Tips for the traumatised: surviving administration and mergers

Let me begin by confessing: I am not a law firm lucky charm. I’ve worked for 2 different firms over a period of 18 months, both of which went into administration or merged with another firm, which left me unemployed twice in a short period of time.

Unfortunately, my story isn’t unusual: changes in the legal market mean that these sort of events will happen more and more frequently, especially in the mid-sized law firms. My Nostradamus moment now is to predict that most mid-sized firms won’t exist within 5 years, as they get eaten up by the bigger firms, or split down into smaller, niche firms.

So if you’re working in a small or mid-sized firm: you’re in a very risky position right now. So what can you do to both plan for the potential experience of having a job that disappears, and to get through it successfully? I’m going to give you some tips on what to do, when, and how to get through this. And I’ll be honest: a lot of this is unpleasant, but you can get through to the other side intact.

Before changes

See the signs: You need to be plugged into the internal gossip machine, for your own benefit. People talk – it’s wise to listen, and look for the oddities that signal problems. Listen for fee-earner gossip: are junior staff in all sorts of departments complaining about not being able to meet their target for billable hours because there’s just not enough work being passed to them? Are partners hiding in their rooms or working from home, to avoid having to really speak to their teams? Watch out for those odd “partners from different departments who don’t normally have anything to do with each other” meetings starting to happen. Secretaries being asked to block out many hours in diaries for people…with no client meetings or reasons given. Or the all partner, off-site meetings…that go on for two days. Librarians at other firms that may be merger partners will be noticing odd activities too, or may have been asked to research your firms finances. Make sure you’re open with your professional network about unusual activities at your firm, as it gives other information professionals the chance to volunteer information that they’ve gathered. There will also be a mysteriously delayed issuing of the annual accounts, with various “interesting” excuses being given, and getting more abrupt as the lateness increases. There will be firm denials in the press by management of there being any trouble internally. Credit checking companies will be red flagging you as a risk because you pay bills so late. Suppliers will not be being paid, but you will only find this out if you contact them directly to check, or they contact you to complain, because your Finance department will insist that they’ve been paid. Honest. Cross their heart.

Prepare for the worst: go through your work, and identify your useful/transferable work. Gather non-sensitive work you have produced/remove to cloud storage if possible. If you can’t move it off your firms network by upload, try and get a record of it some other way: download, screenshot or photograph it. The administrators or merger managers are not interested in the work of support staff – it will be ignored during these processes, and holds no financial value for them. The only value it holds is for you, for the future, for generic activities such as training materials you’ve developed for educating internal users on subscription databases. ( Disclaimer one – Only you can make the decision on what materials it is legal for you to remove. Disclaimer two – some of these content tools might be blocked by your employer.). If you don’t have one already, get a “professional” email address (gmail is fine) – if your name/initials combination isn’t available, create one using information and knowledge-related terms. Move all account contacts to the new account: social media, mailing lists, LinkedIn etc. You can’t predict when your access to your work email will stop.

Prepare for the best: It may well be that any merger partner firm needs information staff, so there could be a place for you in a new structure. However, like any other employer, they’ll want you to be able to prove to them that you’re good at what you do, and your salary will take that into account. So now is a good time to gather statistics and evidence to show what you do, and what you can do. If you charge out for your time, gather the information that shows exactly what money you’ve brought in. Equip yourself with any facts or figures that help you to make a business case to demonstrate why you and/or your team are an asset.

Make yourself visible to the world: if you aren’t already using social media, now is the time to start. Create a Twitter profile, where you can show your awareness of relevant issues by tweeting links or discussing them with others. Most importantly, create a LinkedIn account, and make sure you organise it to show your best skills and achievements (LinkedIn content layout can be personalised). This is useful for both internal and external promotional purposes: if your firm is going into administration, other law firms need to be able to see immediately what your skills are, and why you’d be an asset. If you’re merging, you want to be able to easily give the takeover firm as much information about your usefulness as possible. They won’t know about the awesome projects you’ve been responsible for internally, they’re highly unlikely to actually come to you to ask about your skills, so you need a place they can look at that hosts all your achievements, to be able to show them. Ask colleagues to endorse you for useful activities – people will be doing their best to help you, so agree the text in advance to ensure it shows your best skills in the best way.

Build up an application bank: create a variety of clear descriptions of your specialist and transferable skills. If you struggle with this, ask workmates to identify what they think your key skills and achievements are. Use these to help speed up the process when applying for jobs by tying these relevant phrases to frequently requested skills. Create a tailored base CV for each role type you’re targeting, drawing out different elements of your skills as appropriate.

Expand your vocabulary: yes, right now you’re a specialist librarian, but your skills are also incredibly wide-ranging and your employment prospects are too. You’re experienced in doing targeted research: use those skills now on your own behalf – compile a list of search terms and work them on search engines! Develop a level of awareness of key potential employers, and start monitoring vacancies before you may think you’ll need to actually apply to anything – knowing how long jobs are advertised for, and how quickly after they appear they can disappear, can help focus you on being prepared and able to apply for jobs as quickly as possible after they’re advertised. Be organised about your applications: a spreadsheet helps manage and prioritise relevant jobs (and ensures you know when your submission deadlines are). It didn’t used to be easy, but it’s far more achievable now to move between a variety of sectors, as” information management” becomes more clearly recognised as a relevant skill, rather than being buried within the term “librarian”. Jobs I was interviewed for: Open Access Publications Assistant, eHealth Project Officer; Grants Officer; Awards Administrator; Research and Information Officer, Contracts Manager, Information Officer; Research and Information Specialist, Legal and Business Intelligence Analyst, and another Project Officer. And don’t rule out the Intelligence Services too – I won’t say how far I got in their application process, but let’s just say your skills at assessing information sources and extracting relevant information from them are useful in all sorts of roles! 😉

During changes

Don’t be ignored: if your firm is merging, nobody will be sparing a thought for you, or about asking you to be involved in any discussions. This creates a huge risk that your department and team will be forgotten about in the frantic activity that goes on during the merger process. This is the point to start jumping up and down in front of the right people, with big signs pointing towards you that say “I’m wonderful!”. If you have a library partner, you can try and get them to ensure that you’re involved in relevant discussions, but remember, you will never be their priority, they have a “core” team that they will be trying to ensure are safe first, before they can spare any time or energy to help you.

Focus your energy: In a merger I was involved in, we began the process of creating the business case for our retention in the new firm, but quickly decided to use our energy in looking for employment externally when we realised from discussions with the library staff on the other side that there was no intention of moving my team across.

Play nice: if your firm is merging/being taken over, make sure that the information professionals on the other side of the merger get all the information they need from you, as soon as possible. Spend any time needed to tidy up your materials, both physically and digitally – it’s good manners and reflects well on you professionally, and at this point your professional reputation is one of your main assets. Contact your suppliers directly if you can: they will have questions about your subscriptions and services, and you can give them the appropriate information on who to contact, and a realistic assessment of the chances of them receiving payment or a subscription being continued. Again, being polite and helpful to people, especially when you don’t have to be, means that your professional reputation is enhanced with people who may be of use to you in future.

After changes

Professional support: this is the bad bit – there is none, in practical terms. You will watch as the lawyers are offered hardship funds and training support from their professional bodies and groups, and their professional bodies issue press releases to the media about how excellent they are, and how quickly they’ve all been re-employed, but there will be nothing equivalent for you from any of the professional bodies you may be a member of. Sympathy, yes, but no practical help. You’re on your own.

State support: the Job Centre staff will not be of any help. They do not know what to do with specialist librarians. Even your existence baffles them. Learn about the various rules, procedures, and entitlements available to you, but expect no actual, direct help: you’re on your own. Again.

Network and talk: You will almost certainly feel traumatised by these processes, either insolvency or redundancy. Learn to separate your sense of worth from your employment – you are not responsible for what happened to you. Tell people what happened (while maintaining a professional “I don’t blame anyone” front). Make people aware you need employment. Let them help you. Be active on LinkedIn (and be amused at the ridiculous amount of people who’ll check out your profile during this period).

Now, this isn’t a foolproof guide, just an attempt to give anyone facing what I’ve been through a bit of guidance, help, and support to know that it’s survivable. Others who have been through similar situations have had input into this too, so hopefully, it’s now as useful a collation of information as it can be.

And finally, just remember: illegitimi non carborundum.

Learning ALL THE STUFF..and showing people we know about it

Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 seminar notes
TUPE update notes

Because my new role means that I’m regularly asked do to legal research, it also means that I need to make sure that my level of general knowledge of a wide range of legal topics is pretty high, and that it stays high. Helpfully, my employer runs in-house training sessions on all sorts of things, for all sorts of departments, and these seminars are also open to a range of staff. That means that my colleagues and I can take the chance to get some excellent information from speakers on relevant topics, both drawn from our own staff and from external experts. I’ve been learning about land law, employment/company law, and there’s some environmental training coming up soon too.

These sessions are interesting on multiple levels – it’s great for me to be able to have access to the level of professional training that the solicitors have, which helps me get my knowledge up to a higher level, but it’s also allowing me and my colleagues to get out of the library and meet staff, even those that don’t currently have any work they need me to do for them. As we are an internal department, we don’t have any help in marketing our service to our users to increase engagement and awareness of what we offer – the Marketing department’s time is taken up with promoting the skills and knowledge of the solicitors to external users (although I have heard of an information service in a law firm that Marketing used as a test for an internal publicity campaign). That means that if we want to publicise our service internally, we have to do it ourselves. By going to these internal training events, we’re raising our visibility level within the firm, putting our faces to the “Information Services” department, making ourselves approachable, and showing that our knowledge on legal topics is as current as it can be. When you’re a librarian in a commercial environment, you have to make your own opportunities to promote the service!

Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 Regulations and Order introduced

Scheduled to come into force on 2nd July, the new regulations for the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 will move Scottish law firms one step closer to the ABS model currently in place in England and Wales. From 2 July 2012, the Scottish Government will be able to begin accepting applications from those bodies wishing to become approved regulators, presumably the Law Society and other legal professional bodies.

Legislation referred to in the Scottish Government press release is linked to below:

Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 (Ancillary Provision) Regulations 2012 (draft)


Licensed Legal Services (Specification of Regulated Professions) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (draft)


Licensed Legal Services (Complaints and Compensation Arrangements) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (SSI 2012/153) 


Licensed Legal Services (Interests in Licensed Providers) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (SSI 2012/154) 


Licensed Legal Services (Maximum Penalty and Interest in respect of Approved Regulators) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (SSI 2012/155) 

Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 (Commencement No. 2 and Transitional Provisions) Order 2012 (SSI 2012/152 (C.14)) 

Keeping (t)ABS on England

It’s all change at the moment in Englandshire law firms, and what happens in England no longer stays in England. Alternative Business Structures (ABS) are all the rage, and after a gradual run up period where firms could register interest in the conversion to ABS status (with mainly personal injury firms (PI) and smaller firms doing so, some large businesses such as BT and the Co-operative group being an exception), now they’re actually real – the first three groups to be approved as ABS’ were announced on the 28th March 2012.
Mid tier and larger firms in England seems to be adopting a “wait and see approach”, watching how the smaller, more adaptable firms (and also therefore possibly those who are more hungry for a cash-injection) fare before committing themselves to any tie-ups with investors. The existing large bodies like the Co-operative Group are big enough, and well funded enough to push on and expand their existing legal services in their own direction.
The reaction to this business option in England is likely to be a good predictor of the impact of the Legal Services (Scotland)Act 2010 in Scottish law firms. The Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 will allow 49% non-solicitor ownership of law firms in Scotland when brought fully into force. The regulations involved in the implementation of the 2010 Act are being drafted at the moment, and will be consulted on in two lots, in the Spring and Autumn of 2012.
The recently concluded Scottish Government consultation on ABS in Scotlandfound that most respondents favoured the inclusion of accountants as “regulated professionals” (those who are authorised alongside solicitors to own the majority, 51% share of the company), which raises the prospect of law firms co-owned by solicitors and accountants. It’s yet to be decided what the actual professions authorised to have ownership of a law firm alongside solicitors will be.
And what sort of changes are likely for cross border Scots/English law firms? Will it be more beneficial to become an ABS under one regime than the other? And how do law firms traditionally owned by, in effect, their staff, change to a culture where they’re partially owned by, and accountable to, external funders?
So, to see what a future Scottish law firm could look like, for the next year, we can watch to see how English firms deal with it…
Popcorn, anyone?

It’s not about the speed, it’s about the skill

Recently, I was regaling my partner with exciting tales of what thrilling things I’d got up to at work that day, while he listened with eager attention. Well, actually, what he was doing was trying to go to sleep, and I was babbling at him about research problems, but…

I was explaining that I was frustrated that I was busy when a research enquiry that had come in, and that when I actually got a chance to do it, I found the answer within a few minutes. “I could have had that result back to the enquirer in minutes, rather than hours, and looked really efficient, since it was so straightforward to find.” I was pouting.
“Yes, but your enquirer has no idea of the level of skill it took you to find that answer. They asked you because they didn’t know how to find it, and you are the expert. Just because you could find it easily doesn’t mean it would be as easy for anyone else. And answering too quickly could make it appear that it was an simpler task than it was. To them, and probably others, it wasn’t an easy task: don’t make the hard things too simple, because they’re not.” he mumbled, and rolled over.
You know, he’s quite wise sometimes, that boy – the pressure to get things done and passed over to enquirers as soon as possible can make even the person doing the requested research work forget that the job they’re doing is more skilled than you might expect. Just because you can do it easily, it doesn’t mean others would.
 
And, it’s not about how fast you can do it, but the skill you use to do it.

Slow reading, and legalese

So, it seems we’re all finding it difficult to concentrate on reading large amounts of text, and getting more easily distracted from….oh, shiny thing!

Ahem…yes, so…I suppose the techniques frowned upon by the Oxford History professor in the article may well be naughty to use when trying to study and analyse literature….but in legal research, they’re a godsend! Databases may well throw up hundreds or thousands of hits when you search for a specific term. Once you’ve narrowed it down a bit more, you’re still left with dozens of articles and cases to wade through. And nobody’s ever claimed that legal language was snappy, or easy to skim.
The ability to go into these items and search for a specific word is great: by being able to find words instantly, and get some understanding of their use in the case or article through looking at the context, discarding irrelevant items is a much faster process.
I’m not a lawyer: I don’t necessarily always understand exactly what it is I’m being asked to find, and despite being a naturally fast reader, I can’t dedicate hours and hours of time to fully go through each article or case that may possibly be relevant to get to that level of understanding. Looking for key words helps me narrow down the material, meaning the lawyer gets what they need, faster.
So yes, slow reading’s a good thing, in the right situation, but reading legalese is already slow enough – I’m taking all the help I can get with that!

My Library Route

So, I’ve previously blogged my Library Roots, and added it to the wiki of the Library Routes project (and if you haven’t done yours yet, get adding – it’s fascinating!).

I thought I’d now add info on my Library Route, i.e. how I ended up doing what I do today.
Well…it all started off a bit randomly. I’d qualified, and now I needed a job. I was scouring the CILIP Gazette job section, and the library recruitment agencies, and the local authority job sites here in Edinburgh, hoping to find something, anything, that would let me work! But it’s not easy, even in the Capital of the country, to find a job when you don’t have any official experience. So really, after a couple of months, and with the savings going down fast, I needed a job.
I saw a post for a part-time library assistant at a private members society library within the Scottish courts complex at Parliament Square. I had no idea what a librarian would do in a court library, but I got the job, and soon found out. Mainly, the library dealt with the research enquiries of its members, who were all qualified Scottish solicitors. The society owned the building it was situated in, and let out various areas to other groups, and hired out a room for functions. The role involved doing anything from accounts for photocopier use, posting books to out of town members, to helping members find the information they needed, whatever that may be. I was on my own one day a week, and on the other day I had the company of the lovely lady who dealt with the members coffee area, and general bits and bobs.
Having had no experience with Scots law, or researching it, lets just say it was a steep learning curve! OPSI, HMSO, SIs, SSIs, Acts, Acts of Sederunt, differences between UK-wide law and Scots-only laws…every day was quite an education! The previous edition of this book was my saviour! As were the librarians at various other libraries within the complex: I could often be seen sidling into on, with a hopeful look on my face!
A while after starting there, a part time post came up at another solicitors library in the court complex, where I’d got to know staff via my regular visits to ask for help with some obscure reference, or borrow a book to consult. The hours of the post were able to be organised to fit around my first position, and equivalently (and boy did my bank balance thank me for this!) I now had a full time, Monday to Friday, 9-5 job.
I worked both jobs together for about a year, until a full time position became available at the second library, which I was offered and accepted. And now I began what was effectively an apprenticeship. Every enquiry could now be discussed with, or referred to, people with far more experience than me. We all kept track of the progress of each others enquiries, so even if I had passed a tough one on, I could still find out how it had been resolved, and learn from that. We had an indexed book of frequently asked unusual enquiries for reference. The library was a large, long established one, so there were lots of materials, systems and rooms to get acquainted with, and I’d say it took at least a year of full-time work there before I could say I was able to deal with the bulk of enquiries that came my way, and know where things were.
In between enquiries there was of course the general administrative work needed to keep things going – yup, the eternal joy of compiling and issuing of accounts for photocopying and research! 🙂 Also, since the library had held various large book-stock sales in its history, but the card catalogues still held the records for these sold books in with the current books, it seemed like a good idea to get those card files out, and into their own catalogue. That project took about six (dirty – these cards were old!) months, of sorting through each file drawer and removing the records marked as sold when I had a free moment. Finally, we had accurate online, card and bound catalogues, yay! Then I moved onto cataloguing the older editions of textbooks (and some hidden gems) onto the online catalogue, a task that was only 50% completed when I left.
We pushed to get the best technology and resources possible, working with the restrictions of doing so in a listed building. I think the biggest advance was my boss managing to get wi-fi installed! We could be showing members how to best use web tools one moment, and then later on, bringing up case reports from the 1800s from the basement for academic researchers who needed access to our collections for their studies. Quite a varied sort of workplace!
But after 4 years it was definitely time to move on, and I found myself working for my current employer, a commercial law firm. Once again, it was a pretty steep learning curve. Yes, I knew about Scots law, where to find things, where to look and who to ask if I didn’t understand things, but the difference was that this time, I was dealing directly with the people giving me the enquiries. Previously, those questions had usually been filtered by the librarians of the firms using the library, and the core points had been teased out, leaving me free to go straight to what they want, whether that was a book, case, or anything else. Here, I was getting people who weren’t quite sure what they were looking for, and needed my help to work it out. It’s certainly helped develop my “asking people questions until they decide what the important point is” skills! Actually, it’s helped me developed my telepathy and mind reading skills too! The time pressure’s pretty different as well – everything’s always needed yesterday! But it’s nice to be in the same place as my users, to be able to see them, chat, socialise etc. and get to know their information needs better. Here too, as in my previous workplace, I’m encouraged to explore technology, and see what tools could be useful for either staff, or library staff. We have an in-house Current Awareness service, so I’m always aware of news and developments, and feeding them back into the firms systems.
Another big difference is that I work solo here – I’m in charge of one office, and my boss is in charge of another. Multiple daily phone calls and emails help us keep track of what’s going on, with a wiki for shared information / in case of emergencies, and regular face to face meetings fill in anything else, and help remind each other that we really exist! When I first started I felt like such a pest – being on my own, and being technically a department of my own in this office too meant I had no team members around me – I was never off the phone asking daft questions, not only about the library, but about things like how do I get a document scanned, and what the email shortcut was for the IT department! The patience of my boss was verging on saintly! Now, I know everyone here, and who does what, and have seen multiple waves of trainees pass through the door…I feel almost like an old hand.
The firm and my boss have also encouraged me into anything and everything that will benefit me professionally, so I’ve attended conferences, joined committees, edited newsletters, blogged, chartered, written articles…I’m certainly not allowed to isolate myself into the world of law and hide out!
So, not quite the career path I had thought of…in fact, law librarianship isn’t actually a career path that I even knew existed! Luckily though, I love working in this sector, and am glad that I saw that advert for my first, part-time post!
Oh yes – the books up the top are from a little sprinkler accident at one of the libraries – amazing sight to see halls, rooms and corridors filled with ranks and ranks of splayed open books! I couldn’t resist taking some photos!