I’m going to touch on audience segmentation. I’ve had a couple of discussions since the start of the year about law libraries, usage, and audiences. In most cases, one audience is “the lawyers.” In courthouse law library contexts, we also have “the public” and “the judges.” If you stop there, though, I think you can miss nuance that may help you think about how to improve your service delivery. Just as important, I think there is the possibility of identifying new revenue streams if you spend time identifying your audience segments.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gone on about segmentation. I touched on it last year in conjunction with assumptions about technology and expertise. When we make format or tool choices based on demographics, rather than data about demographics, we can stumble.

I am going to focus on courthouse law libraries but I think this works in any context. Your law firm library will pitch different information, resources, and services to a rainmaker than it will to a summer student. That’s because their information needs are different and their roles are different. Different labels, same challenges with deans and law students.

A courthouse law library has some limits other law libraries may not. Often, there is an aspect of government funding. Also almost universally, the law library will have a governance board with lawyers and judges on it. These will be statutorily defined: how much money, from where, managed by how many lawyers or judges, on what type of governance board.

Lawyer Usage Has Dropped

One thing I have seen and read about over the last 15 years is the drop in lawyer use of the law library. It’s not really clear why it’s happening. Let me rephrase that: I think that, if we measured change over time, we would see why it’s happening. But our lack of data and measurement obscures the reasons.

There are a couple of areas that we can prod, though, to see if they’re the cause. If you have the ability to gather data for future comparisons, I’d encourage you to do it. For example, I spoke with a US bar association recently and the cost of acquiring membership data was less than $100. If your law library spent that much money every one or two years, over time you could see how lawyer zip codes migrated.

The easiest one is the legal vertical itself. Unfortunately, the legal profession isn’t great at sharing data about itself (the Canadian data hasn’t been updated in 4 years by the regulatory oversight group). But historic data suggests that a majority of lawyers are solo or small firm practitioners. We know that the largest law firms (“Biglaw”) operate very differently from smaller firms. And yet, do we also assume that they will consume courthouse law library services differently?

Other areas to look at: have your lawyers all moved out to the suburbs while you’re still at the center of town? Bar association membership lists can tell you this. Does your governance board conflate “legal issues” and “litigation”? A lot of legal problems don’t require a courthouse or a lawyer, but our law libraries are often still centered on litigation, if only by where our law libraries are (courthouses).

If we are going to look at a drop in usage, we need to understand where it is happening. If the feedback we get is “lawyers at my law firm don’t use the law library,” the question should be: “does anyone?” No matter the answer, there is an opportunity for the law library.

Who Uses the Library?

One reason lawyer usage of courthouse law libraries has dropped may be that lawyers aren’t the people in the law firm who use courthouse law libraries. In our regional law library, our reference interactions with larger firms tend to be through their law library professionals.

It has been almost 20 years since I was part of some research into librarians in law firms. Back then, midsize firms were the smallest size that supported law librarians. Given the relative collapse of the mid-size firm, as they fell apart or were absorbed into larger firms, it’s hard to know how many lawyers are required now to justify a full-time law librarian. 40? 50? Shout out to Catherine and Molly!

Screenshot of HeinOnline front page

This is why segmentation is so important. The perception in a large law firm may be that the courthouse law library isn’t a resource. If the law firm is not tracking that usage, then it is incumbent upon the law library to do so. This can be done with borrower cards, reference statistics gathering on tools like Gimlet, or managed user logins to remote access resources.

The reason to do this is to understand who your audience is. If the large law firms are not using your services, you should know why. If they are but don’t perceive their use, that’s another avenue to investigate.

The data will help you to understand what services law firms of a given size, or a given practice area, will or will not use. You can then decide how to market to that segment. One reason they may not use the law library is that law library marketing is too generic, focused on “lawyers.”

This approach can be repeated on self-represented parties and other communities you serve. If you serve local business owners, their legal needs will probably be different from people seeking help with housing, work, or family issues.

Your audience may have other characteristics that allow for segmentation. Digital resources and remote access will only grow in scope following the pandemic. Now that people realize they can get comfortable with other formats, they may want to continue using them. How does the technology create a barrier for your researchers?

The other question to ask is: when do we stop caring? One reason segmentation is hard is that the 80/20 rule, the pareto principle, kicks in. We lack or ignore data. We are governed by anecdote. It is easier to focus on a large mass than worry about the last mile, the edge cases. Those choices can exclude potential users – and people with legal needs – from accessing the law library.

Look at Participation Tiers

A common refrain in non-commercial law libraries is that people are paying for resources they don’t use. That may be taxpayers who don’t use the law library. It may be large law firms who pay membership dues or filing fees while still paying for their own internal specialists. The upshot is that that failure actually or implicitly weakens customer loyalty, law library support, etc.

Segmentation can help you to start to figure out how you might recast your services or charge differently for services. Not all courthouse law libraries are membership or subscription-based. But it seems to me that a subscription approach can create a supplemental income stream that isn’t possible with typical incremental revenue generators like photocopiers or document delivery.

You can then dig into what each segment wants. Big law firm lawyers don’t use the law library? Your usage data will help you understand what their librarians or other staff use. Every law library has gaps. Now you can investigate what gaps remain to those firms that are not covered by (a) the content and services they provide internally and (b) the content and services they get from your law library. Is there enough demand for the courthouse law library to license a particular resource that all of the large law firms would use, but that they wouldn’t individually license? We are already resellers of content. Can we provide a tailored resource to a group that would pay for enhanced services?

Again, this a repeatable activity. As you go through each segment, you can start to identify gaps. You will also start to see overlaps. Forms collections are a great example. Solo lawyers need precedents for productivity purposes. Self-represented parties need them since they lack legal representation. What content areas are not covered?

The tools are whatever works for you. Leave surveys on table tops. Use an online survey tool and send out individualized survey requests (not just random). If you want general audience, use Mechanical Turk.

One area that I think is worth trying to explore are the legal issues that people don’t see as legal issues. This would be a great place to use Mechanical Turk. These are people who may not know that a law library is enshrined by statute. They may not define a legal problem the way lawyers and law librarians do.

There are opportunities to build usage and engage new people with our services. I even think that there are ways for us to create new revenue streams to help firm up our primary mandate service and collection delivery. But we need to spend the time to understand their needs. We need data to support that understanding. And we need to repeat this process to make sure that our law libraries stay aligned with our audiences.