfying the legal content needs within smaller firms – that nevertheless still require access to the information in those books – can be even more overwhelming.

Enter, of course, digital libraries and e-books, a more efficient, cost-conscious and space-saving way of accessing much of that same information, but without the oak tables and dust.

Interestingly, the major law firms of Spain have become early and eager adopters and Cuatrecasas was a leader in the industry’s digital library overhaul, which occurred about three years ago. Hernández Alvardo explains that she had a hand in everything from deciding what to digitize to how to get the all-important buy-in from partners to make the digital conversion happen. “Before we decided to adopt digital libraries, I spoke with a lot of my colleagues in other law firms,” she says. “Many of them considered it a risky decision because they did not think that the market was mature, and there were a lot of doubts about the conditions of any digital agreement.”

But when Cuatrecasas made the jump into the digital world, it may have eased other firms’ fears. Soon, others were moving down the digital path, too.

Jennifer McNenly is director of Library and Information Services at Fasken Martineau, a global law firm with more than 700 lawyers and headquartered in Toronto, Canada. She says that when she was brought in three years ago, it was with a similar mandate to make the library a lot more digital. Her plan also included tying the digital library to the firm’s practice groups to give them a lot more efficiency in terms of finding the resources they need and having timely material when they would need it. “We always had the philosophy that this was a just-in- time solution,” McNenly says.

For those who were responsible for library services over many offices, we have seen that digital books have a lot of advantages in administrative cost, availability without our managing a lending system, cost savings on photocopies and policing of the licensing.

Despite this eagerness, McNenly still had to navigate her firm’s individual offices to gauge which ones were ready for digital books (like the Toronto office) and which ones were still clinging to print (Ottawa). “In every office there were certain individuals who wanted to hang onto print,” she says. “So, we have left print there in some cases while we still offer the electronic version for the rest of the lawyers. It’s just a matter of time, and eventually I think we’ll be completely flipped to online.”

While the ease for the end users (the lawyers) is a big factor in how and why law firms are moving toward digital libraries, the changeover has tremendous benefits for other aspects of firms as well. “For those who were responsible for library services over many offices, we have seen that digital books have a lot of advantages in administrative cost, availability without our managing a lending system, cost savings on photocopies and policing of the licensing,” Hernández Alvardo says. “In the end, it was more a question of management than a question of knowledge.”

Indeed, another key advantage to law firms’ conversion is the consistency of research access and lawyer training that can occur with digital libraries that stretch over a firm’s many offices. “One of the arguments that was really attractive to our management was that the availability of knowledge in every office of Cuatrecasas would be the same,” Hernández Alvardo notes. “And that there wouldn’t be any difference in the training, or the reputational process of our lawyers, regardless of the city in which they are practicing.”

McNenly adds that as her firm delved into the digital library platform, other advantages became apparent, such as the new system’s much more advanced search capability compared to that of books alone. “Our lawyers can search across the full text of all the books, which is really useful,” McNenly explains, adding that in a print book, you wouldn’t be able to search for an exact phrase or example. Other benefits of their platform include hyperlinks to other secondary or annotated material that can be accessed, and even the ability to make your own electronic notes on the book. “The book becomes not just a static object that is updated by the publisher – you’re actually adding your own intellectual capital to it.

McNenly says she also has been able to create custom practice and industry pages that link to resources in the library, such as news, articles, books or case citations. She is able to personalize these pages to the practice that lawyers are in or the industry group that they’re tied to.

If there is any drawback, she adds, it’s that the digital library doesn’t always allow the librarians the personal contact they’ve traditionally had with the firm’s lawyers and staff, especially with new attorneys who may be using the library system for the first time. “With an electronic product, you’re not sitting there beside the student the first time they open that book,” she says, adding that without that contact it’s more difficult to get a sense of why they want to use this text, or what they’re trying to find out – insights that allow the librarian to make further reading recommendations. “There is that disconnect when you have everything electronic, and it’s the teachable moments that I’m still concerned about missing.”

One advantage to digital libraries that law firms are very excited about – though it’s a long-term play – is the ability to reclaim much of the real estate that previously had to house all those printed titles. Hernández Alvardo cautions that such an effect is not immediate. “More than 50% of our book purchases are still in paper, mostly from foreign publishers, but one of the goals we have for our new office is to become a paperless office,” she says, predicting that within five years her library space will begin to shrink.

Meanwhile, at Fasken Martineau, McNenly has taken advantage of the digital conversion to clean house a bit. “I don’t want to leave books on the shelf that are old,” she says. “And if we have the looseleaf articles that were canceled two years ago but now are online, I’m not going to leave those on the shelf. It goes like that with any older editions of publications that I have – I think it’s a huge risk for a firm to have old materials on the shelf without the context of having the latest version available.”

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