Another thing you may be learning about me is that I very much enjoy checking out the Harvard Business Review Daily Management Tips. Admittedly some are a bit less relevant to the law library than others - i.e. the very full-on, worthy of an MBA Grad/Apprentice candidate ones, but at least a couple of times a week, there's something that I can definitely relate to.
The most recent one fitting that category was called 3 Tips for dealing with an urgent request, and it immediately struck a chord with me; the reason being that working for lawyers who 99% of the time don't just want something now - they want it yesterday! The first tip that is given is 'don't assume urgent means right now' - and this is definitely something I can relate to. It means that the environment we work in can be very high-pressured a lot of the time, as more often than not we are juggling a number of enquiries at once. However, over the years I have come to realise that given the chance, a number of lawyers will say that a query is 'urgent'; that they need something done by the end of the day, when in actual fact they won't be reading the work we send back to them for several days! Therefore in order to provide an efficient information and research service to everyone - and to ensure that we can prioritise the genuinely time-critical requests, if we are really pushed for time we will try and tease out of the fee-earner if there is any capacity for flexibility in terms of the deadline they have given - and nine times out of ten, they are able to extend the deadline they originally gave. So while we always aim to get back to someone as quickly as possible, on the occasions where this is just not possible, you need to know how to best handle a stressed-out lawyer - it's important to show that you still consider their request as important as the others, and that in order to ensure you produce a comprehensive piece of research, if any leeway on the deadline can be given, it would be very helpful in achieving this.
The second tip given is 'respond, but don't necessarily act'. Again, this is incredibly apt! One of the things that we always do as a department is acknowledge every single email that we are sent, and if necessary, clarify the deadline and anything else that is unclear in terms of the task. I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough, because I think (and I realise this is something of a generalisation, but please just go with it!) lawyers are by nature the sort of people who like/feel the need to be kept in the loop at all stages - nothing seems to frustrate our lawyers more than the feeling that we might not be giving their request the attention it merits. What is also interesting is that I have several 'regular' fee-earners who come to me directly for research, and out of them I have a couple who, from time to time, will send me an email with a very vague request, and ask me to contact them to discuss in more detail. Dutifully I do so with haste, only to find I reach their voicemail. I leave a message asking them to call back, and offering to come and see them when it's convenient. I'll also back this up with an email, just to cover myself in case they miss the voicemail. Days, then weeks, will go by, and I won't ever hear any more about it! Earlier on in my career this would worry me terribly, as I would fear that for some reason, they may have missed my communications and be thinking that I just hadn't bothered to get back in touch, but now, I don't let it bother me at all, for I know that there are simply always one or two fee-earners who I honestly think just like to feel that they are my priority! And/or they have a grand idea about something they want to find out, but don't really think about it in any more detail, and so when I push for more information, they never come back to me because it wasn't really that important in the first place...!
The third and final tip is 'be prepared to say no' - now this one that I struggle with in all walks of life, not just in a professional capacity! I think it truly takes some effort to teach yourself how to say no to requests, be they from friends or colleagues, because for lots of people, it's natural for us to want to help out, even if it puts us out. As a department, we rarely ever decline a research request - in fact I would go so far as to say that the 'can-do' attitude of my bosses is the best I have ever known out of all the law firms I have worked for. I know that our Director takes pride in the fact that there is very little research that we won't carry out - and we are fortunate to have someone like this at the helm, for I believe such an attitude from the No.1 trickles down through to the rest of the team. The only occasions on which I have had to tactfully tell someone that we cannot assist him/her was once when we were extremely busy and a paralegal asked me if I would go through a manual and update any references - our Director felt that this was something the paralegal could easily do himself, in light of us being so busy with far more urgent work for fee-earners. I think there was also an occasion in the last year or so, whereby a fee-earner decided he wanted 'everything' on the internet that mentioned a particular phrase - 'everything' was clearly impossible, for where do you draw the line under 26000+ Google references?!
I think the upshot is that in our line of work, you should really only say 'no' sparingly, and not just because a task might take longer than you would like! Where there is a worthy reason, eg. you don't have access to the relevant resources, or a task simply isn't a good use of time at a particular point, then saying 'no' is often necessary - but always cushion the blow by saying 'no' in such a way that the fee-earner still feels he/she is your number one priority. After all, our main purpose is at the end of the day to support the fee-earners and provide a high-level and efficient research and information service, so in order to justify our very existence, saying 'no' should not be a regular occurrence.
So there you have it - an insight into dealing with all those 'urgent' requests in a law firm library. Respond to your fee-earners in a timely manner, but don't be afraid to negotiate a deadline that is still as soon as possible, but that doesn't involve you dropping every other matter you're working on. And if the request really is utterly outlandish/unfeasible, learning to say 'no' will also educate the fee-earners in what actually is a reasonable request to make.