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Librarian Conversations: A brief interview with Holly Riccio of O’Melveny & Myers.

I met Holly Riccio at a AALL annual meeting a few years ago and vaguely remember being surprised that she wasn’t captivated by my charm and wit almost immediately, and then I remembered that I was a vendor, so naturally there’s always a bit of distrust. Fortunately, I was able to convince her that I’m actually one of those vendors who cares more about education and making good things than selling them. (Don’t tell my boss that, please.)

So over the last couple of years I’ve bent her ear about many things near and dear to me, such as vendor practices, pricing issues, content development, and the like, and her insights and experiences have always been helpful. So in Boston this year, everyone was jibber-jabbing about Jordan Furlong’s keynote, and so when I saw Holly this was on my mind and we ended up talking about the shifting sands of law librarianship. Afterwards, I asked her if she might share a bit of her experience and insight with the readers of this blog. It took a bit of coaxing, but I finally got her to spill a couple of the beans. 

Jason: Okay, so pretend I don’t know you. Tell the readers a little bit about your background and how you came to your position at O’Melveny & Myers (OMM) today.

Holly: Other than my first law library job, which was at a bar association library, I’ve worked in law firm libraries my entire professional career. I started out as a reference librarian at a large firm in New York and then moved back to San Francisco—one East Coast winter was enough for me—and have worked as a solo librarian at a two office firm, then as a librarian embedded in the marketing department in a branch office and now here at O’Melveny. As is the case with most other law firm librarians, my position has morphed over the years and I’ve taken on roles and responsibilities outside of the traditional library that allow me to leverage my unique skill set.

Jason: Can you tell me what you mean by “unique skill set”? I only ask because I think different folks will have different ideas of what that means.

Holly: Sure. A few years ago, I was asked to take the lead on developing and implementing a firm-wide leadership development training initiative for our managers and supervisors. I worked with our Managing Directory for Talent Development and we brought what we call the Management Mastery Program to life. The program is made up of four modules—Managing and Leading in Unprecedented Times, Business Mastery, Career Development Mastery and Releasing Potential—and is being presented over the course of three years. The faculty is comprised of senior leadership and partners within the firm, with some outside guest speakers as appropriate. My leadership of this initiative has resulted in other opportunities in the training realm, both inside the library and more generally within the firm. I have a strength in this area and a real passion for it as well, so it’s a perfect fit for me and for the firm.

Jason: That’s interesting because I haven’t read a lot about expanding the training functions of law librarians to encompass those types of areas. I’m not sure what “role” Furlong would assign to you, but it does make me wonder what the biggest challenges private law librarians face today.

Holly: Well, I’ve said this before, but the biggest challenges seem to revolve around reinvention, innovation and balance. I think we’ve always been reinventing ourselves in many ways. Years ago, it was taking the word “library” out of our titles and replacing it with “information” or something else. More recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the transition from defining library as a place to defining library as a service. I think we need to take things even a step further, and that step will be different for every library and librarian, but what it ultimately comes down to, I think, is looking at creating true partnerships with others, whether those others are people, teams, departments, or practice groups. Librarians in law firms have always been the trusted, go-to folks for information, but we need to turn the tables and be more proactive with sharing our skills to see what we can use them for that will have a bigger benefit to the firm as a whole. Examples such as involvement in knowledge management or embedding librarians in practice groups come to mind here, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jason: Uh oh. You used the “embedded” word.

Holly: Yes, because I am absolutely in favor of this, but I also realize that there are various barriers to doing this. There is the obvious barrier of just not having a physical space that allows a law firm to do this, but I think forward-thinking firms will take this concept into consideration if they are planning to do a move or large remodel of their space. There has been a big push on the law firm space side of things to create common areas for some time now, but maybe law firms can take that one step further to really encourage and cultivate the concept of embedding. I wouldn’t even stop with librarians, as I think there could be some real value to embedding many staff that have administrative functions.

Jason: That’s a lot of people to embed, I’m not sure firms are ready for that kind of disruption. Perhaps this is tied more to innovation than reinvention?

Holly: Innovation sort of goes hand-in-hand with reinvention, but it is really an area we need to focus on separately. We need to look wherever we can for ideas and inspiration and I think we need to be looking far and wide. I am not even talking about looking at other types of libraries, like special libraries or public libraries, for ideas, but to businesses and corporations to see what kinds of things they are doing and how we can model those or take something from them to create something that will work in the law firm setting. I know that I get inspiration and ideas from all over the place, and sometimes from places I wasn’t even anticipating. We all need to have our eyes open for innovative ideas and inspiration at all times and then, most importantly, communicate that to others in the library and in the law firm and act on it.

Jason: I get that. On my RSS I keep a folder called “Random” that’s filled with feeds from blogs covering a disparate group of subjects that I draw inspiration from. What’s jumped out at you recently?

Holly: Well, one example is that corporations seem to do really well training their people. Law firms have slowly come around to the understanding that they are businesses, but they aren’t necessarily putting the tools in place to ensure that they are successful businesses. There was a recent article in PD Quarterly by Terri Mottershead where she wrote that “…[t]he burning question for many firms is now less about understanding the need for change and more about ensuring they have the right people with the right skills to lead and manage them through the transition and beyond.” Law firms need to train and develop not only the leaders amongst the attorneys, but also the non-attorney population. The solution Mottershead suggests is one that focuses on creating collaborative, diverse and multi-disciplinary teams. I like that.

Jason: Well, reinvention is going to take a lot of work, a lot of hours that librarians probably don’t think they have. I’m wondering how that affects balance–I assume when you mentioned balance, you were referring to our dwindling personal lives?

Holly: Yeah, I hesitate to use the term work/life balance, since it is so cliché and overused, but let’s face it, we are all doing more with less—less staff, less money, less resources—and it is hard even for the best multi-taskers and most organized of librarians. If we don’t take care of ourselves, in whatever ways work for us, we won’t be able to give our all to our jobs and our profession. Our diversity of outside interests makes us such an interesting and unique group on the whole, and we have to strive to preserve it.

Jason: Let’s switch focus a little bit. I’ve read a little bit about perceived efficiencies gained through centralization of library and research resources. Are you a big believer in centralizing all library and research services across multiple offices, or do you think a decentralized system works best?

Holly: I think that there are certain economies of scale that can be achieved by using a centralized approach. Many libraries have had centralized technical services functions for years, and now libraries are starting to branch out into other areas. The one that seems to be getting a lot of traction lately is centralized reference and I think this development is crucial in that it directly contributes to the increased efficiency of the lawyers. The key to success and “stickiness” here is to strike the right balance between providing more efficient research services while still maintaining the trusted relationships that librarians have developed at the local level.

Jason: Okay, so is there anything you think can’t be centralized?

Holly: I don’t think that research and information services should ever be centralized in one physical location, especially one that is offsite. I truly think the power in the attorney/researcher dynamic lies in the opportunity for face-to-face interaction and the trusted relationships that are built over time and it’s precisely this relationship that we need to use to our advantage to make truly innovative changes.

But, with that said, I used to think that the interlibrary loan function was one that couldn’t be centralized effectively or easily. I recently heard about at least two other law firm libraries that are doing this and this has opened my eyes. I still think that this particular function can’t be centralized easily, as it will require a lot of work at the outset, but if it is developed and implemented right, I think it can be very effective as a centralized function. If you would have asked me about this even a few years ago, I would have probably said it couldn’t really be done.

Jason: Yeah, but with everyone talking about implementing different licensing and loaning systems, like Overdrive or West’s ProView, it seems to me that digital content more or less reduces the friction for centralizing the interlibrary loans function.

Holly: Those systems may be able to help, but there are still too many unresolved issues. Actually, I think that the interlibrary loan function is the one area that could be held up as the poster child for diffusing the misconception that “…everything is on the Internet.” Sure, there are many more instances where I am able to find an article or other document in electronic format, whereas I would have had to borrow the print source it was in years ago. However, at least when it comes to litigators and, specifically, obtaining information related to expert witnesses, much of what I do still has to do with physical books. Sure, I can now find a library that has a book quickly and easily and, in many cases, it ends up being cheaper to just purchase a used copy of the book from a bookseller’s web site. But, there are so many materials that experts have written or refer to that just aren’t available electronically.

Jason: Switching gears again, when you think about firms generally, what do you see is the biggest misconception that firm management has about library and research services?

Holly: The biggest—and most important—misconception is that the library’s sphere of influence within the law firm is limited. What I mean by this is that firm management may see how library involvement or partnering with other areas or departments is advantageous to the firm—Client Development, Knowledge Management and IT all come to mind here—but they often fail to see how many more opportunities there are for effective partnering. Librarians need to take a closer look at the talents, skills and interests of their staff and then come up with proposals that detail how to leverage these in new ways and with different departments. I hate to say the “M” word—marketing—but librarians have had a constant struggle with marketing themselves within their organizations, but that’s what’s going to get us in the game, so to speak.

Jason: This seems to suggest that firms aren’t really changing, and it’s up to the librarians to force that change. In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual.

Holly: Firms are changing, but each at a different pace. There is surely pressure from management to create more efficiencies and be innovative at the administrative level and I think we are all just at the beginning of trying to come up with solutions here. I think that we will see more change as firms are able to implement new processes. It’s like the old shampoo commercial goes: “They’ll tell two friends…and so on…and so on…” As one departments does new, creative things, other departments will see that and say to themselves, “We don’t want to be the last or only department not taking this new approach, so how to do we do what they did in our area?” It’s all a domino effect. I think that, for librarians, the areas that make most sense to try to partner with are knowledge management and client development. We’ve got to be really utilizing and leveraging all of the content and information we’re paying for and get it to the right people at the right time in the right way.

Jason: Do you have any takeaways regarding Jordan Furlong’s view on the current state of the legal market and how that impacts law librarians and knowledge managers?

Holly: Unfortunately, because of conflicts with AALL leadership training activities, I wasn’t able to attend the PLL Summit, other than the portion that I was coordinator for in the afternoon, so I didn’t hear Furlong speak, but I have read a few articles and reactions to his comments. I think there is some value to what he has to say about reshaping our roles and responsibilities within the law firm, and I do think that we need to focus on figuring out what we can do internally before we even think about taking on client-facing roles. There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid internally first. Jean O’Grady’s article chronicling his keynote address lists many of the catchy titles he has for some of the roles librarians might take on, but I think we need to focus less on titles and more on the relationships behind them. We need to be talking to both attorneys and management about their information needs and figure out what we can do to provide those, thereby increasing their productivity. I do agree with his assertion that we need to focus on the fact that we are not running a cost center. We’ve got so much more to offer our firms, but we need to figure out what that is for each of us and start getting it done.

Jason: Well, normally I’d ask a really embarrassing question at this point, but I’ll just end with this: is there anything else you want to say that people should know about you?

Holly: Well, that’s an open ended question if I ever heard one. How about this for innovation–I’m going to turn around and ask you the flipside of this question, which is after having had many conversations with me, what would you say people should know about me? I’m sort of half afraid to ask you to answer this, but curious as well.

Jason: Well, I’d say you’re brave given what normally appears on this blog, but if I were going to focus on something I’d say that you’re no pushover when it comes to vendors. Given the ever increasing concern over vendors’ business practices, I know that you’ve never been shy about giving me your piece of mind—or insight. You’ve always spoken straight with me and placed legal publishing in the right context, meaning the realities of law firm workflow and personnel dynamics and budgets. Although I can’t share everything with this crowd, you know what’s what and I think my readers will understand what I’m saying. And I think that our conversation up to now shows something else, namely that you think a lot about your profession and place in it.

[Image (CC) by NFSA Australia]


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