Medium-sized firms do not possess the resources in finance, space or personnel to match large firms. Nevertheless, they face the same demands for up-to-date legal information and quick access to a wide range of sources is essential.
Librarians in medium-sized firms are one-stop information shops. If the information required is not in the library, they must know where and how to get it, and the challenge is increased because more often than not they are working on their own.
Databases can put the resources of a medium firm on a par with their larger peers. They are invaluable – not only for the sources that they allow access to, but also for their speed. They make time for librarians to complete other tasks that need to be performed.
Useful databases include: FT Profile for newspapers, European information and press releases; Lexis/Nexis for full text cases and legislation; and
Lawtel for daily updates, new legislation (especially commencement dates) and recent cases. All three have other uses, but on a day-to-day basis this is what earns their keep.
Access to the Internet provides a link to an ever-increasing amount of material, and librarians can also subscribe to EC material, Weekly Law Reports and Current Legal Information (CLI) on CD-Rom. Their size and search facilities make CDs especially useful for small libraries.
Law librarians particularly bless the day that Legal Information Resources (LIR) created the Legal Journals Index. Now it is available on CD alongside Current Law and three other databases. Lists of articles and cases can be produced in seconds and any articles that are not to hand can be ordered direct from LIR. It is also so easy to use that lawyers can be let loose on it while the librarian gets on with something else.
Away from the technological side, librarians also need to make good use of outside contacts. With their smaller resources, these are particularly important to medium and small firms, and the law librarians mafia comes in very useful.
Contacts are supported by an active professional association, the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians, which has its own newsletter and there are also many local and specialised groups. Networking is essential, not only for scrounging things but also for bouncing ideas around, and the advent of email has increased the librarian's ability to communicate.
More formally, there are many useful outside organisations that firms can access. The Law Society is an obvious one, but there is also the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, which runs a subscription-based service, and Westminster Central Reference Library, which is excellent for general enquiries as well as its Information for Business service. These are just some examples of the extra sources librarians can tap on behalf of their firm, before they even get to books.
Up-to-date texts are still vital, and it pays for librarians to keep on good terms with their publisher's representatives and book shops. The use of an "on approval" system when choosing books is the best way to get the most from a limited budget.
In summary, being a librarian at a medium-sized law firm is all about contacts, connections and communication – in both the technological and the personal senses.
Barristers may not have access to the same library facilities as large solicitors firms, but, after a recent Bar Council initiative, they may soon catch up.
It is not the Bar Council's function to provide a library, though it does partly fund the Supreme Court library in the Royal Courts of Justice. There are also four Inns of Court libraries. All four Inns' libraries share data, and the Middle Temple is linked to Inner Temple, and Lincoln's Inn to Gray's Inn. Unfortunately one of the practical problems is that they have different software.
This problem may be partly relieved by the council's development of a network structure which will include the provision of distant access to library facilities. One aspect of this is to provide remote access to information which is currently on CD-Rom. It is also envisaged that the network will eventually provide extended and enhanced library facilities on all the circuits.
John Horne, secretary to the Bar Council services and IT committee, says that the Bar Council is seeking to provide practical solutions which use IT. Tenders will be invited in the near future and it is envisaged that the pilot scheme, which will test the practicalities of barristers having access to all the source materials, is scheduled for early 1997.
The libraries currently have to cater to a wide range of demands. Students want access to them 24-hours-a-day and multiple copies, while the demands of barristers are conditioned by visits abroad (for example to Hong Kong, the US and Singapore). And many say that the Inns are behind the times.
But as one of the Inns' librarians comments: "With computers only introduced in 1991, we have had to start from scratch. We have had to develop piecemeal, and there is a limit to what we can do."