When mentoring malfunctions

Mentoring’s one of the standard activities that you’ll come across in the information profession. We’re very caring and sharing like that, wanting to support people in their professional development.

As you start your career as an information professional, you’ll regularly hear the advice: get a mentor.
Or, as you advance in your career and seem to be doing well, you’ll be advised to become a mentor.

This is fine: yes, both being mentored and being a mentor can be excellent relationships, and very useful for both parties involved. But…..mentoring relationships are like any other relationships: they can go wrong. And they can go wrong in a whole lot of ways.

I’ve heard of mentors and mentees whose relationships have malfunctioned due to mismanagement, wrong focus, disinterest, and inappropriate behaviour. Like any other relationship, bullying and abuse can happen in mentor/mentee arrangements, but it can be very difficult for the participants to escape the relationship.

However, this seems to be the side of mentoring that isn’t ever discussed. There’s plenty of guidance and information out there to help you with finding a mentor, or to help you to get involved as a mentor, and to tell you how positive a relationship it will be. But there seems to be no guidance for when either the mentor or mentee want to go their separate ways. There’s also no discussion (other than in whispered asides, or confidential chats with trusted contacts) that identifies those participants in mentoring relationships who should really not be allowed to participate in any others due to their actions. This can leave those who’re stuck in a bad relationship feeling that it’s their fault that it’s not working, as it seems to work well for everyone else.

So, what are your options if, as a mentor or mentee, your relationship isn’t working? Well…you can confront the person causing the problems, and get the issues out into the open. That might work, but it might also blow up in your face, and cause all sorts of further problems. So it doesn’t seem that direct confrontation is the best way to manage failing relationships. Additionally, if you’re a mentee you’re often in a position of vulnerability – your mentor is likely to be further advanced in their career, has a lot of professional contacts, and will be well respected. You might feel you won’t be believed if you tell anyone about the issues. As a mentor, you may feel that others will think you’ve let down your mentee if the relationship isn’t working, and it could impact on your professional standing.

I don’t have a solution for this problem, but please feel free to leave comments and make suggestions of your own. Have you been in a bad mentoring relationship yourself? What would you suggest could help when problems arise? Do we need more involvement from professional mentoring scheme arrangers, maybe by creating compulsory review points during mentoring arrangements, when participants can step back from/leave the relationship, with no explanation needed? Should there be some professional penalty for abuse of mentoring schemes? Should there be a whistleblowing option for these schemes, so vulnerable participants can flag up the actions of the other participant, and trigger a review from the scheme arranger?

How can participants in mentoring relationships get out of them when they go wrong, and how can people who are acting inappropriately in a variety of ways in mentoring relationships be prevented from continuing to do damage?

LinkedIn dating

After receiving yet another LinkedIn contact request from a complete stranger (with the accompanying over-eager email from LinkedIn a few days later, saying “hey, this connection request is still waiting!!), I asked friends on Twitter:

Why do people ask to connect on LinkedIn when they don’t know you, and have never met you?

There was a variety of responses from people about their reaction to these requests, but the majority response was definitely one of annoyance. In the end, I came to the conclusion that interactions on LinkedIn are a lot like dating.

Now, having had my fair share of dates and dating-related interactions both online and in person, I thought I’d help out by giving a couple of etiquette tips for LinkedIn, and also for life generally (and dating).
  • If you want to get to know me, spend some time on it
So many times on LinkedIn, I get a generic “X wants to connect” request. No information about why they think they’d like to connect with me, and no clue about what it is that they think we should connect for. Now, on a dating site, that generic contact (in that case, usually a message that just says “hey”, “hi” or hello”) is a big red flag. It means you’ve looked at something superficial, and decided you want to have it. On dating sites, it’s only my photo you’ve looked at. On LinkedIn, it’s my job title. In either place, that type of no-content contact just gets immediately deleted rather than acted on, because you’ve given me no reason to pay you any more attention on first look at your request than you paid me when you looked at my profile…if you even went as far as looking at my full profile, rather than just the eye-catching bit of the photos/title. 
Moral: If you want to connect with me, tell me why.

  • Nobody wants to be part of a cult

One of the commonalities with these LinkedIn invites is that the person asking to connect with me usually seems to be just gathering numbers of connections in an attempt to look well-connected and important, often because they’re job hunting, or “seeking new opportunities”. The other people who like to gather lots of people to look important are…cult leaders. And I ain’t willing to go live in a bunker. Or connect with people who just want to gather a lot of meaningless connections in an attempt to look import. Those connections don’t actually translate into useful professional relationships, and are therefore pretty damn meaningless.

Moral: Develop some sort of relationship with your contacts, don’t just gather them as if they were possessions.

Tenuous dating analogies aside, there is a point to this post. Honest!. 
The point is that if you’re going to be using it, you really do need to be aware of what you’re doing on LinkedIn, and understand what you want to get from it. Do you want to develop a network of proper, meaningful professional connections who’re happy to be linked to you, or a sprawling and meaningless guddle of strangers and semi-strangers who won’t ever assist you because they don’t actually know you? LinkedIn itself says this about connection requests:
We strongly recommend that you only accept invitations to connect from people you know.
So by extension, if you shouldn’t accept invitations from people you don’t know, you shouldn’t be sending them to people you don’t know either!

In the Twitter discussions about our feelings about  LinkedIn requests received from complete strangers, one friend was an exception, and said that she was quite happy to be invited by random people to connect on LinkedIn. There’s a good reason for this though – this friend manages an events venue and professional society, so she’s happy to be able to expand her pool of contacts in this way, as each new contact could be for the potential benefit of her employer. However, myself and another librarian find these contacts from totally unknown people to be intrusive and timewasting – we have to spend time to try and figure out if we know the requester in real life, on social media (perhaps under a different name/username), or through other personal or professional contacts (both in real life, and checking by looking at the LinkedIn 1st and 2nd level connections visualisations), in order to make a decision on whether this is someone we’re happy to connect with. As we work for a public sector body and a private commercial law firm, connecting with complete strangers is of no real benefit to us or our employer, and doing this checking just wastes our time. And timewasting means we get annoyed, refuse the request, and remember that the person asking to connect had been acting inappropriately. Making people annoyed with you, and remembering your name as someone who acts inappropriately online is not really a good thing!

Part of the problem here is the design of LinkedIn itself, which despite saying you should only connect with people if you know them, makes sure you can ask to connect with people that you don’t know. It’s unfortunately set up to make requesting connections with people to quick, easy and impersonal from certain parts of the site, e.g. at the point when you’ve just accepted a connection request, it loads a page that only requires you to click on a person’s image when they’re displayed as part of a “you might want to connect with these people” option in order to ask to connect with them. This means those people get a non-personalised, random email saying you want to connect. The only situation where it’s ok to do this is when you do actually have some sort of connection to those people, at a level where they won’t need you to explain who you are, and why you want to connect with them. You could justifiably use this option when connecting with a past or current work colleague, or other people you may know, if you already have some sort of contact or relationship with them.

Otherwise, if you want to use LinkedIn in an real, professional manner to develop your professional network, I’d suggest you avoid using that quick-and-easy-and-annoying connection request option to mass spam strangers, and restrict your connection requests to people you’ve already met in some form, whether in person or online. If nothing else, by doing that you’ll at least avoid aggravating a lot of people you don’t even know!

The legal forger

I’d never heard of the prolific forger “Antique” Smith before I saw the email notification about the talk on him from the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. But I like archives, and history, and the fact there was a legal case that arose from it meant it sounded like an interesting outing. So last night I went along to the National Library of Scotland, where this talk was being hosted.

So, what did I learn? Mr Alexander Howland “Antique” Smith had quite a busy time of it between 1887 and 1893, churning out at least 500+ known (at a conservative estimate) forged manuscripts and letters attributed to a wide variety of well known people over all sorts of time periods. However, he seems to have had a particular liking for Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott….or maybe they were just more saleable items!

He was trained as a law clerk, in the firm of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS, and it seems that old legal documents stored in the firm may have been the early source for paper for his initial fakes. Apparently, the skills he would have learned in this role would also have been just what he needed to become a good forger – patience when drafting and copying lengthy documents, and attention to detail when drafting. Although he needed to pay a bit more attention to detail than he did in the end!

He was a very prolific forger, and used the flyleafs of period books bought secondhand as the basic material for his documents. He used various techniques to age them, including dipping them in weak tea, and rubbing dirt into creases to give the appearance of age, especially in areas where they would have been expected to be folded and refolded over the years. However, he was somewhat lacking on real attention to detail, and his forgeries were riddled with problems.

In the case of his forgeries of Scott’s letters, it was noted that his way of folding the letters he made differed from the way Scott would have folded them. Letters were regularly noted as being from specific locations, often some time after the real writer had moved away, e.g. Robert Burns apparently wrote a letter from a home he’d left a year before. One person wrote a letter, despite having been mortally wounded in a famous battle the day before. Cromwell wrote while in another city to the people who were be in charge of Glasgow, telling them to maintain order…but at that time, he was in Glasgow himself. Written materials which would not normally be signed, e.g. memos, had signatures attached, purely because it would make the letter more valuable. The paper he was writing many of his fakes on had a bluish tint, like the paper used for legal documents, rather than normal writing paper. He used modern (in the 1880s) pens and ink, there was no attempt to try and match the writing materials of the appropriate time periods. He would work around wormholes in old paper, giving the impression that the worms must have been considerate animals indeed. And his attempts at actually matching the handwriting, although probably informed by having seen some samples of the real writer’s style, were not hugely successful. Although in the case of Robert Burns, his own handwriting did vary with time…and drink!

Quite a catalogue of ineptitude!

Despite all this, he still managed to sell a lot of forgeries to a lot of people. There were a variety of wrangles prior to him being discovered as the creator of the forgeries. They related to manuscript collectors who had been defrauded, concerns about the honesty of the alleged document experts who had somehow vouched for the authenticity of these shoddy copies, charges brought in the Sheriff Court against Smith of theft/fraud (he was found not guilty), a case raised in the Court of Session in 1891 against a seller of some of the fake documents (the pursuer eventually instructed his law agents to drop the action, so it didn’t progress), and requests to have the disputed documents assessed by staff at the Faculty of Advocates to check their authenticity (an offer which the document expert refused to take up), he was identified as the originator of the flood of fake documents which had suddenly appeared on the collector’s market.

He was brought in front of the Court of Session in June 1893, on 4 charges relating to pretending to various booksellers and pawnbrokers that false documents were genuine. There were 98 examples of his work gathered as evidence against him, and together with the existence of his forgery hut/summerhouse (with its contents of pens, inks and books on copying handwriting) and the testimony of the many witnesses who had bought from him or seen him with a large volume of old documents, unsurprisingly he was found guilty on all charges. The recommendation from the jury was for leniency, so instead of penal servitude, he was sentenced to a year in prison. After he served this, he mostly drops out of history.

The irony is that, despite not being very good forgeries, Antique Smith’s fakes are now collectable items in their own right. To this day, they’re still being uncovered in archive collections around the world, have appeared listed as genuine in auction listings (although identified and removed from sale before the actual auction), and many more may lurk in the collections of notable families who kept quiet at the time of the trial, not wanting to admit that they’d been duped. However, if they were discovered now, the forgeries would be left physically untouched, with careful cataloguing demonstrating their provenance as forgeries. Unlike the examples we were shown from historic collections, which were gleefully marked repeatedly by some long-gone document manager with purple stamps saying “SPURIOUS”!

Outside, there were examples of original letters by Burns and Scott, and Antique Smith’s forgeries of these two author’s hands…I decided against testing my fake spotting skills though!

Your guess is as good as mine

Of course, what I want to do today is start looking in the Session Cases and see if it’s a reported case….

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.

Book basics

Recently, I bought one of those Ladybird parody books – what life wouldn’t be enhanced by learning about shed usage? However, this copy came with a slight design flaw. Can you spot it?

Did you see it? Unfortunately, this slight flaw meant I needed to make a trip back to the bookshop to return it, and swap it for a book that worked as a…well…book! *sigh*

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!

Who supports the support staff?

Sadly, it looks 99% certain that yet another mid-level Scots law firm has succumbed to the pressures of the legal market, and will be entering administration, before being sold off in a pre-pack arrangement to a law firm, or firms.

I have the dubious honour of being the only person who’s worked for both the Scottish law firms that have gone into administration in the past two years, one of which collapsed and one of which was sold in a pre-pack deal. I think, therefore, that makes me fairly well qualified to make some predictions about what will happen next in this process, and who will suffer.*

In this case, the original firm, or parts of it, is being rescued by another firm. The first thing that will happen is that the partners will soon start making their moves over to other firms that they’ve been negotiating with in the background. If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to take some of the staff in their fee-earning teams along with them. What they’re almost guaranteed to be unable to do though, is to take any of the support staff of the collapsing firm with them, unless there are already pre-existing vacancies for their skills in the new firm. So most or all of those support staff in the original firm will be made unemployed.

If the firm collapses rather than merges, the solicitors will have access to the excellent support (both financially, via access to hardship funds, and professionally via access to training courses) of their professional body, the Law Society of Scotland.

The clients are also protected by the Master Policy, and various structures that are in place to protect them and their interests in case of an extreme event like insolvency.

But what help do the support staff have?

In law firms, the term “support staff” covers a wide range of staff: HR, General Office/admin, IT, reception, secretarial support, and, of course, library services. Some of these staff may have a professional body that they could be members of that will support them during life-changing events like sudden and unexpected redundancy. However, most of them don’t. That means there are a lot of staff who, if made redundant, have no support. No organisation with hardship funds. No access to retraining or skills development opportunities. They’re left to make the best of a bad situation, all on their own.

Additionally, if there has been any misconduct by the firm management, the Law Society actually won’t investigate the issue themselves, they await the complaints of members of the public, despite having the power to initiate an investigation. And what member of support staff, who wants to continue working in an industry where the fee earning staff have the power, would start such a complaint, and ruin any chance of being employed in a law firm again?

Some people, when I explain how unsupported these staff are in law firms, say “well, you should join a union!” This is only ever said by people outside the legal sector, that have no understanding of the fact that law firms do NOT like their staff to have this sort of representation, or the ability to defend themselves from possible management manipulation. No law firm I’ve knowledge of recognises the existence of unions for their staff, or would engage with one which tried to represent support staff. Joining a union is not the answer.

Despite all of the problems and stresses that the support staff go through during the administration and merger process, despite the fact that they are the ones that bear the brunt of all the compulsory or “voluntary” redundancies that firms, these are the staff that are never, ever mentioned in the legal press. The Law Society quotes statistics on the re-employment levels of staff after redundancy, but the staff they are referring to in those statistics are the fee earners. If asked about the statistics on re-employment of support staff however, they say they’ve not been given those figures. More to the point, they’ve not been interested enough to find out about those figures – support staff are irrelevant to them. Also, all the legal news providers, apart from Roll on Friday, have ignored the situations that support staff have been left in when law firms go into administration, and how many of them may remain unemployed or be forced to leave the legal sector after events such as this. For them, support staff are totally irrelevant too.
So when you read those legal news stories, saying how terribly the fee earners are suffering when firms merge and go into administration…try and remember that the support staff are suffering too.
The only difference is, the support staff have no-one to speak up for, or look after, them.

*I don’t blame most of the staff at my former firms for what happened – many fought hard to protect their staff, but they could only do so much when they had little power to change things.