Law Librarians: The Hidden Bastions of Data-Driven Innovation

Reference-Librarian-assisting-readers-1It is not uncommon to hear of venture capital’s hesitancy to invest in legal tech startups. The challenges are many: a long sales cycle, cultural conservatism and entrenched processes to name a few. Within the academic community, we’ve heard a similar reason for not investing in evolving and increasingly important legal tools. A law school administrator recently told us about the challenges not only of incorporating new programs into the existing curriculum, but also of recruiting faculty with an appropriate background to take on new material that is often beyond substantive law. When evaluating the different players in both the academic community and private sector, we’re of the opinion that the legal community has a secret and often underutilized weapon to push innovation forward: the modern law librarian or information scientist, or, perhaps most accurately, the legal informaticist.

Legal informatics consists of a data-driven approach to legal problems and extends beyond the basic building blocks of substantive law. In law school, we have all seen the notion of a contract, whether UCC sale of goods, land purchases, IP licensing, or M&A. Similarly, when we take a class in patent law, we look at the meaning of the various components of a patent, patentability, and litigation. What we rarely see in law school, however, is an analysis of a corpus of similar documents.

Likewise in the real world, litigators want to better predict probable outcomes based on a per-court analysis of prior cases, with an understanding of those cases commonly viewed as most important by the relevant appellate courts. Law firms are rcompetitive patent analysisoutinely faced with questions from clients that could use such a data-driven analysis – a bank needs to understand its financial risk based on its full contract obligations across thousands of contracts; a technology company seeks to compare its patent portfolio with that of a potential acquisition, or to understand the focus of competitors’ latest patents.

The tools used to provide answers to these types of questions involve advanced technological means such as metadata analysis, machine learning, and expert systems. The question is, though, where are these types of applications commonly taught? While computer science involves the development of the underlying data structures and algorithms, the application of these techniques are generally the purview of information science – formally known as library science. And there’s the irony.

The classic picture of the librarian is the traditional, quiet, studious, book-worm type. The stereotypical librarian is the keeper of order – their job is to maintain the existing mechanisms. And if one adds to this notion the classical description of the legal profession, one ends up with the super-traditionalist, an individual that gives new meaning to “status quo”.

Yet, where do we commonly find the decision-maker at law firms to purchase new technology, especially related to information and institutional knowledge? Similarly, where are we most likely to expose law students to the latest methods of legal practice? Who is responsible for teaching the practice of legal research? The modern librarian is an information scientist.

Harvard Law School’s recent partnership with Ravel Law to digitize its entire collection of case law was spurred by the Head of the Harvard Law Library. This very location also hosts the law school’s innovation lab. The library is where we are most likely to find law faculty that can integrate law with informatics. And rather than the CIO of a law firm, who is often busy managing existing systems like time tracking, conflicts, calendars, operating systems, email, teleconferencing, and billing, it is the law firm librarian that has at his or her fingertips the ability to innovate with new methods of legal research and analysis.

Law librarians are key players in pushing forward innovation in both law schools and law firms. They are tasked with training law students and young lawyers and procuring new and innovative technologies. In an information age, this cohort of professionals has a unique and critical value in the legal ecosystem. The future competitive advantage of law schools and law firms increasingly lies with law librarians and their potential as the modern information scientist.


This post was co-authored by Romeen Sheth.


  1. This radical view of the future of law practice and the value added role law librarians can play is prescient. Libraries will be less about physical archives and serve more as the locus of strategic data driven decision making for practitioners who need not only to understand the law to win clients, but to help clients understand their chances of success and reasonable estimates of cost for embarking on alternative courses of action. Information science threatens to destroy any service provider that fails to understand the urgency of incorporating new models and technologies that help clients evaluate and appreciate the ROI of their expenditures.

  2. Laura Miller

    Great article! I think this role of the librarian/information scientist is relevant to so many fields relying on stores of physical documents in order to make informed decisions (ie healthcare, banking, etc.). But as you noted, this will be pertinent to law in a number of ways, but most radically, beyond the firm. Access to public information in a more efficient way will elevate the output of small and private practice attorneys. Look at anyone from Intelligize, to Kira Systems, CARA from Casetext, and many up and coming information-organizing law applications! The more ubiquitous these programs become, the cheaper and more accessible they are to attorneys outside the Biglaw setting! Much like the library itself, law, through organization and access to legal information, is moving outside the walls of the institution.

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