One of my favorite activities is to talk to other law library directors. A colleague and I scheduled a call to talk about how law libraries are adapting during the pandemic. They are at a same-but-different type of law library. While we overlap in service delivery, the context is not identical. That always gives an opportunity to surface ideas that you might otherwise stow in a drawer as not being feasible.

We are often told to think outside the box. This can be hard to do when you consider that you operate within given parameters. A budget, a governance model, a mandate or mission, a political context, and so on. The box is there for a reason.

One outcome of the box – the perceived or real restrictions on your strategy or operations – is that some ideas get shelved. I sometimes think of mine as things in a garden shed. Sure, the pots are stacked and the tools are hanging from hooks. But there’s always debris – a bit of something that doesn’t fit anywhere but isn’t trash. Those are the ideas I turn over, put down, pick up later and turn over again.

When I think about planning a direction or strategy, it is not so much to break out of the box. It is as often to move the box from where it is to somewhere new. Or to bring new things within the box. A law library is not a product looking for a market. We have a market – we exist because of that market (delivery of legal information to consumers of it). An app maker or a publisher can pivot – sell my “doctors in the cloud” service to “lawyers in the cloud”.

It’s a little like when the hobbits drink the ent water in “Lord of the Rings.” If you can stretch your services and operations, you need to do it from within.

Possibilities

One thing we talked about was possibilities. I think one of the most common in law libraries is this: we can’t do X because we can’t afford it. The pandemic has caused legal information consumers to realize that a lot of our content is licensed to be accessed in a physical location. This has led to a lot of requests for remote access.

Is remote access to a commercial legal provider impossible? No. I mean, yes. But only if we hold the decision-making to ourselves. Our immediate reaction is to look at the edges of our boxes – funder willing to pay X, budget X, cost Y – and realize it’s, well, impossible.

The issue around remote access is cost. In that sense, it’s a pretty easy decision. At one point, I spoke to a Canadian legal publisher about remote access. A typical license for a solo lawyer at that point was $1,500 a year. They offered to discount it as we scaled up, so that to cover 40,000 lawyers, we’d only pay the low, low price of $1,000 per lawyer.

So $40 million. Now, we know that 70% of lawyers have their own license. That means that we could either scale our license down (13,000 = 30% = $13 million) or we could pay for everyone and those 70% could cancel their licenses. That’s the calculus the publisher is making: if I do this bulk license, who is going to cancel their individual ones.

Obviously $40 million is a non-starter. But as you start to pick at the edges of what this could be, you might find a thread to pull on:

  • can you create a premium access tier? We can’t because of our organizational mandate. But if you can, you might have your consumers pay an additional amount in order to get some sort of remote access.
  • $40 million assumes a certain content set = a certain dollar value. If you don’t have the money, can you change the content set to reach a value that you can reach?

Fundamentally, there are no law library funders – government, academic, courthouse, membership – that are going to pay their equivalent of $40 million. But if you jump to that decision directly, you miss possibilities. One is just to say to your funder: I hear you. Remote access is desirable. It’s a game changer. It’s also $40 million.

The other is to avoid going directly to No. You may still end up there but are there are detours you can plumb before you do? None of these are “outside” the box. But we should occasionally push at the sides of the box to see if that’s really where the sides are.

Partnerships

We talked about partnerships too. This is tricky at my library. We are the library for the regulator. The dues are mandatory and we essentially have 100% market capture. No dues, no practice of law.

This makes it hard to create cost-sharing partnerships. If a legal publisher wants to offer a benefit to our consumers, they have to offer it to their entire market. If they want us to offer a special benefit to their publication purchasers, we can’t. We can’t favor any subset of our consumer base.

Partnerships need to have a point. You can be collegial without formalizing anything. One law library asked our law library for a partnership but we are in different countries and there was little to no chance we’d invoke it. Also, any lawyer coming into our library – even from another country – is going to get help without a formal partnership.

This is not true if you do not have 100% of your market. This means that for most membership law libraries and courthouse law libraries, you have some wiggle room. I’ll leave the academics out and I don’t think this applies to law firms (who can’t favor one practice group over another – it’s all business).

This is not new but the landscape changes. Budget cuts. Collection cuts and shifts. Space closure. Pandemic limitations may encourage relationships that you wouldn’t have bothered with before.

Sharing

As we parted, they had some new ideas for their library and I had the pleasure of just shooting the breeze. I enjoy talking through ideas. The reality is that some of the ideas I come up with are never going to be functional in my library’s context. One reason I blog is to get these out of my head. Once they’re written down, I can forget about them or return to the blog.

Some of the ideas are ones that I can share with colleagues. Our conversation wrapped up by talking through a nuanced way of changing a particular service delivery. It’s something that I have thought about but that is unworkable in my current context. However, it’s a perfectly reasonable opportunity in their library.

That doesn’t mean it makes sense given their operating parameters. But if they are in a position to rethink the box, then it is a way to do something new and that meets service demand. With the appropriate funder support, it could check all the boxes.

This isn’t altruism. A conversation likes this forces me to rethink the box in which my library sits. It’s a way to gut check my own reality.