Thursday, May 7, 2009

Library management - is it part of your practice management strategy?

All legal practices subscribe to some journals, loose-leaf publications, and online services and keep their core legal texts up to date – that’s a basic tenet of legal practice and risk management strategy. It should be a given that a proportion of your practice budget is allocated to library materials to which your legal staff can refer when preparing legal advice and to keep them abreast of changes to the law. But do you have a handle on how much you spend and, more importantly, how you should be spending it?

Here are a few things you could do over the next month to ensure that you are managing your outlay in the most efficient way possible:

1. Contact your publishing company representatives and ask for a list of all the standing orders they have on your account i.e. journals, loose-leaf subscriptions, annual texts such as tax books. Ask your in-house accounts administrator to consolidate these payments with your in-house accounts system to ensure that no duplication or over-payment has occurred. Overpayment and duplication of payment is not uncommon, particularly in small practices where no librarian is employed. Librarians keep a very tight grip on spending and understand the often-confusing invoicing methods of publishing houses.

2. If you don't already have a separate ledger for expenditure on library materials put one in place. Putting your library spend under the general Office ledger will not give you a clear picture of your outlay on books, journals etc. In order to be more cost-efficient, you need to be in a position to see exactly where your money is going!

3. Distribute the list of subscriptions to your staff and ask them to indicate how useful these subscriptions are to their work. This will give you a clear indication as to what, if any, subscriptions, may be cancelled when they come up for renewal (usually at the end of each year). (This is a primitive form of an information audit – for a more detailed guide to conducting a comprehensive information and knowledge management audit for your practice email me on Also consider whether online sources to which you subscribe are not used to their full potential simply because your staff are not adequately trained to use them. Consider running regular in-house training sessions on these sources and general legal research skills. An added incentive is that these sessions qualify for CPD points as part of the Law Society's training requirements.

4. Check that you are not paying for CDs (that accompany some loose-leaf subscriptions) which you do not want. Most of my smaller clients find CDs to be an administrative burden as they either need to be installed on their server or individual’s PCs. In many instances this rarely happens and the CDs wind up in the bin. Why pay extra for something that you’re not going to use? This ties in closely with item 5 below.

5. Examine on-line services which may be relevant to your practice. Many loose-leaf publications are now available in electronic format via web-based subscriptions. Commonly used precedents for conveyancing and commercial transactions might be easier for your staff to access electronically than those in paper-format. They also tend to be updated quicker than their paper-based equivalents.

6. And, while we’re on the topic of loose-leaf publications, do you have a particular individual in your practice appointed to update these publications as soon as they arrive? If not, you need to! What’s the point in paying handsomely for updates that never get filed and frequently get lost? While loose-leaf filing is, undoubtedly, one of the most mind-numbing tasks to be conducted in your office, you do need someone who is familiar with this kind of work to carry it out. Missing pages and mis-filed releases are a frequent source of frustration, particularly when you need to find something in a hurry - not to mention that out of date advice may get you into hot water!

7. What are you paying for that's on the web for free? While much high-quality legal material still needs to be paid for (either in paper format or via web-based subscriptions services such as Lexis, Westlaw, Justis etc) some legal material is available on the web for free e.g. BAILII, IRLII, CELEX and Government department websites. This ties in with the suggestion of running regular legal research training sessions.

8. Appoint one Partner or Associate to control library spending and manage library-based resources. Implement a policy of placing orders for books through this appointed individual only.

9. Maximise your investment in library and online materials by establishing a system to record all library orders and purchases. This should be accessible to all solicitors in your practice so that they can see what materials you have in stock and what is currently on order. Tracking orders and delivery of items, along with invoice numbers will also ensure that you are paying only for what you have received! Ideally, all practices with more than 4 or 5 solicitors should have a library management system in place. These are relatively inexpensive to buy and will allow your staff to search for materials by basic index fields such as author, publisher, subject and location. They also allow your staff to record the fact that they have borrowed a book, so that you will be able to find it in a hurry. If you have an Intranet, most systems can be placed there, and allow you to search for items in your library in a Google-style fashion. You will find that any spend on such systems will, in fact, maximise, your investment on library materials. At the most basic level, you should at least have a spreadsheet on your network drive, which records all items in your library.

10. Consider appointing a subscription agent. Subscription agents will handle all your book and journal ordering needs through a variety of publishers. Administratively, this means that you will not have to handle multiple invoices from a variety of publishers and therefore your administrative burden should be eased. However, there are pros and cons with this option.

These are just a few things that you should consider as part of your overall practice management. My experience of dealing with small to medium-sized practices, particularly those who cannot justify employing an in-house librarian, has shown that money is often wasted and resources are not deployed effectively. In leaner and quieter times, now is the time to tackle your library management. It might just save you a few euro, or more!