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.

Too close to the problem to see the achievements

Sometimes, you have so much to do, that you can’t see what you’ve actually done. I’m feeling very much that way at the moment, so I thought I’d make a public list for myself of all the work and professional things I’ve done since taking up my role in mid January. Then maybe I’ll feel less like I’m just not very good at anything. It’s worth a try. Although for obvious reasons, I can’t publicly say much about the baddest/hardest stuff, but…it’s in there. Maybe it’s not explicit about how hard it’s been, but it’s there.

So: what have I done?

Service management and development

  • Replaced someone who ran the library for 21 years, who retired 3 months before I started, and gave me no handover information.
  • Got 6 weeks of company/training on the library from an assistant, who then retired, leaving me as the only person in the organisation who knew anything about how the library actually worked.
  • Done the assistant librarian and librarian job simultaneously, while not really knowing anything about them, for a few weeks.
  • Trained the assistant librarian (who is awesome) to do their job…which I didn’t really know how to do myself, due to it not being my job. So we figured it out together. Painfully.
  • Trained the assistant librarian to do legal research, from the basics on to complex work – again, luckily, they’re awesome!
  • Learned about the organisation I work for, its history, and its coverage – I had only worked with civil law before, so I had to learn about criminal law from scratch.
  • Learned how to use the LMS for managing stock and circulation items.
  • Realised our LMS contract was coming to an end and the product was too costly, so worked with suppliers and Procurement to implement a new LMS (work in progress).
  • Decided that the current catalogue data was too unreliable/inaccurate to import to the new LMS, and made the decision to recatalogue all stock from scratch on our new LMS (work in progress).
  • Chosen and adapted a new classification system to reclassify all our stock to (work in progress).
  • Reviewed my job description, and the assistant’s job description, and updated them to actually reflect what we do.
  • Learned how to use the internal appraisal system, to manage assistant’s development needs and professional development plan.
  • Created a structure for management of emails and materials coming in to the communal library email account, and being stored there for access by both staff.
  • Contacted every supplier of anything to the library, to update the account manager details to me. Sometimes not very successfully (Bloomsbury Professional really, really like sending email to my predecessor, no mater how many times I contact them about it, and they assure me it’s now accurate).
  • Supervised the assistant librarian in their review of where every looseleaf that we buy goes to – we’ve cut any surplus spending on unfiled/unused copies.
  • Begun the process of asking for my job grading to be reassessed (work in progress).
  • Had a lack of support/accurate information when I needed it and asked for it.
  • Begun working my way through a datadump of 10 years worth/200 folders worth/800-1000 network files and documents, to learn about how the library was run prior to me starting here.
  • Researched the history of the creation of the library to determine who my actual users are meant to be.
  • Worked with other departments to determine what others thought the library did, and for who.
  • Created a Service Description, to describe and define where the library (and 3 satellite library locations) is located, what the library staff actually do, and who our users are.
  • Made sure everyone I speak to knows that they are welcome to use the library, work in the library, and there are user desks/pcs available for them to use here (backed up by a variety of smaller, subtle marketing activities like making sure sweets are available at the service desk).
  • Managed access to users of a group-access subscription service, and attended user group meetings. 
  • Attended a disaster planning event, and a practical training workshop, and used the knowledge from these to partially draft a disaster plan (work in progress).
  • Attended an event in London of creating a digital strategy for the library, which gave me lots to think about regarding how to develop the service (work in progress).
  • Worked with other departments to start redeveloping the library space on one of the intranets.
  • Reviewed every subscription we take to assess usage/relevancy, and cancelled any inefficient/underused subscriptions.
  • Attended induction training (local and corporate), attendance management training, change management training, criminal awareness training, and civil awareness training. And completed many hours of compulsory e-learning training. So much time away from working, in training! 
  • Created training materials on library resources for internal staff who provide cover for the library staff, and provided day-long training to multiple individuals.
  • Begun plans to implement the internal staff training on library resources across the wider organisation.
  • Written endless business cases, with the content ranging from internet filter proxy settings to professional organisation memberships.
  • Maintaining my part of the building – reporting and getting replaced lights that are out, broken/malfunctioning doors, splintering desks, spillages in the coffee area, splatters on the external windows etc.
  • Established good professional relationships with other libraries in the vicinity.
  • Attended an introduction to bookbinding course, to get the skills to understand how to do basic book repairs.
Oh, and of course, around all this, I’ve done my normal work of dealing with sourcing legal materials and doing legal research! Which, despite what people who come in think, is actually taking up a large amount of the time the assistant librarian and I have available – we suffer from the traditional misapprehension that, if we’re not working for an individual at that point in time, we must not be working at all. If only!
Professional activities
  • Visited multiple professional libraries in London and Edinburgh, including the equivalent service in London.
  • Hosted the meeting of a local professional group, and given a group tour of the workplace.
  • Been involved in a multitude of relevant professional groups, and attended meetings at a variety of locations, from the National Library of Scotland to the Royal Botanic Gardens.
  • Given individual tours of the workplace to at least 20 professional contacts.
  • Undertaken an Institute of Leadership and Management qualification.
  • Registered for Fellowship with CILIP, and begun compiling my portfolio for that.
  • Successfully revalidated my Chartership.
  • Seen one Chartership candidate successfully submit their Chartership portfolio, and taken on another mentee.
  • Co-managed the Informed website, and written information-issue articles.
  • Maintained this blog (it’s been a little bit neglected, as a lot of my writing/focus has been on Informed instead).

Physical
  • Cleared 30 bags of rubbish out of my office.
  • Cleared 70 large crates of old books out of a basement room. Twice, as various people then wanted some books retrieved, so they needed unpacked, shelved, then repacked. Oh my, that left me so bruised and battered.
  • Cleared 20 crates (and still going) of rubbish from the library office and main library shelves.
  • Relocated 10 book trolleys that had been holding surplus materials out of the library.
  • Created two full surplus sets of 100 year+ runs of a series of law reports, stored them, then moved them. For other people.
  • Reshelved thousands of books in a satellite library, myself.
  • Visited the Aberdeen library once, the Glasgow library twice, and visited the other Edinburgh library monthly.

Other services
  • Drafted recommendations for another part of the organisation on where they need to recruit another librarian (plus two site visits to assess their current setup, and attending meetings to discuss this proposal).
  • Giving virtual and in person support to staff partially providing an element of library service elsewhere (this is not actually my job, but…) 
  • Given support where requested re the stocking with appropriate materials of a newly-created part of the organisation.
  • Written a report re feasibility of potential enlargement of certain librarian responsibilities (work in progress).
Hmmmm….maybe this does make it a bit clearer. I have actually been doing a lot. A hell of a lot. And I know there’s loads I’ve not even got on this list because I’ve forgotten. And there’s only me doing this (with, thankfully, a great colleague), but it’s really actually quite a lot for just me to be totally responsible for!

The library workout

So, you think being a librarian is a sedentary activity, huh?

Not so!!

Since I started this role, I’ve worked far harder physically than I’ve had to do in a job for quite some time!

The library building itself has 3 floors, and my office is on the 1st/mezzanine floor, so to get to my desk I go up 1 flight of stairs. To speak to my colleague, I come down 1 floor. Then to go to the bathroom, I have to go down 2 or 3 floors, or up 1, depending on where I choose to go. To see my manager on -1, I have to go down 1 flight of stairs from the ground floor, which makes it 2 floors down from my office. To go to another department, I have to go to -2. For other people, I have to go to -3. Other people are on floor 1, or 2. Other libraries are in another building on the same floor, or 1 floor down. And all of these people and places are in different but interlinked buildings, which don’t always link directly. So to get to the 1st floor in one building, you need to go up to the 2nd floor in another, and come back down via another section.

The fact that my colleague and I need to go to various locations every day to check on or deliver items, or to meet with colleagues means that we cover a lot of ground throughout the building complex. The distance varies, but on average it’s at least 1 mile each day. I’ve estimated with the stairs I’m going up between 25 and 30 flights of 12-step stairs on average each day, meaning I’m climbing 300 stairs daily. Combined, the walking and stairs climbing mean I get a pretty good workout every day. My colleague has said that since she started working in the library, her muscles have toned up since we’re so constantly active!

Added to this, I’ve been doing a LOT of heavy physical work, clearing out a 20 year backlog of materials for disposal that have ended up stockpiling in various parts of the building. I’ve filled and thrown out 30 bags of rubbish, a dozen cardboard boxes and 10 packing crates from the Library itself. I’ve also moved the contents of a basement room, moved stuff into another room, and filled (and emptied, and refilled for various convoluted reasons) 60+ packing crates with outdated or damaged stock. I’ve done 95% of this work on my own.

The basements with motion-sensitive lights are somewhat….atmospheric.

Half of one basement storage room
Starting to recreate a set of books for relocation….
…then starting to reshelve them in another part of the room
From the 1770s. Wrapped and never opened
In dire need of repair
 
Flooded 20 years ago, wrapped in newspaper, and put in a cardboard box & left in a corner.
Unsurprisingly, it’s warped, mouldy, and utterly destroyed

More mould

So fluffy!

Filthy work

Painful work

Heavy work

Just some of the boxes filled with old stock in the basement
Some of the library office clearout

Outdated stock in the library, packaged for disposal
It’s been a long, hard physical slog, leaving me battered and bruised in so many places, and utterly physically exhausted. However, as exercise regimes go, it’s been pretty successful!
I have nicely toned arms and legs, so when the bruises fade, I can actually dress like I mean business in the library…
Next, I just need to find the regular library task that will help to tone up my belly…any suggestions?

I aren’t dead

I’m just busy!

So, in mid January, I started my new role…and was promptly informed that my colleague would be leaving in 2.5 months.

YEEK!

So I very quickly had to get myself up to speed on a lot of things: how things worked in the library, who our main users were and how they preferred the services to be delivered to them, what I was responsible for, who I should be working with on various cross-department projects, where all our stock is located, how we fit within the organisational structure, where we can offer more or improved services, and core things like how our circulation system works, and what our policies on multiple day-to-day tasks like binding are. Plus I undertook a fairly massive physical and electronic clutter clear out (if I never have to spend another day in a basement with motion sensitive lighting again, I’ll be a happy girl) that could only be done while my colleague was here to staff the library when I was buried in old materials in a cellar. Altogether, my first few months have been pretty hectic and although not stressful in a “OMG I just can’t do this” sort of way, my brain was being rammed so full of information I was struggling to sleep because I had so many thoughts and ideas racing around my head, and then that continued into dreaming about work once I actually got to sleep! Thankfully though, that phase is now past!

It’s been a very demanding process, but it’s also been hugely rewarding – I’ve been able to go through things from top to bottom, assessing what might need changed, and then actually implement those changes, which I’ve never really been in a position to do in roles I’ve been in before. My departing colleague has been fantastic, giving me the information I’ve needed to enable me to make informed decisions on issues, rather than me having to faff about on my own, going backwards and forwards to gather information to enable me to make appropriate choices. It’s meant I’ve been able to be quite productive in my first few months in the post.

But now, it’s suddenly here: my colleague leaves tomorrow.

EVEN BIGGER YEEK!

I’ll have some excellent temporary assistance for a month, then the new member of staff will take up their role at the end of April. While it’s unfortunate that there’s going to be no direct handover period, the new member of staff has been able to come in and shadow my departing colleague for a period of time beforehand, so they’ll be able to start with a good grasp of the basics of the role.Which is going to be a HUGE help, because I’ve not really had enough time to learn both roles fully. My new colleague having a head start on the role is going to be very helpful!

In the meantime, I’ll be “learning through doing”…ultimately responsible for the duties of both roles being performed properly, and training my new colleague on the role. Again, however, this is a good opportunity – it’ll enable me to look at both roles, and see how I want them to work, now that I know how mine works from experience. I’ll be looking at desk rotas, enquiry spreadsheets, communal resources folder management, and all sorts of little bits and pieces that could easily continue the way they are, but I’d prefer they were done differently.

So, if anyone has any top tips on how two staff with one enquiry desk can best balance their time, let me know! And if you see me huddled in a corner somewhere over the next few months…take pity on me, and bring me Sour Cream and Chive Pringles, and some Irn Bru?

Another year, another new start

As 2014 changes into 2015, my employment will be changing too, as I’ll shortly be starting another role in a new workplace.

Unfortunately, in October last year my previous employer went into administration, and although it was quickly bought out of administration by another law firm, there weren’t any roles available for the library staff at the new firm. So it was time to launch into the job hunt again! I have the dubious honour of being the only person to have worked for the only two law firms in Scotland to go into administration, and at one point it was suggested to me that I could make a career out of approaching all the remaining firms and asking them to pay me not to work for them… 😉 I did think that once again, I would have to leave the legal sector to find employment, but some fortunate timings mean that I will be staying in the sector, although I will be moving away from working directly with solicitors. My new role is also a permanent one, and as stable as any job can be, which should hopefully mean that I can permanently retire my job hunting spreadsheet and recruitment site search terms!

So, what will I be doing for the rest of 2015? Getting to grips with my new role. Getting to know the people I’ll be working with, and for. Learning more about criminal law (I’ve been told this should be relatively simple in comparison to civil law, but we’ll see….). Finding out what role-specific groups I should be involved in, and what events I should be attending. Working out what sort of things I can do to improve the service (I’ve already muttered about investigating iPads/tablets ) and what new tools could be useful for the users. Being on best behaviour during my 6 month probation. Wondering if I’ll be allowed to have a fish tank on my desk….

The prospect is simultaneously both quite exciting, and quite scary – it’s more responsibility than I’ve ever had before, but I’m ready to go in and librarian my ass off! 😀

Onwards and upwards!

Reinventing the wheel

I noticed an advert on the TV during the summer, and while watching it, I found myself becoming increasingly more irritated by its content as it went on. Then, not long after that, I saw another advert along the same lines, for the same group. I was reminded of my reaction to viewing those adverts last weekend, when I attended Library Camp Glasgow. One of the sessions I took part in covered advocacy, and what can we do to better promote the profession. The existence of these adverts is evidence of, to me, why we need to continue to work hard to show the wider public that “librarian” does not (and never has) equal “timid person who stamps books and says shhhh a lot”.

So, this is one of the adverts that so annoyed me, for Barclays Digital Eagles:

Now, I’m not disputing the fact that the concept is great: Barclays are funding people specifically to assist those who don’t have the skills needed to make full use of the internet, and the many opportunities it offers. This is an excellent thing to be doing, and will certainly help those that most need support to get online. It’s fabulous, and a great thing for Barclays to fund!

But this is where I get frustrated with the initiative. Did nobody at Barclays realise that an infrastructure to support these activities, and experienced staff were already available…in public libraries? Is there such a low awareness of what public libraries offer that not one single person involved in this campaign at any point stopped to think “Hey, you know what? Rather than reinventing the wheel…why don’t we provide the funding to public libraries to allow them to have a dedicated information skills member of staff to be a Digital Eagle? We’d still get the excellent PR of our name being associated with something that’s being done for the good of others, but we wouldn’t have the problems of creating a whole new system, and having to make space in our branches for this initiative.”

Nope. This idea didn’t occur to anyone, apparently.

I can understand that there’s probably an element of a corporate desire to get people into the Barclays branches, in order to eventually persuade them to become Barclays customers, but surely the conversion rate of “came in to be shown how to use a computer” to “being suddenly inspired to switch bank accounts” must be so low that the cost of the areas being used for Digital Eagles activities must far outweigh the commercial benefit?

The coverage and reach of this service certainly isn’t anywhere near as good as the public library service – if I wanted to go to one of their “Tea and Teach” sessions, I’d need to go to…Aberdeen. That’s the only place in Scotland that provides this service. There was an event there on the 6th of November, held between 10am and 3pm, which as a working adult, means that the Digital Eagles service and support is totally unavailable to me. Yet if I wanted to pick up computer skills via a public library, I could go to Edinburgh City Libraries, and use their Adult Learner facilities, which include an online computer skills programme. Library staff would be on hand during evenings and the weekend to assist me to get access to these resources, so I could fit in access around my working life. Unfortunately, the public library staff available to help me don’t have the time or resources to give the more intensive support I’d need as a person with minimal or no computer skills. Surely this is where the Digital Eagles should be: where people are already going, looking for help? The public library is where the public are used to coming for assistance with a wide range of information needs, and although library staff are not there to teach information skills, they nonetheless do end up squeezing them into their days, as an unpaid, unofficial additional responsibility. It would have been far more effective, in both cost and PR terms, to have given the funding used for the Digital Eagles programme to local authorities, ring fenced to be used to fund equivalent roles, in public libraries.

So Barclays: your Digital Eagles are a good idea, but wouldn’t they be an even better idea if they were in libraries?