Saturday, 27 August 2011

Jack of all trades, master of none? Should a law librarian specialise in one area of law?

Jack of all trades...?

It seems to me that law firms tend to take very different views of a law librarian becoming a practice area-specific information specialist. Some of the very large law firms seem to have this as a matter of course, along with one central information/resources department, while the smaller ones tend to only have the occasional practice area specialist.

Part of my original remit in my current role was to work closely with the intellectual property (IP) group, and seek to provide them with a very tailored current awareness and research service. This was without a doubt a daunting task - the firms I had worked at previously had only very small IP groups, and they were all pretty self sufficient, therefore I had almost no prior knowledge of this practice area at all! The only thing I knew was the key textbooks, simply because I had been in charge of acquisitions in London in my last role, so I was pretty clued up on the core texts for most of the common practice areas in a corporate law firm.

The first thing I did was speak to a close friend who works as an insurance litigation specialist in one of my previous firms, in a bid to try and understand how she had developed her expertise in this area. One of the most helpful tips she gave me was to try and get a handle on as quickly as possible of who their key clients are and what sort of work they're doing most frequently. This in turn would enable me to get a feel for what current awareness information would be most relevant to them.

My first few months in the role were quite literally a baptism of fire. There was a huge amount to take in - I had no technical knowledge of trade marks, copyright or any other facet of IP, so I took it upon myself to do a lot of background reading in my spare time. Fellow law librarians will agree that the best to place for this kind of easy to understand overview is PLC (Practical Law Company - subscription database). I felt that by acquiring an understanding of what, for example, a trade mark actually is, why you register them etc etc, would mean that I would at least know the terminology when all the enquiries started coming through.

There was quite a strong expectation that I should also be taking an active part in the IP team's weekly meeting; for example providing them with solutions to projects/research questions, and in doing so, basically promoting the work of the Information Centre (the law library) to the team. Yet again, this was in all honesty pretty horrendous for me to begin with! I had never had to attend another team's meetings, so to do so on my own was nerve racking. What also made it worse was that this team had traditionally been pretty self sufficient and were, shall we say, slightly sceptical that there could be anything I could assist them with. (You can imagine the sheer satisfaction I feel now, 18 months down the line, when I go on holiday and all hell breaks loose because they are actually now quite dependent on me!) However in the first instance, my efforts to try and develop a relationship with the team were met with a lot of resistance, and looking back, I think it was only through sheer dint of pretty much forcing myself upon them at every opportunity and promoting our services as much as possible, that got me to the stage where I am now.

In the time I have been doing my current job, I have actually developed a genuine passion for the work I do relating to the IP team. It seems to me that you can't have it both ways, and this is where I think the biggest law firms have the right idea when they have specific practice area information specialists - and that is what they are; their role is clear and they can put all their efforts into one practice area, and in providing those fee-earners with a high level service.

On the other hand, many law librarians are traditionally a 'jack of all trades, master of none' - and I don't mean that in a derogratory way, because there's still a big part of my role that necessitates that! But I am just trying to show the differences between the 2 types of law librarian. Working in the general Information Centre as I do, until I joined there wasn't really an official assigned analyst (what we call ourselves in the firm) to any practice area. It was well known that 2 of my managers are insurance and litigation supremos (and i am not kidding. there is NOTHING they don't know!), but they weren't officially in charge of any of the associated practice areas. As a rule, law libraries like the one I am in now require the law librarians to be flexible, and able to pick up any enquiry from any practice area and turn their hand to it. Very often this involves doing a bit of quick reading first, just to try and actually understand what they're asking about at a very basic level!

 I still do enough non-IP enquiries to ensure that I keep my hand in at other practice areas, but I think further down the line, I may need to decide how I want to move forward in my career, and if I would like to focus on IP more than anything else. As I said earlier - and sad as it may sound - I genuinely find this area of law interesting and I never thought that would happen! So it would seem a shame to have come so far with it, to just drop it in my next role (whatever that may be). However, there is the downside that perhaps I am limiting myself quite severely to IP-information specialist roles only - and I do wonder if that is the wisest thing to do, given the ongoing poor economic climate...

Nonetheless, I think the question of law librarians specialising in one field of law is a very interesting one, and I would definitely be keen to hear others' views on this...

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  1. Very interesting - we're doing something similar in my firm at the moment, and one worry I have is that I'll end up with too narrow a knowledge base. I can see the benefits of focusing specifically on one practice area, but I must admit I do enjoy the "anything and everything" approach I've always taken so far!

  2. Yes, I think a lot of people would share that viewpoint to be honest! I guess so long as you keep your hand in enough at other random enquiries, it's possible to focus on another practice area in a more in-depth way - but not to the detriment of your general development!