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The County Law Library: Don’t overlook this free and valuable legal resource

According to just about every legal management article, webinar, or podcast, the landscape of the legal market in the past few years has changed—dramatically. Clients, it seems, are firmly in the driver’s seat. And with an abundance of legal service providers, these clients are demanding efficient and cost-effective solutions, leading many firms to rethink their infrastructures and find innovative ways to do more with fewer resources.

As the office manager, it’s your job to assess the value of every resource available to you. And one resource you may be overlooking is your county law library (the “CLL”).

The CLL is about much more than just housing books. According to Mark Estes, librarian for the Bernard E. Witkin Law Library in Alameda County, it’s actually “a bridge connecting people with resources.”

When you collaborate with your CLL, here are just a handful of the resources your firm will be connected with:

1. A library consultant. Many law firms are reducing or eliminating their libraries, either choosing online equivalents or just doing without the publications. If your firm does not have an in-house law librarian, it can be difficult to assess which books and subscriptions you actually need. A CLL librarian can help your firm decide which ones to keep and which ones you can do without.

2. Infrequently used publications. After purging your library, there will be those rare occasions where a lawyer in a general practice suddenly requires access to tax materials, for example, or something from a seldom-used publication that is not available online. The CLL can help by providing quick access to current publications.

3. Online legal information resources. For many firms, it’s also not feasible to subscribe to all of the legal research databases. County law libraries offer access to many of the premium legal research databases, translating into a huge cost-savings for the firm.

4. Research specialists. As research specialists, law librarians are the key to information. They are adept at finding a specific needle of information in the growing haystack of online data and are also skilled in assessing the quality and reliability of this information.

When Estes was the librarian at a law firm, he had a rule of thumb that he would share with new associates: “If you don’t feel you’re on the right path after 15 minutes, talk to the librarian. If you’re on the right path, you’ll feel it after 15 minutes. But if you’re not, it really helps to talk about it with someone.” Estes (who has since shortened that timeline to seven minutes) points out that a law librarian is someone who can connect lawyers with resources they may not have even considered, whether that resource is a book, a database, an expert, or something else. “A law librarian will help you find ways to connect.”

5. Research training. There are many legal research tools and programs that lawyers did not encounter in law school. And without proper training, anyone using these tools are not nearly as effective as they could be. Lawyers can receive training in a variety of legal research tools from the CLL staff, which would not only be thorough, it would take considerably less time than it would for the lawyers to learn the programs unassisted. Many CLLs also offer continuing legal education courses and materials, as well as basic research courses for both lawyers and non-lawyers.

6. Private meeting spaces near the courthouse. Often, county law libraries are across the street from the courthouse and are equipped with conference rooms. These rooms are ideal to hold strategy meetings, take depositions, or conduct mediations, before, between, or after sessions, all in the privacy of a meeting room, rather than in the hallway of a courthouse. (By the way, CLLs, of course, have electrical outlets, which can be very handy for those long days at the courthouse when the smartphone battery is running low.)

7. Potential clients and colleagues. There are many opportunities for lawyers to present educational programs at the CLL to non-lawyers. “Consider it today’s equivalent of writing your treatise,” says Estes. “By holding an educational program for potential clients, law firms have the opportunity to get the firm’s name out, in a face-to-face environment.”

8. Market analysts. CLLs can help a firm obtain market and competitive intelligence about potential clients and help a firm find new business, which is becoming increasingly important in the current competitive environment.

9. Volunteer and pro bono opportunities. Lawyers and law firms can support CLLs effort to offer access to justice, an ethical obligation for all lawyers. One such opportunity is the Lawyer in the Library (LIL) program, where volunteer lawyers meet one-on-one with individuals to discuss their legal issue(s). Without creating a client-attorney relationship, the lawyers can offer guidance regarding what the individual can do on their own, as well as provide a referral to the bar association’s lawyer referral program. These volunteer activities not only facilitate access to justice, they also serve to enhance the reputation of the firm.

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