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I am working on my communication: when to speak up and when to shut up. I can get a message across and communicate information. But I know that there are times that I could be more…politic, shall we say…when I am communicating. One of the things I find challenging is feeling as though the wrong lesson is being learned and how to derail the conventional wisdom that underlies it.
Sometimes the answer is to use data. It is often where I go first when I’m thinking about persuasive discussions. But I have experienced a lot of resistance in the legal profession to data. This is magnified when we have survey research that claims X based on 50 lawyers or 100 big law firms and extrapolates it out to the profession. Then there’s the natural advocacy born of law school, which brings skepticism to numbers, perhaps particularly when the lawyers don’t understand numbers. A mixture of “lies, damn lies, and statistics” and the bias that expertise in one area ensures expertise in many areas.
One particular stumbling block seems to be understanding sample size. One survey I worked on returned 1,200 lawyer responses in a pool of 20,000. But decision-makers focused on the 1,200 as a too-low percentage, rather than understanding that a sample can be representative without being a proportional percentage. This led to discounting survey information that struck me as having a lot of value.
What do you do when you either lack data and are struggling merely with anecdata and individual perspective? It’s a lot harder for me, particularly if the discussion is a loop that I have already traveled once or more.
On the one hand, a director’s answer is easy: no. But these are often relationships that the law library may want to maintain, whether because we do cross-referrals, or because there are political reasons. A bald no can make the other side think you’re just ignoring their needs or ideas (not a team player) when, in fact, you’re hearing them clearly and are just extremely skeptical.
Here’s an example.
Put The Lime In The Coconut
I had a conversation with another non-profit who was facing a similar challenge to our law library: how to increase foot traffic, which was seen as a way to secure greater long term engagement. This is a familiar issue for law libraries. How can you be deemed successful if your foot traffic is dropping? Isn’t that a value measure?
It isn’t, it’s an access measure. But let’s put that aside for a moment. The benefit of foot traffic outside law libraries is brand loyalty. If you can get someone to get into your business on a regular basis and give them a satisfying outcome, they may keep coming in. Somewhere between commercial business and law libraries, membership associations live based on their ability to keep members. It is one thing to create resources that a potential member wants. It is another to ensure that those resources are actually used and become things that encourage membership retention.
Public law library foot traffic is almost always about churn, not brand loyalty. In the not too distant past, it may have been more reflective of value, when a law library may have been mostly or entirely used by legal professionals. But courthouse law libraries are decades away from that. The people who come through our doors are probably not wanting to become repeat customers.
The non-profit colleague pitched me an idea: why not put law library terminals or staff in the non-profit’s location? It would be pitched as a resource to the non-profit’s audience—subscribers who paid a fee for the non-profit’s resources—and would generate the foot traffic that the non-profit had deemed a value measure for themselves.
Alarm bells should be going off. There are definitely reasons for a law library to focus on physical locations for access. This is especially true when you can place law library resources in a space that already has strong foot traffic and where that foot traffic is unlikely to go to the law library’s location.
But this sort of arrangement raises a couple of issues. First, there is no evidence that a law library investment in this non-profit’s space will achieve the desired outcome. If law library resources had been available, and then disappeared and caused a foot traffic loss, then bringing them back might make sense. But it is a risky investment when you’re guessing at whether it will achieve foot traffic gains for the non-profit. In this case, and I expect in most of these sorts of conceptual approaches, the law library was going to pay the freight, not the non-profit. The gift of the space was their contribution to the project.
I also came away with the sense that they were relying on a perspective that was once prevalent in law libraries, that centered the space over the mission. This antiquated view elevated the value of space in their planning in ways that law libraries have probably stopped doing. If anything, it suggested that they were trying to find ways to justify maintenance of their space rather than perhaps being open to the idea that their space wasn’t a draw for their organization any longer.
Law libraries have figured that out. Websites, remote access commercial databases, virtual reference using chat or email, online education. All of these focus on creating service value without reference to a physical space.
I was able to explain how it didn’t work for our own strategic direction, but this is a conversation I’ve had more than once. It often centers around something the potential partner has always done and is not yet prepared to stop doing. The law library’s participation is an attempt to appeal to a historical value, without any data to justify success.
We Don’t Know How We Got Here
I was sitting in another meeting and listening to a group of volunteers who had been working on a project for many years. They were discussing their success at growing the project and potential changes to continue to grow. No one needed anything in particular from me, I was just there to provide advice.
The project had grown over time and what had been a simple activity with a single event had grown to be something that had multiple events. This obviously created more work for the volunteers and there was some discussion about dialing it back to a single event again, and how to do that while still maintaining growing attendance.
One perception that was shared was that the growth was tied to the multiple events. Each event brought its own small audience. So the cumulative impact of multiple events was a larger audience. And, naturally from that perspective, eliminating any events would automatically drop the audience as one group stopped attending.
If you’ve ever planned a conference, then you probably are thinking the same thing I was. An audience isn’t necessarily tied to the number of events available to it. If that was the case, the only way to grow a conference attendance number would be to make the conference bigger and bigger.
What most conferences do is to focus on higher quality presentations, fewer but better known speakers, that sort of thing. The assumption isn’t that more is better but that higher quality can attract larger numbers. You can absolutely cut back on the diversity of activities (like conference presentations) to the detriment of your attendance numbers, but I don’t think the math is that simple.
In this case, there are really good examples of other projects by other groups that operate more simply and have far larger audiences. It would require some repositioning and new outreach but not more work. It wouldn’t even require changing the project’s fundamentals.
I stayed quiet as I’ve already chimed in on this issue with little effect. I think the project could grow substantially larger and return to being a simpler activity. And I think a number of the volunteers had heard me. But it would require the project to take an approach they had not done in the past. And it flies in the face of their received wisdom about how to be successful on this project. It would not be how it had been done in the past and would require an evolution in approach.
One group communication component that I struggle with is when everyone goes along with an idea. Are they agreeing? Or are they acquiescing because disagreeing is more work? I think we all make lots of small choices about what’s worth engaging on and what’s not. I’m fine with consensus but I worry about people’s silence because they don’t feel as though they’ll be heard.
I took my continued invitation to participate as a good sign. But I also am biding my time, to speak up again when I think the group is receptive and are ready to hear me reiterate things I’ve mentioned in the past. I do not like being repetitive or especially being directive and it’s particularly a losing approach when all you’ve got is persuasion on your side. I also realize that that opening may never occur. This group may accept that more work and complexity is the approach they prefer, when simplification poses unknown results.
The hardest part is that I want both that non-profit and this project to be successful. I just don’t have a good feel for how I can help beyond what I’ve done so far. The people involved in those projects need to be open to new perspectives themselves for me to have an impact. And if they aren’t (yet), then they will end up following a path that differs from the one I would have been able to help them on. Not a worse path, but one where they remain constrained in ways they don’t have to be.
I’m always grateful for these conversations. They’re opportunities for me to stretch, to practice with friction that I may not experience as a director. This is particularly true when you are used to working with data or prodding at concepts a lot before accepting them, to make sure they make strategic sense.