Monday, November 26, 2012

My Secret Weapon: A Thanksgiving Reflection on Law Librarians

by Phil Rosenthal,  Guest Blogger

I’d like to think I was brilliant. More likely I was just lucky. When I started as a first-year associate at Covington & Burling more than sixteen years ago, I was very fortunate to discover the library, and to discover that it was the secret to survival as a junior associate at a large law firm. Early on I learned that the best way to begin a complex new project was to ask a librarian for guidance. Did I do this because of some previously untapped wisdom? Or was because the library was just a few steps from my office? Either way, I was very fortunate.

The Associate's Dilemma. The library encounter I remember most vividly occurred when I was asked to analyze the legislative history of the Price Anderson Act. This raised many questions. What the heck was the Price Anderson Act? (It turns out it provides a framework for handling liability during nuclear incidents at reactors and even during a nuclear war, if there is anyone left to quibble over such things.) What is a legislative history and what do you do with it? What are its various components? Do some of these components have more weight than others? I’m sure you will all be shocked to know that I was not taught these things in law school. I could have spent days going in circles hunting down each element of the legislative history, if I had even been able to imagine what to look for.

So instead I asked a librarian, Covington & Burling’s great legislative history librarian at the time, Charlotte White. Happily, she had assembled a complete legislative history and was able to hand it to me on a silver platter. Next, she painstakingly took me through each element of the history and meticulously explained to me what it was, how to read it, and its likely significance. A hopeless project became one that was manageable in a few hours. I have no idea how I would have completed it otherwise.

Know Thy Librarian, I was lucky in another way. I practiced during an era when law firm libraries were large and properly funded. Indeed, the library at Covington & Burling was directed by none other than Roberta Shaffer, the Associate Librarian of Congress and former Law Librarian of Congress. The library occupied part of two floors. How different today: every square inch, every linear foot measured, and the measurements part of a dozen ROI formulae.

Indispensable. But if librarians were helpful two decades ago, they are indispensable today. When I left practice in 1999, the world created about 2 exabytes (2 billion gigabytes) of data per year. This is a lot of data, to be sure. By 2011, however, annual data production rose a thousand fold, to about 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 trillion gigabytes) of data. It is estimated that the amount of data in the world is growing well over 50% each year, so if it is hard to find the needle in the haystack today, it will get no easier as the haystack explodes right before our eyes. Lawyers need librarians to find that proverbial needle efficiently.

But isn’t everything on the Internet? I challenge anyone to find the legislative history of the Price Anderson Act with a Google search. Even if the content is on the Internet, a recent study shows there is about a 38% chance that the link to that data will no longer work within five years. Moreover, how can a lawyer tell if the online data is reliable? The only thing worse for a lawyer than not finding what was needed is thinking you have an authoritative source only to find out that what was filed in a brief or reported to the client is wrong. Lawyers can make their best guesses about whether online information is accurate, or they can ask librarians. The bottom line is that as the online world explodes, the reliability of digital data becomes more suspect, and as physical libraries shrink and become less user-friendly, lawyers need somewhere to turn to find and manage the data.

Libraries as Institutional Memory. Parenthetically, perhaps the biggest reason why associates should get to know their librarians has nothing to do with legal information. Libraries often are also the repository for the institutional memory of the firm. Librarians just know how things work around the firm, and they have this odd habit of wanting to help. If you need to know which partner to talk to when you have a problem, how to get a different office, or even how late the cafeteria is open during a holiday, the library is still the place to go.

I sometimes miss the law firm library. Perhaps many of you in law firms which have downsized or de-emphasized the library miss it too. Still, let us be grateful. It was the librarian, using professional skills and personal wisdom, who made the library useful and efficient for lawyers. We can continue to take comfort as long as the librarian’s same skills and wisdom are available to help us move through an otherwise unmanageable information explosion.

About the Author Phil Rosenthal is co-founder and President of Fastcase, the smarter alternative for legal research, serving more than 500,000 attorneys nation-wide. He can be reached at phil@fastcase.com.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks to Phil for his discerning comments. Law Librarians don't need or want constant praise, but occasionally like now, it's truly wonderful to know that our skills and service goals were used effectively and appreciated by the lawyers we assist. I've been a law librarian for 24 years starting in San Francisco in 1988 and now in Chicago. I've noticed over the years that there have been insightful comments, from time to time, made by attorneys on the value that law librarians bring to their respective firms. However, Phil's Reflection is one of the best ever. So, my thanks to Phil for naming the professionals who personally assisted him and thanks for expanding his comments to include our profession as a whole. Phil's Thanksgiving Reflection describing what we do, how we do it and why we do it is my professional Christmas present this year.

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