The Industrialization of Library Service

by Erik Adams

CC License

In anticipation of the firm’s move to Hudson Yards in 2018, Milbank is transitioning to a team-based legal support staff model, which is in widespread use throughout the industry. (Source: Above the Law, Biglaw Firm’s Move To New Office Means It’s Time For Some Buyouts).

It was recently reported in Above the Law and American Lawyer that the law firm of Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy is moving its offices in New York to a new building. As part of the move, the firm is reducing its staff and moving to a “team-based legal support staff model.” The articles I’ve read discussing this change make it sound that it is limited to legal secretaries, and that this is part of an industry-wide shift. There are obvious parallels with law firm libraries, and I wonder if these types of “team-based legal support staff” experiences can provide any insight into our own.

The idea, quite simply, is that rather than having a secretary assigned to one or more attorneys, he or she is part of a pool of secretaries. If an attorney requires secretarial help, they send the request to the pool, and whoever is available performs the work. In theory, this leads to greater efficiency, as you reduce the time a secretary is sitting on their hands while their attorney is in a deposition or otherwise engaged; everyone just takes work as it comes in.

Certain law firm administrative functions moved to that model years ago – technical support or word processing – but I’m not convinced this is an industry trend at the secretarial level. Without question, there has been a change of ratios – rather than just working for one attorney, most secretaries are assigned to three or more, depending on the support needs of the attorneys. I know of one firm that has a 5 to 1 ratio at a few secretarial desks.

I’ve not worked in a firm that used this model for secretarial staff but a friend of mine has. She told me that her firm tried it in one of its locations, and the change wasn’t popular – with the secretaries or attorneys. When I’ve talked about the idea with secretaries I know, most think it wouldn’t work well for one or or more of their attorneys. Some attorneys (mostly younger) would be OK with the “faceless secretarial machine,” but others want more personalized help and bring in enough money to the firm to demand it.

Drawing from trends in law firm libraries, I suspect that “team-based legal support” is the first step toward full blown outsourcing. If secretarial requests can be packaged in such a way that they can be handled by anyone, anywhere, there is no longer a need for the secretarial staff to be onsite, or even employed by the firm.

Which brings me back to libraries. Some law firm libraries have adopted a similar model, with mixed success. I know of one major law firm where research requests are sent to a central email address and are then automatically distributed to a librarian who is available to do the work. The algorithm that is used to assign work does not consider location of the attorney or the librarian, which means someone may be making the request in Los Angeles, but if there is a librarian in New York available to do the work, that’s where it will be done. It also does not consider any existing relationships or past history. The librarians hate it because it reduces the personal relationships they previously had with the attorneys.

I’m curious to read how things go at Milbank. Secretarial support, like library support, has been seen as a very personal and direct work relationship, but that may be changing. Whether we like it or not, there is a desire to see that same shift in law firm libraries.

This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Industrialization of Library Service

  1. Mary E Matuszak says:

    Milbank outsourced their library awhile about 2 years ago.

  2. Sarah says:

    This model is very common for legal assistants in Toronto law firms, and it is also how all of the medium- and large-sized Canadian law firms I know of organize reference work coming into their libraries: having centralized contact points for reference and research requests to come in from, and then having librarians and library technicians “call” the work based on availability, reference schedules, previously-completed related work, relationships, etc. At least here, it’s not *at all* about a nameless, faceless support person since library teams and secretarial pods are still fairly small, and it also doesn’t happen in an automated way (i.e., you still need to “call” a question; it’s not automatically assigned). You can still have personalized support from people in a team of 4 or 5 people, which is how large these pods *usually* get in terms of support people. As a reference librarian, I really like it. It lends to a much stronger feeling in the library that we’re all in this together, and none of us are on our own if it gets busy.

  3. Dave says:

    This is the antithesis of embedded librarianship. Librarians who think this would be detrimental to their effectiveness might consider preemptively launching initiatives to strengthen their embedded relationships with practice groups.

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