AALL Annual Meeting: How the Changing Legal Market Is Reshaping NextGen Library Professionals

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Law Librarians (AALL), one panel sought to examine the skills and professional development strategies that will be needed to help future information professionals within the legal industry meet the demands of their profession. More than 75 people gathered for the panel, “Fostering the NextGen Library Professional: How the Changing Legal Market Shapes Our Roles”, to see what the future may hold.

State of the Library Profession

AALL conducted a state of the profession survey in 2018 to examine the perspectives of law librarians on the gaps in their professional development across the academic, government, corporate, and law firm segments of the industry. Jamie Baker, Associate Dean & Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech School of Law, shared highlights from the research.

There was consensus across all segments and among all 800-plus responses that the most important competencies for working in a law library currently are general research skills, customer service, verbal communication, and presentation skills.

There was also agreement on the most pressing competencies that are lacking among law librarians:

  • There was agreement across all information professional roles that serve across sectors that there is a gap in teaching and instructions skills.
  • Emotional intelligence was another critical skill cited as lacking by respondents from the academic and government law librarians.
  • Information professionals working in law firms, corporate, and academic environments indicated that verbal communications and presentation skills were areas that required more focus for current effectiveness.
  • Finally, legal research and data management and analytics were highlighted as areas of development for law firms and academic law librarians, respectively.

Feedback from the survey identified skills around data and technology as key competencies for information professionals in 2021. For those working in academic and government law libraries, data analytics, data visualization, and staying current on emerging technologies were important priorities, while for information professionals employed at law firms and corporations, AI/machine learning, data analytics and blockchain were preferred competencies.

Impact of the Changing Legal Landscape

Scott Bailey, Director of Research Services at Eversheds Sutherland, harkened back to this 30-plus-year career as an information professional to highlight the evolution of the role by comparing his reporting line and his key responsibilities at the start of his career and now.

  • Reporting lineIn the 1990s, he reported to an office manager, and in 2019, he reports to the chief of value and pricing.
  • Responsibilities — Bailey’s key tasks in the 1990s included increasing collections and combining print; whereas, now he finds himself focused on moving up the value chain by using emerging technologies, working with more areas of practice, and improving the client experience to enhance the brand of the firm. In 2019, Bailey prioritizes operating on a quarterly basis and providing insights proactively on what questions are being asked by partners and associates. He uses this information to offer firm executives suggestions for potential areas of investment.

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Opportunities to Spur Value Creation

Staying abreast of trends is critical to remain relevant as an information professional, the panel advised. Alma Asay, Chief Innovation Officer at Integreon, provided an interesting perspective as a former practicing lawyer and legal entrepreneur who is now employed at an alternative legal services provider (ALSP). Asay stressed the importance of understanding the workflow of specific practice areas and displaying curiosity by asking questions and actively listening to better understand how matters evolve from start to finish. For example, she says, when a firm is evaluating the use of ALSPs, information professionals play a critical role because as ALSPs, “we don’t understand the firm’s information and where it is stored,” Information professionals can provide insights in how to most efficiently leverage the firm’s use of information, she adds.

The panelists also highlighted the fact that most Masters programs in Library Science do not teach legal research skills, and Texas Tech’s Baker suggested an empirical research study that benchmarks library science programs with the skills that law librarians need. For current professionals, Baker urged them to commit to mentoring new entrants and helping to train new professionals during the on-boarding process.

Because few educational institutions teach legal research skills for information professionals, Baker also emphasized the importance of mid-career professionals to teach the next generation those vital legal research skills. “Next gen professionals likely won’t know the Boolean search and likely won’t have learned it in books,” Baker says. “Because of this, they are reliant on us for understanding mechanics of legal research.”

Eversheds’ Bailey noted the emerging trend for information professionals to transition from doing research to providing analysis. “We have the opportunity to provide analysis around context of the matter for the client as a way to propel value for our firm’s lawyers because we are at the intersection of understanding lawyers’ workflow tools, knowledge management, and business development,” Bailey adds.