What Do War and Embedded Librarianship Have in Common?

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What Do War and Embedded Librarianship Have in Common?

By Stephanie J. Ball

From March 16-18, 2004, the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism sponsored The Media at War Conference. Lt. Colonel Richard Long, U.S. Marine Corps Public Information Officer, was the guest speaker for the Accessing Military Information in Time of War session.  When asked by the interviewer why the military decided to embed journalists with the troops, Long answered:  “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”

Long went on to say that embedding journalists honorably served that end. While noting that the practice dated back at least a century, Long said the military believed it was a bit of a gamble. The colonel said he had gone out even farther on a limb, advocating that embedded reporters be given access to classified war planning sessions even though publication or word-of-mouth sharing of this information would have endangered the lives of U.S. soldiers. At first, his superiors considered this to be sheer lunacy. But the proposal came to pass.

The interviewer asked, “So, from the military’s viewpoint, how did it work out?”

“Overall,” said Long, “we were very happy with the outcome.”

What Exactly Is an Embedded Librarian?

We have all heard of the term embedded journalist. The term refers to a news reporter who is attached to a military unit involved in armed conflict. Embedded librarians inside a legal practice group have much in common with embedded journalists covering a war: They also are metaphorically in the trenches with the soldiers, and both share the goal to create a reliable information environment. Similar to Long’s experience, management may also have to go out on a limb to convince a practice group to allow the librarian to have access to planning sessions because allowing the librarian to be a fully engaged member of the practice group may push many attorneys outside of their comfort zones.

Some attorneys will question the ability of the embedded librarian to understand the goals of the practice group. U.S. troops in Afghanistan complained of having to wait for flabby, unfit journalists to keep up with them. Unfit and ill-prepared journalists were sent to boot camp to get into shape before going to war. However, librarians who are given the opportunity to become part of a legal practice group must hit the ground running—they don’t have the luxury of a boot camp to learn how to play with the big boys and girls. The advantage law librarians do have is that they are not just there for the war. They are there to carry out the war-room strategy and meet the goals and objectives and the research and business development needs of their practice groups by being part of the practice groups, not just observers. Once embedded in the practice groups, they become an integral part of the groups.

Management Buy-In for Embedded Librarianship

There is a definite hierarchy of management in law firms. That hierarchy is not only based on the levels of lawyers, it is also based on the levels of nonlawyers who make up the management team—chief executive officer, chief operations officer, chief information officer, and the list goes on. So the question becomes: how do you get the buy-in from the powers that be? The idea of embedded librarians in a practice group is a creative approach that can challenge management’s traditional stereotype of a law librarian. Steeped in traditional notions of role models, management can be reluctant to understand the value of a new paradigm shift in legal research, business development, and competitive intelligence. It was only 36 years ago in the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350, that the court upheld the right of lawyers to advertise their services. Law firms are a professional services industry. Lawyers provide specialized knowledge and training to assist their clients for a fee.  Law firms are for-profit businesses.

Competition in the legal market is fierce. Accountability for every dollar spent in your firm places management in the position of measuring the rate of investment on every decision they make. Management will balance your value against what profits or cost savings can be attributed to those services. You must be able to create a strategy with a clear objective and goals. Without receiving a strategy, management could consider an embedded librarian program to be a waste of the firm’s resources.

Embedded librarianship is usually a new and slightly difficult concept for firm leaders to comprehend. But winning strategies are based on originality and being different in ways that will add value to practice groups and the firm. Management will place a high degree of importance on your strategy as it relates to revenue growth and ongoing benefit to the firm.

Once you have a strategy, find active listeners who understand your firm’s needs and goals. These are typically the decision-makers who understand the need to compete. Once you have a listener’s attention, be prepared to answer questions like, “What costs will be incurred? What profits or potential gains can be credited to this concept? Is this a duplication of what we are already doing? How will the information you learn translate into actionable knowledge? How will this add value to the firm, our lawyers, our clients, and potential clients?” These questions will be asked, so make sure you have clear answers. When you have convinced management to adopt your embedded librarianship program, you must be able to sustain your goals and drive them forward with success.

The Art of War Strategy

If you are ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, then you are a fool and certain to be defeated in battle. If you know yourself, but not your enemy, for every battle you won, you will suffer a loss. If you know your enemy and yourself, you will win every battle.
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

War game strategy enables us to understand where our competitors are positioned in the marketplace. Competitors of specific practice groups vary within the firm. Uniquely positioned librarians within a practice group have the advantage of understanding the research and business development needs of the attorneys they support because they know the culture of the firm.

When the bubble burst in 2008, the paradigm for the economy changed forever. The consensus is that it will never be the same. My premise is that all departments and groups across the firm must work together to provide a collaborative information highway of knowledge to fuel business. By understanding the underlying goals of specific practice groups, embedded librarians can be the machine that fuels the knowledge engine. In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes “The Law of the Few”:  “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” One of the personalities Gladwell describes is the Maven: “information specialists” or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” Mavens accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and they know how to share it with others. The embedded librarian is a Maven.

Because embedded librarians are Mavens, they have the ability to process the information they know into what it means and to present that information to the decision-makers for them to take action. These information specialists have the tools to know who the firm’s competitors are and where their strengths and weaknesses fit into the legal marketplace. By analyzing competitors’ profiles, Mavens can help the firm identify its opportunities and initiate a strategy that will make a value statement to management. With this strategy, we can dominate the information environment.

A Symbiotic Relationship

In a recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, author Rafe Sagarin blogged that companies should take a lesson from biology to become more adaptable in this unpredictable economy. Adaptability is the power to detect and respond to change in the world, no matter how surprising or inconvenient it may be. Sagarin observes that nature offers straightforward guidance through adaptable systems. One system is a symbiotic relationship. Organisms use symbiotic relationships to extend their own adaptability. Symbioses occur between the most unlikely of pairs, such as small scavenging fish and large predatory sharks. The effects of these relationships can be profound.

For comic relief, we can visualize embedded librarians as the small fish scavenging the vast ocean for information to feed to the lawyers, the large predatory sharks (no pun intended). Within the practice group, the librarians are taking the information they cultivate and processing it into pieces that the lawyers can digest and use as fuel for making informed decisions. This relationship creates a mutual benefit to the firm in adapting to a new paradigm for legal research, business development, and competitive intelligence and creating a relationship that will foster client satisfaction, client retention, and potential client business.

The Bottom Line

Creating a mutually beneficial relationship within a practice group as an embedded librarian can be challenging. The hierarchy of a law firm, with its distinction between lawyers and nonlawyers, can be intimidating. Competition for new attorneys entering the workforce is fierce. To make the cut and be offered a job at a top 100 Am Law firm, you need to be the best and brightest, graduating from one of the best law schools in the country. Even after you have the coveted position as a lawyer, you must produce profitable revenue from your clients. The reality in today’s competitive economy is that it really doesn’t matter where lawyers went to law school or where they graduated in class rankings—they need to produce profit.

Knowledge through legal market research has never been more critical than in today’s global economy. When law librarians are embedded in practice groups as equal partners, they can disseminate what they learn about the goals and objectives of the group and produce accurate and reliable data. By creating working relationships with attorneys, staff members, and management, embedded librarians can help win the war on our competition with a game strategy that will arm the members of the firms with the research information services they need to win and retain satisfied clients to promote the bottom line of the firm to profitability.

Stephanie J. Ball (SBall@bhfs.com) is firm-wide manager of continuing legal education at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP in Santa Barbara, California.