On the path from art history and elementary education to law school and then becoming the first professional librarian at a firm that’s now global, a variety of inspirations and insights have helped Judy Harris thrive while fostering the success of her team.
Judy is now chief library and research services officer at the global firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP. We recently interviewed her to learn more about her decisions, her path, the challenges her team tackles today and the guidance she shares to help others thrive.
We hope you enjoy her story. We plan to publish more information professional leadership insights and inspirations in 2019.
Q1: What inspired you to pursue a career in the information professional field?
I graduated with a double major in art history and elementary education. I quickly realized I didn’t want to do either of those things forever. So I found out about this thing called a master’s in library science. What I liked about it was the idea that you could work in lots of different settings and have lots of different options. So that’s why I ended up getting my master’s degree in library science from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.
Right after I graduated there was an opening at Washington University’s law library for a reference librarian. I knew nothing about that work, but fortunately the director was willing to take a chance on me. It was a lot of on-the-job training, but I knew I had fallen into something I really enjoyed.
“While I was working at the court, I decided it might be fun to go to law school. I don’t know what possessed me to think it was going to be fun. But that’s what I did. It was a good experience for me.”
Chief Library and Research Services Officer, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP
Q2: Tell us about your path from reference librarian to law school to a large firm.
At Washington University’s law library, I worked with a great group of colleagues. They gave me a wealth of information. It was a good training ground for my next job, which was at the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit library.
While I was working at the court, I decided it might be fun to go to law school. I don’t know what possessed me to think it was going to be fun. But that’s what I did. It was a good experience for me. I knew I probably wanted to stay in the law library business, so I didn’t feel like I was competing with anyone except for myself. So that helped with the stress levels.
And then literally the week after I graduated, I got a job with Bryan Cave, which later became Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Except for a brief hiatus several years later, I have been at this firm ever since.
Q3: What’s the most challenging part of being a library and research services officer today?
Several areas are especially challenging.
Keeping up with technology and practice tools has certainly been a very challenging part of my position.
We are now an expanded team since combining with a UK-based firm. Keeping everyone engaged and talking to each other involves interacting within the larger library team and also with other departments across the firm in the U.S. and the UK. But I have to say, the combined teams have stepped up to the plate and are working very well together.
More focus on strategizing—aligning library strategies with what the firm wants to accomplish—is also a challenge.
Q4: How have the responsibilities of your staff changed over the past couple years?
Local to global: We have moved from locally centric service to global service. That has involved replacing some of the face-to-face interaction with phone and email interaction. While there are advantages to face-to-face, it’s great to communicate differently, and we are interacting with people we normally would not have interacted with before in many different offices.
Skills and technology: The need to maintain great skills for research using new technology is a constant in this field, and I think it’s much more fast and furious than in years past.
Client due diligence and business development: One thing that has definitely changed for us is that we do new client due diligence research—something we started about six years ago. We are doing research on every new client that comes through the door. There’s also been an uptick in marketing and business development research, as well as business research.
Business development and innovation: We also interact with an innovation team. We participate in a lot of testing with practice tools. This involves evaluating in-house and third-party vendor tools—even partnering with vendors to make existing tools better.
Q5: What kind of strategy work is your team doing?
We’re now part of the knowledge management umbrella. That has presented a lot of opportunities to mesh internal and external products and services. And we have a whole bevy of people and resources we didn’t have before. With our combined teams, we have created broad strategic initiatives in the Library and Research Services Department—aligning ourselves with the knowledge management team and with the overall strategic goals of the firm.
Each team has co-leaders from my staff and about half a dozen members. The teams are working on about 25 projects, all aligning with broader firm goals.
Five broad strategic initiatives
“Managing change is challenging … I think just making better choices with our time really takes it a long way. I encourage everyone to take time off the research desk. We don’t have specific times when people are on the desk. They just grab requests as they come in. But I do ask people to take chunks of time and ‘get off the research trail’ for a while to work on other proactive projects.”
Q6: How do you manage so much change?
Those are big changes for everyone. Not only are they doing what they have to do on a day-to-day basis, but every single member of the team is now also involved in one or more of these strategic initiatives.
Managing change is challenging … I think just making better choices with our time really takes it a long way. I encourage everyone to take time off the research desk. We don’t have specific times when people are on the desk. They just grab requests as they come in. But I do ask people to take chunks of time and “get off the research trail” for a while to work on other proactive projects.
One thing that I think has helped is picking folks to lead those teams who truly have a clear vision of what we are trying to accomplish. Their enthusiasm for getting these initiatives off the ground is pretty contagious.
Q7: What work accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
I think my proudest accomplishment is having assembled a very strong and cohesive team. I don’t feel that there is really any competition or egotistical behavior. Everyone keeps the ultimate goal in mind—which is getting the best information to the right people at their point of need and doing that in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.
Q8: How would you like to see your team members develop?
I hope they will continue to be high performers, keep that thirst for knowledge, become experts on new tools, continue to read up on what’s going on in the industry and bring things to the table. I certainly don’t have all the answers … I depend on the feedback from both my senior people and from every other member of the team. I believe that input is crucial.
Q9: What hobbies or interests outside the law firm help you stay balanced?
I like hiking and walking—exercising to relieve stress—and spending time with my friends and family. We also enjoy traveling … going back to a few places like Jackson Hole, Santa Fe and Chicago, and experiencing new places.
I also love reading—what librarian doesn’t? One of my favorites is a book called Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It’s fun and touching and well written. It’s one of those stories that goes into all these different directions and ties up really beautifully at the end. I also love going to the movies—that is a favorite weekend pastime.
Q10: What piece of advice would you give to those who are new to the legal librarian profession?
I would say, stay in engaged, be proactive—not just learning the current trends and what’s going on in the field, but take advantage of people, and network. Make sure you have a support system that can help you. Librarians are great sharers. Taking advantage of that is one of the joys of the profession.
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