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Law-firm librarians raising the bar

The image of law-firm librarians stacking bulky legal tomes on shelves has changed beyond all recognition in recent years as their areas of responsibility widen and the ubiquitous march of technology makes its inevitable impact.

"There has been a rise in the status of librarians over the past 10 years as our role has changed," says Louisa Suen, information and research manager at Deacons, one of Hong Kong's oldest and largest independent law firms.

According to Suen, librarians in the corporate setting tend to have elevated roles. They also have lofty titles, such as "knowledge manager" or "information manager", to match those roles.

Outlining her own areas of responsibility, Suen, who works in a team of five, says a key focus is the supply of information services to lawyers and ensuring that services provided meet the firm's required standards. Additional duties include administration, general operations, quality control and staff-policy management.

Suen's work also involves liaising with human resources, graduate recruitment and professional-development colleges on training programmes for new staff, plus financial and budgetary control.

Given that the law is constantly changing, Suen says information managers should be innovative and flexible. Libraries, particularly law libraries, she says, tend to acquire new material rather quickly, resulting in a need to update older material and efficiently manage material space requirements. "Nowadays, apart from basic library skills, professionals in my role have to be familiar with technology," Suen says.

Specific requirements for corporate-library jobs depend on the particular organisation, explains Suen. Some employers are less concerned with professional qualifications and instead train their recruits on the job.

In terms of senior positions, however, most companies require their librarians to have at least eight to 10 years of relevant experience, as well as a master's degree in librarianship or information and library management. "Being a professional member of a library association is also an advantage," Suen says.

A librarian's primary focus should be to ensure their clients' information needs are met, says William Ng, a librarian with Linklaters, another law firm. "The growth of technology actually provides good opportunities to work more effectively and efficiently," Ng says, adding that technology allows for easier access to information and faster and wider information dissemination.

Ng adds that it is important to conduct regular system maintenance so that information can be easily accessed by staff at all times.

He says that the key attributes for career success are attention to detail, communications skills, the ability to stay organised, good time management and commercial awareness.