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The New Law Librarian

Firms Look to Make the Most of Their Librarians With Billable-Hour Requirements

Posted Jul 13, 2004 2:40 PM CDT
By Terry Carter

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What are law librar­ians worth?

They’re trying to figure that out themselves now that firms are giving them billable-hour requirements.

An informal survey about billable hours posted recently on a listserv for the Private Law Libraries section of the Amer­ican Association of Law Libraries got 113 responses. That makes for buzz.

The lowest hourly rate was $50 to $60, likely for back-office librarians not ordinarily engaged in heavy-duty research. The highest was about $200, probably for double- degreed librarians with a masters in library science and a J.D. who do a lot of in-depth research. Most answers were in the ranges of $80 to $120, and $140 to $160.

Many are billing 30 to 50 hours monthly.

But there is so much more to put into the equation, such as how you define a law librarian. There’s the front-desk or public-service librarian who finds a case when given a misspelled caption, or can say whether a certain book has a certain chapter in it. There are the research or reference librarians who dig deep for, say, useful information about a client’s competitors. There are less-skilled staffers putting loose-leaf additions into binders.

Some take care of the intranet, some don’t. Some handle conflicts checks. Some manage all the firm’s records.

“We need to make sure we’re talking apples and apples when talking about billing for the work of law librarians,” says Virginia L. Smith, director of library services for the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Smith has reason to sort apples and separate them from oranges. She has eight law librarians working for her, and the firm recently called for them to up their billables. That prompted her to post the survey on the listserv.

Womble Carlyle, with more than 450 lawyers, is an envelope-pusher as far as law-as-a-business is concerned. For example, the firm has gone beyond marketing to use high-level professional salespeople as well as account managers to oversee the firm’s work for particular clients.

“An administrator like myself wants to make sure a staff is never pushed to bill ever-increasing amounts when [the hours are] not out there,” says Smith, a former litigator who chose to come in from the wars and use her masters in library science. “What I found in the survey is that librarians are billing what comes across their desks. They don’t have any repercussions if they don’t bill a certain number of hours.”

LOW ON THE FOOD CHAIN

Billable quotas can be tough. Law librarians don’t bring in clients. They get work from the lawyers or some­times directly from those lawyers’ clients. And morsels sometimes are gobbled up first by hungry associates and paralegals trying to meet their own billable-hour require­ments.

It helps when lawyers know what the librarians can do for them and what they shouldn’t be doing themselves.

Mark Estes, director of library services for Denver’s Holme Roberts & Owen, would like to give away an egg timer that runs five to seven minutes. “I’d tell [people] to search on the Internet if they want,” he says, “but turn on the timer and stop when it runs out and call us.”

Estes, a former AALL president, is making a couple of points there. While it can be fun diving into the muck of research, a lawyer’s time is better spent giving expertise and judgment to clients. And the early Internet adage remains: Despite the wonders of Google, it’s still like a library with all the books strewn on the floors. Librarians are better at sorting through the clutter.

Online research seemed such a breeze at first that in the mid-1990s one of the biggest of the big, Baker & Mc­Kenzie, fired its 10-member library staff and announced it was outsourcing the work. It wasn’t long before the firm started growing its in-house library again. The flap sent a shiver through law librarians around the country, with the AALL launching a Task Force on the Value of Law Li­braries in the Information Age in response.

And a variation of that effort to show value continues. Law librarians who regularly rack up billable hours often are the ones who are good at selling themselves within the firm.

GETTING THE WORD OUT

At Milwaukee’s 183-lawyer Reinhart Boerner Van Deur­­en, the librarians, known as the resource center staff, regularly meet with practice-area groups to ensure the law­- yers know how they can help and also to listen and figure out new ways to help them, says firm administrator Terry Navin. The firm’s Web site also markets the resource cen­ter through a link from the home page, describing what librarians can do for clients and stating that they bill $100 per hour plus database charges, with no markup.

Oddly, one of the most pressing questions discussed when law librarians gather concerns how to describe their work on a client’s bill. “How do you write a billing description so the client is willing to pay for it?” asks Lyn J. Warmath, director of information services at Richmond, Va.’s Hirschler Fleischer. “That’s an issue that no one has answered for us yet.”

They sometimes get written off a bill by the lawyer handling the case, sometimes by the client. Part of the problem is that librarians don’t care for the usual short-hand billing descriptions. They want to use at least 25 words to explain what they did.

But the best answer probably is for the billing lawyer or the firm, whether through letters of engagement or a Web site, to explain the value of research by law librarians and that they have billing rates. Then “research and review” by a law librarian at a given rate is seen as legitimate. The firms also might pass along the law librarians’ mantra-cum-slogan: Better, Faster, Cheaper.

How to determine the hourly rate requires sorting out law librarians, much as you might sort out first-year associates from the most experienced lawyers. Estes, the former AALL president, says they should bill at higher rates than paralegals and not much below the lowest-level associates.

“But the short answer is that most librarians probably are being billed at a rate that’s too low,” says Estes. “But then law librarians are undervalued almost across the board.”

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