Law Firm Leadership During Times of Change: Q&A with LLSDC President Cameron Gowan

Cameron GowanCameron Gowan is the President of the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, DC (LLSDC) and the Library Manager for DC-based Groom Law Group, Chartered. Cameron has a truly daunting array of academic degrees, including a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Southern California, a J.D. from Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and an Master of Science in Library Science from The Catholic University of America. How do you top that? She has also recently completed her Master’s degree in Law Firm Management at The George Washington University at night during her term as President of LLSDC.

As a law librarian, lawyer, and now a student of management, Cameron has a unique perspective on law firm leadership challenges. We sat down with her recently to discuss the future of firm management, and the skills that law librarians will need to succeed during this downturn and beyond.

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FC: This is a time of great change in the market for legal services. What do you think the biggest challenges are right now for law firm management?

CG: I think one of the most difficult challenges is dealing with the repercussions of the economic downturn – with staff/attorney ratio adjustments, budget reductions, and shifts in clients’ needs – and still being able to maintain the high quality work product. All this is happening and clients still expect the most competitive rate. As a result, staff is being challenged with longer hours, heavier workloads, and there’s always the possibility for decreased job security. Plus, the fact that the billable hour business model is starting to shift is really playing a big role.

FC: We’ve heard a lot recently about fixed fee arrangements. Do you see that a lot in practice? Do you think fixed fees are the way of the future? Or do you think it’s just another fad?

CG: Certainly there are blogs and other articles and publishers talking about it. I think law firms are implementing a limited number of fee arrangements with clients, to test the water to see if its mutually beneficial. I don’t know if it will be sustainable. I think maybe perhaps with more transactional work it’s likely to stay around for quite some time. But unless the legal environment changes dramatically away from the traditional billable hour model, I just don’t see that fixed fee arrangements are going to stick around long term. Clients are demanding a change and it’s up to the legal industry to come up with an alternative – fee arrangements, pricing the product, or some sort of hybrid model.

FC: It’s obviously a time of great change in law libraries as well. What specific challenges do you think this economy presents to law libraries and what are some strategies you’ve seen that are successful in dealing with those challenges?

CG: Law firms are cutting library budgets, but they’re also reducing print subscriptions and physical space. This is happening at the same time that law firms are adding electronic database subscriptions. That poses a challenge to librarians in that they must really become experts in these databases and train the attorneys. It’s being able to show the attorneys how to use these databases more effectively and cost-efficiently for their clients.

Vendors have consistently increased the cost of their products, which is another challenge to managing budgets, but it’s also an opportunity for librarians to become savvy business negotiators and be able to secure competitive contracts that provide value to users. Also, you can be successful in trying to find that perfect balance between print and electronic subscriptions. And most importantly, being able to collaborate with partners and colleagues will get you far. By being able to demonstrate your value and the library’s value, decision-makers will see that the library can be a revenue-producing department within the firm.

FC: It seems like many library professionals view the challenges differently from management and budget committees of their firms. What advice would you give to law librarians who are trying to better align the goals of their library with the goals of the firm?

CG: I think having a good relationship with your superiors and with the attorneys in the firm is a great starting point. Being able to have a seat the table, you have a voice. Once you know the firm goals and its vision, you can figure out how your department can align with them.

It takes a very proactive librarian to sit down with the boss and say “How can I make sure my goals are aligned with the firm’s goals?” It’s really just being proactive, being vocal, and asking a lot of questions. That’s one of the things I learned while in this Master’s program: learning the different perspectives of all the departments — whether it’s accounting, information technology, or marketing — and how all the departments fit in as a whole in the business process. It’s not just one department – the library — it’s everything as a whole, how they work together.

It’s really also about the culture of the firm. If it’s more of a conservative firm and the management isn’t willing or able to discuss what the goals are, it provides a much harder environment to really show how you add value. You can find other ways to get around this – take advantage of all opportunities to reach out to partners and find out what their needs really are. Don’t underestimate the value of the elevator speech to promote yourself either.

FC: This is not the kind of thing that you learn in library school, right? No one teaches you how to view your challenges from the perspective of the firm, or to be an outgoing person and get yourself into the room where decisions are made.

CG: Right, I highly doubt that very many librarians have been invited to sit at the table. I think that most librarians that I know that have a seat at the table at the management level got to where they are because they said, “Look, I can contribute something here.” And then of course they’re invited in. But they have to be proactive in doing so.

FC: What skills do you think law librarians need (but aren’t being taught) to be successful in the 21st century economy?

CG: Financial background, financial acumen, understanding budgetary issues and constraints. There’s also a need for students to learn about different communication styles and how to work within all levels of the law firm.

FC: It sounds like communication is a big one.

CG: Yes, definitely communication. There’s a good book called Difficult Conversations– it’s basically about just working with employees and staff and bosses — how do you have a difficult conversation with people? It also talks about overcoming resistance to change and challenges.

Also, everyone talks about having a mentor and mentees and all that good stuff, but also it’s really about having a sponsor – someone who’s going to praise your accomplishment and everything that you’ve been able to achieve. The boss knows what you’ve been able to do, but it’s good to have someone else advocate for your work and say “this person is doing a really good job.”

FC: And it’s important that your learning shouldn’t stop when you finish your academic degree.

CG: Absolutely not, there’s a network of 600 librarians in the DC community that people have access to. You should be reaching out to them – whether it be to the experienced librarians, the less experienced, it doesn’t matter – just networking. It can be seminars, it can be conferences, whatever. There are tons of opportunities where people can continue their learning process — it’s a never-ending process, and you will meet so many other librarians along the way.

FC: And you’re just finishing your term as president of LLSDC, which you did while you were getting your Master’s in Law Firm Management [laughs]. Are you looking forward to some free time?

CG: I’ve already got some things planned for my term as immediate past president. We’ve got plans to revamp our policy manual and continue our public relations campaign to get librarians and library students involved — in the DC community and nationwide — and generally improve the visibility of librarians as information researchers. Other than that, who knows what I’ll do next! Maybe swim the English Channel…[laughs]

FC: Cameron Gowan: the law librarian who couldn’t sit still, thank you for speaking with us.

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