Law libraries: The heart of legal practice

The library has historically had a central position in the life of the law. The popular view of legal practice links it strongly to dusty tomes. Law is bound to texts as closely as theology is. Library at Calke AbbeyUntil recent years, large law firms and barristers’ chambers would often present their library holdings as a mark of their seriousness. National and local law societies established libraries as a priority for their members.

Some modern lawyers have forgotten the significance of libraries in their legal practice. They point to the ready availability of online and portable electronic resources as a better alternative to bound volumes. They resent the space that those volumes occupy at a time when property costs are rising. They encourage their firms, chambers and professional bodies to treat libraries as just another expense: to be trimmed when necessary.

It is true that libraries cost money to establish and maintain, but these costs are different from others that burden legal practice. The value of a library is often as much in its historic holdings as in its current content. Once lost, the older material can rarely be replaced. Like professional reputation, a good library depends on goodwill and credit accumulated over many years.

One of London’s Inns of Court, the Inner Temple, has proposed a major upheaval to its own library. David Allen Green has eloquently noted why these proposals are wrong-headed. He concludes:

A good law library, as I said at the head of this post, is a Public Benefit.  It provides a lawyer – any lawyer – with the same access to the very same legal resources as his or her opponents, however well-resourced or expensive those lawyers are.

And in every lawyer’s case there is a client; and so the access a lawyer has to first-rate legal resources benefits the client.  And the public benefit too: cases which are properly argued are more likely to be properly decided, and the output of our courts has an effect on society generally.

David also links to the Inner Temple’s library committee’s response to the proposals. That document contains many submissions by eminent library users decrying the erosion of the library.

Amongst those submissions, there are a couple of points that are not often enough made about the purpose of libraries, and which I think are particularly important in modern legal practice. Libraries are not just about books and resources — they offer a community focus, and a kind of space that may be missing elsewhere.

Space

A good library is not just a space for books; it is also a space for people. In particular, it is a space for people to focus on a specific task. That is now unusual in the workplace. Technology (whether desktop or mobile) is built around the assumption that all a lawyer’s needs can be provided through the same screen. That might sound useful, but it also leads to distraction and thence (in all likelihood) to poorer quality work. The ability to remove oneself to a desk in a library, to focus on a single task, may improve the quality of work.

This opportunity to find a dedicated working space is particularly important in open plan offices. Firms sometimes forget this. Some lawyers have also lost the habit of working away from their desks. Their fear of missing a particular communication ties them to their technology and renders them more susceptible to distraction. Firms often point to lawyers’ habits as grounds for reducing the space available to libraries, without considering whether those habits are the right ones. Often they aren’t. Designing good working spaces shouldn’t just be a reflection of what people do — it should lead them to do things that are better.

Steve Jobs knew this:

Then there’s our building. Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.

Just as Pixar’s building is designed to connect people, shouldn’t legal businesses lead their people to work better? Libraries can help to do that.

Community

In addition to being good dedicated workplaces, libraries can become a focus for communities. This is one explanation for the existence of law libraries run by law societies and the Inns of Court. Those institutions were established at a time when the typical legal enterprise was too small to sustain a meaningful library of its own. Sole practitioners or small partnerships need all kinds of support — starting with access to books and other resources.

As larger legal businesses have become prevalent, many local law societies have struggled to maintain their investment in libraries. Many have closed.

There is no guarantee that large law firms will remain the norm. Cheaper technology (amongst other things) allows smaller organisations or individuals to compete on equal terms alongside the leviathans. The communities supported by thriving law libraries should help that happen.

Although they might appear to hark back to historical legal traditions, law libraries have changed alongside the rest of the legal world. They remain the unsung heart of legal practice.

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