Navigating a Career in Law Librarianship
Victoria De La Torre; Clanitra Stewart Nejdl; and Marcelo Rodriguez
Whether you got your first job or are about to embark upon a new job in a different institution or area, navigating your career goals should always be at the top of your priorities. Starting a new career or even considering one may, at times, feel daunting or too risky. The authors in this chapter aim to provide a few suggestions, tips, advice, and expertise on how to navigate your goals when working in three specific law librarianship cohorts: government, law firms, and academia. Based on their professional experiences, the authors strive to shed some light on the numerous considerations, implications, or issues you should also keep in mind when navigating these groups.
- Government, private or academic law institutions all have unique dynamics to be aware of.
- It is important to match your career goals to the expectations for government, private and academic law librarians.
- There are skills and experiences that prove to be essential when changing jobs.
Careers in Government Law Librarianship
Landing Your First Job as a Government or Court Librarian
The significant amount of laws, statutes, regulations, policies, and guidelines make the government an ideal place for work for any law librarian. Be it federal, state, county, or city levels, government law librarians have an insider’s knowledge on how the government works, how a bill is passed, how the law gets amended, and the regulations and policies percolating from statutes and laws. Because of our expertise and interest in the law, most law librarians working in the government tend to work in the judicial system. However, other law librarians do find themselves working in other government agencies such as presidential offices, governor’s offices, Federal or State congresses, legislatures, staff attorneys, public libraries, etc. Suffice it to say that anywhere in the government where there is a need to compile, preserve, access, and analyze legal information, chances are that there is a law librarian in its midst.
If you find yourself working as a government law librarian in a courthouse, it is essential to become acquainted with the judicial system that pertains to your jurisdiction. Your understanding of the judicial process will allow you to understand better the components and people involved in the different steps and their goals and needs. The more familiar you are with the legal process in your jurisdictions, the better equipped you will be when interacting with potential users and their questions and services they might request.
Basic knowledge of other legal processes should not be discarded even when it does not pertain to your job directly. For example, residents of New York City are governed by federal and state laws as well as city regulations. Therefore, the capacity to excel at your position will be dramatically increased the more you understand the complexities of different laws and statutes, sometimes at conflict, of utmost concern to your users. Your interest should not be reduced to the laws and regulations that apply to the people in your jurisdiction. A knowledge of neighboring or just other jurisdictions nationally or even internationally may prove to be advantageous in your work. If you are acquainted with or know have to access information in a different jurisdiction, you may be able to provide unique and valuable insight into a specific research question.
Working on Behalf of the Government
When you work for the government, your public service career defines your professional identity. Different levels of ethical and professional regulations, rules, and considerations govern how and to whom you provide library services and which services. As a public civil servant, you represent the government when interacting with others. Generally, public expectations of government officials include trust, transparency, and accountability, among others. Throughout history, these public expectations have become ethical considerations, rules, case law, and statutory guidelines for government employees with consequences that can impact both the employee as well as the institution she/he represents.
If this is your first time working for the government or you moved from federal to state or vice versa, there are numerous sources that can help you understand the ethical and professional standards that you should be aware of since day one. Your local Human Resources (HR) office or representative should be your first source of information. Other places and people to look for further information include your immediate supervisor, your colleagues, especially those with significant institutional memory, your ethical office, your union representative, and many others.
Knowing your ethical and professional standards becomes critical when considering your social media posts, political participation, writings, participation in professional associations, and name just a few examples. When thinking about these potential scenarios is important to keep in mind what you do during and outside working hours and who you are interacting with. As a private citizen, you might be allowed to like, share, comment on social media posts of your favorite political candidate. During working hours, the same acts might be construed as tacit approval or support from the government institution you work for or even the entire government for that particular political candidate. Another example to keep in mind, especially when working in courthouses, is whether you consider fundraising or volunteering for an organization or entity that might become a party or litigant in a case. Given our country’s encompassing and complex legal system, almost all entities we interact with as private citizens might become parties in a case. However, some organizations are more obvious than others, such as legal nonprofits or any entity with an explicit legal goal or section. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive. Whenever in doubt, you should always consult the ethical and professional consideration explicitly governing your government position. It is important to note that a clear disclaimer may help you prevent any potential misunderstanding or confusion when writing or participating in professional organizations.
As a government law librarian, you should always strive to engage in critical librarianship. There is no need to shy away from the pressing and urgent topics that affect our profession and society at large. The purpose of mentioning and clearly understanding your ethical considerations and professional responsibilities as a public civil servant is for you to be aware of the framework in which you can operate. Being able to express your personal ideas, passion and voice might seem limited at times, especially so for those contemplating a promotion or in your first days in your dream job. However, please always keep in mind that silencing your ideas and unique voice does an even greater disservice to our profession and to society at large. Learn from previous cases and the ethical considerations in your position and stand firm both in that knowledge as well as the truth in your conviction and voice.
Multiple Stakeholders Using the Same Public Space
As a government law librarian, you should know that different stakeholders, at times adversarial, will use the same library space and have access to the same research and reference services and virtual and physical collections. It is your duty to be aware of the multiple and disparate goals of these users when using the same space at the same time. Navigating and fulfilling the different goals and needs of these stakeholders will inevitably become a balancing act that will need to consider numerous elements. The needs of your patrons must match your library’s budget, actual space of your library, equipment available, number of staff and their expertise, size of your collection, etc.
To give you an example, court librarians need to be aware of the fact that most court libraries need to accommodate the following users: judges, law clerks, staff attorneys representing different parties, public defenders, researchers, court staff, pro se, etc. As you can immediately notice from these users, they may be adversarial parties or involved in different roles in the same case. As a member of the library providing services to all these patrons, you need to be aware of these potential issues, and as much as possible, you should provide solutions. Some court libraries have assigned private space for the exclusive use of judges as well as their chambers staff. Other court librarians have opted for a separate space designed to accommodate pro se litigants and the public in general, including parts of the collection to which they should have access. One of the most important considerations you should always keep in mind when considering providing unique or “special” services, collections, space for a particular group of users is transparency. Your plan needs to follow any standards which might be available in your government institution as well as others. Please bear in mind that because of your responsibility and accountability to the public, your plans, guidelines, or standards might attract public scrutiny.
The Public as Your Most Important Stakeholder
As a public civil servant, your ultimate stakeholder is the public. Government law librarians, for the most part work in institutions open to the public. This public access poses a significant array of questions that law librarians need to consider when providing reference and research services, access to the collection, and more. Working with the public offers government institutions an opportunity to liaise with the communities they serve closely. Therefore, if you enjoy public services from a law librarian perspective, this should be the perfect track for you. A few of the services public law librarians create for the public are exhibits, events, classes, and civic education programs in general. These community programs place the public law library at the center of an ongoing conversation regarding access to justice.
Careers in Law Firm Librarianship
Landing that first job
The landscape of new hires in Law Firm Librarianship as it stands is filled with frustration. Librarians fresh out of library school with limited to no hands-on legal research experience are often stonewalled from entry-level positions that require either a JD or several years of experience with the major legal research tools. If you already have a JD, finding and earning your first position might be equally challenging because your ability to argue and interpret law does not reflect your ability to research law on a resume. Regardless of your background, entry-level positions with law firms that are willing to take risks on green candidates are often few and far between.
Many law schools across the country offer certificate programs or extra-curricular seminars on legal research methods and techniques. These classes are either offered by the Library or sponsored by it, with the primary instructors holding MLIS degrees. Not all schools are able to make exceptions, but if you reach out and network with different law school librarians in your area, you might be able to audit or partially participate in some of these classes.
Another excellent opportunity to learn about legal research is to join and become an active participant in local or national chapters of professional organizations. The individuals present are often eager to share the knowledge and resources that helped them start in the profession. Earning leadership positions in these organizations shows a tremendous amount of drive, and some law firm libraries are willing to overlook a few missing years of experience for initiative and passion.
When searching for that first position, try to find library directors who have a reputation for hiring “green” candidates or candidates who have limited to no experience. For highly skilled positions like private law librarianship, many directors prefer to hire green candidates because they are able to train the individual from the ground up. To these directors, more seasoned librarians are undesirable because in addition to all the knowledge and experience they bring to the table, they also bring their research habits which are not always useful or appropriate in this new environment. Finding these directors is a challenge, but don’t forget that this community is incredibly tight-knit. Seek out a few informational interviews with active law librarians. If they are well connected, they will quickly point you towards directors who are either hiring or who prefer candidates with experiences like yourself.
Types of goals in your career
A career in Private Law Librarianship is what you make of it. I have known individuals who have been in the same position for over thirty years and are having the time of their lives, in addition to individuals who change jobs every other year and receive just as much satisfaction. One thing is for certain, predicting the type of career you will have is impossible. The only way to ensure stability and upward mobility in this field is to competitively seek opportunities for success outside and inside of your day job. Each of these opportunities, if well-executed, has directly applicable and visible results.
The objective of achieving these extra-curricular goals should be more than building a resume. The challenge with private law librarianship is that very few people know what it is, what purpose it serves, and why it is relevant (even within your own law firm!). Seeking additional opportunities should always be to 1. Better yourself, 2. Better your department, 3. Market yourself, and 4. Market your department.
Speaking, publishing, and teaching courses either in or outside of your firm not only establishes your own credibility but the credibility of your department. Regardless of how mundane the subject might be, I can guarantee that you will receive the feedback of “I didn’t know you did that!” from a colleague in reference to your skillset and day-to-day work.
Establishing this credibility not only solidifies your importance and relevance with your law firm, but it will also open the doors of opportunity to you should you ever decide to embark on a new path.
Especially with Covid-19, law firm libraries are either moving remote or being removed. It is essential now, more than ever, to be adept and knowledgeable about new technologies and technological solutions to the common frustrations of attorneys. This includes finding a balance between serving your patrons who prefer physical texts to those who require everything to be paperless, and it includes justifying expenses to your firm. Even before Covid-19, being laid off from a law firm or watching a ten-person library department dwindle to one is a very real and common occurrence. The best thing you can do for yourself, your department, and your firm is to stay relevant and never stop marketing internally.
Earning typical roles
Reference Librarian: This is the meat and potatoes of the department. This individual will answer research and reference requests on a daily basis. Some of these requests take fewer than 10 minutes, some many, many hours across many more months. Having a JD in this position is certainly useful but not necessary. If you would like to be a reference librarian in a law firm without a JD, it is imperative to show initiative, as outlined earlier in this section, regarding learning legal research tools independently and demonstrating your value in professional organizations.
Materials handlers: This person manages physical materials such as books, cataloging, and the organization of bills, contracts, and other important departmental documentation. A JD is not necessary for this position at all, and an MLIS is seldom required either. This is an excellent stepping-stone position for earning a Librarian role, especially if your supervisor allows you to learn additional skills during the workday.
Electronic services librarians: This is a relatively new role in law libraries that combines several different areas of work. This person can catalog, answer research and reference requests, manage online contracts and departmental documentation, in addition to managing e-resources such as ebooks, mobile devices, and troubleshooting online research platforms or databases. Each law firm library department defines this position differently, but this person works the most closely with the IT department. Earning this position can be a challenge because it requires a balance between knowing legal research tools and knowing the technology itself. While an IT background or a JD background is not necessary, being knowledgeable of both areas is imperative for success.
Director: As the leader of the department, this individual handles all administrative and department managing related responsibilities such as budgeting, advocating on behalf of the department, and ensuring that the department is able to operate. This position often includes negotiating contracts and building vendor relations, but the role varies from firm to firm. To earn the director title, this individual must be willing to “let go” of being a reference librarian in order to handle all of the behind-the-scenes work.
Solo Librarian: This individual is alone in their department and accomplishes all of the tasks listed above in each role. While this is an overwhelming position for most, many enjoy the solitude as an opportunity to drive the “department” in whichever direction they choose, acting as both the captain of the ship and the crew. Having as much experience as possible will benefit you in this role, and it is not recommended for newer librarians.
Above and beyond
Independent projects push the field forward and allow us to contribute our unique knowledge and skillsets to topical conversations, but we must also share this knowledge with our patrons. Often in trying to accomplish work for ourselves outside of our day job, we forget that our clients, our patrons, are those who have the real power to lift us up in our careers. Without our attorneys, we cannot be private law librarians.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: FINDING FULL-TIME EMPLOYMENT
A common career route for new law librarians is to jump from job to job because breaking into a full-time law librarianship career can be immensely challenging. Different factors outside the new candidate’s control, including the state of the economy, the over-saturation of librarians in markets around library schools, and lack of funding for new positions, can all contribute to a dismal job hunt. While living from contract to contract is not ideal for some, this situation could be used to your advantage.
One of the authors of this chapter, Victoria De La Torre, struggled with finding a full-time job after graduating from her MLIS program. Despite becoming the president of local library organization chapters, having excellent referrals, and performing flawlessly in her graduate program, the job market simply was not in her favor. She decided to accept whatever library or archive-related temporary positions she could obtain, without regard for salary or whether the position aligned with her ultimate career goals. She often worked several jobs at once to make ends meet, but she ended up with a more well-rounded resume than competing candidates who had been in the profession for five to ten years.
Even though her ultimate goal was to work in law libraries, Victoria tried to work in varying institutions even if they had nothing to do with legal services. She focuses on law librarianship now, but she has maintained positions in archives and museums as well. The most important quality interviewers search for in a candidate is whether or not they can accomplish the task at hand in a cost- and time-effective manner. Sometimes, a candidate with a more diverse background can tackle problems in unexpected and ingenious ways.
When accepting a new contract, Victoria decided to outline specific relevant skills she would like to learn while in her role and communicated these goals with her supervisor. Supportive managers either helped her work toward those goals or made suggestions about gaining more experience to reach those goals. For example, after discussing a gap in her resume with one supervisor, the supervisor allowed her to split time between different tasks to bolster her career. Further, she sought volunteer opportunities in professional organizations that allowed her to learn more about the field. Victoria took the needed steps to acquire experience in multiple areas.
Few things in life are more challenging than starting a new career. Remember that it is not only possible but commonplace for library and information professionals to find stable and fulfilling work, although it may take time. The fastest way to progress in your career will be to embrace every success and failure as learning opportunities. If you stay positive, network, try new things, and have clear goals, you will succeed.
While completing tasks for attorneys, there is always the opportunity to network and transform the relationship from transactional to personal. When we are able to put a face, a name, and a story to the person providing a service for us, we are more likely to advocate for that person. In addition to networking, providing additional information (and knowing when to stop) will add to your value in your institution. You are then demonstrating that you are not only a pleasant person to work with, but you are also highly skilled and knowledgeable. That individual will be more likely to return to you time and time again for assistance.
A great way to go above and beyond for yourself is to constantly continue searching for jobs. Unless you want to, you don’t need to apply for these jobs, but keep the list of requirements for hire. Job descriptions often list the core competencies along with a wish list of skills they would like to see. If you are able to focus time on achieving skills on these wish lists, you will not only be a competitive candidate for job searches in the future, but you will quickly become eligible for promotions within your job.
Careers in Academic Law Librarianship
Another fulfilling career in law librarianship can be found in academia. Academic law librarians primarily, if not exclusively, focus on the information-related needs of a law school’s faculty and students and may serve in a variety of roles within the law library. Some academic law librarians may teach research-related courses or workshops, while other academic law librarians may provide reference and research assistance to the law library users. Other academic law librarians may assist the members of the law school’s law review or law journals. In contrast, still others may focus on the collections or technical services needs of the law library. In most cases, academic law librarians simultaneously handle a combination of these functions.
While daily life as an academic law librarian can be challenging, it is rarely dull. The variety of activities accompanying academic law librarianship may suit even the most restless of individuals. However, there are several issues to be considered regarding a career in academic law librarianship, including whether to pursue a tenure-track or non-tenure-track position, the opportunities for advancement as an academic law librarian, and the likelihood of obtaining a position as an academic law librarian.
Landing Tenure-Track Positions vs. Non-Tenure-Track Positions
Applicants for academic law librarianship positions will encounter vacancies for positions that are on the tenure track and that are not on the tenure track. Academic law librarians on the tenure track hold faculty status either within the library system, within the law school, or within the university. If a position is on the tenure track, after a set number of years (specified in the offer letter), the law librarian may be awarded tenure. A committee will make the tenure decision of faculty members who have already received tenure at that institution, based on their evaluation of the level and quality of the law librarian’s work in the areas of librarianship, teaching, service, and/or scholarship. Law librarians on the tenure track will be provided with written guidelines detailing their rights and responsibilities under the tenure system. Tenure-track positions involve more extensive professional responsibilities than positions that are not on the tenure track. For example, academic law librarians holding a tenure-track position will usually be required to produce their own scholarship for publication, participate extensively in professional development activities, and serve on law school or library committees, in addition to their regular responsibilities.
The most obvious benefit to a tenure-track position is the job security tenure affords. Once awarded, tenure can mean guaranteed employment for the remainder of the law librarian’s time at that institution if certain criteria continue to be met. This job security is closely tied to academic freedom, which protects faculty regarding teaching, scholarship, and other aspects of life in academia. Additionally, academic law librarians who have faculty status will be able to take part in shared governance, meaning they will be able to participate in decisions affecting the institution. Further, law librarians with faculty status also tend to have higher salaries than law librarians who do not. Finally, holding faculty status is typically considered more prestigious than holding a staff position.
Academic law librarians who are not on the tenure track hold staff positions instead of faculty positions. Not eligible for tenure, law librarians in these positions may receive continuing appointments or may be at-will employees. A continuing appointment or similar contract provides the terms of employment and often includes a presumption that the appointment will be renewed. Law librarians who are at-will employees have no special protections regarding employment other than those provided under law. For most, this makes non-tenure-track positions with continuing appointments or other contractual bases a more attractive option than at-will positions.
There are also some advantages and disadvantages to holding a non-tenure-track position. An obvious disadvantage is the lack of job security associated with non-tenure-track positions. However, non-tenure-track positions tend to have fewer additional requirements beyond librarianship. For example, these academic law librarians may be free of requirements to publish scholarship or to participate in committees and other tasks. Requirements for professional development may also be more limited, which can be a disadvantage to the law librarians in terms of improving skills and making connections within the profession. Further, non-tenure-track positions may be more attractive because of the risk of failing to earn tenure. If tenure is not earned by a law librarian on the tenure track, there is typically an appeals process that the law librarian will be able to initiate. After that process, however, if tenure is still not granted the law librarian will be required to leave the position. For some law librarians, particularly those who are not interested in scholarship or service, the risk of not earning tenure and having to find a new position may not be worth the potential benefits of holding tenure.
It is worth noting that the process for obtaining a non-tenure-track position as an academic law librarian is less prolonged than for tenure-track positions. For a tenure-track position as an academic law librarian, candidates may need to be evaluated by a search committee, have an initial interview, visit the campus for a more extensive in-person interview, and then wait until the search committee for the position checks references and comes to a decision. In some cases, the process for tenure-track academic law librarian positions can take close to a year.i
Landing Your First Position as an Academic Law Librarian
The first step in finding your first academic law librarian position is to review current vacancies. There are many resources advertising current law library vacancies, including the American Association of Law Libraries Career Center and the Special Libraries Association Career Center. Be sure to pay attention to the location of the law library, the salary and benefits associated with the position (if the vacancy contains such information), and the reputation of the law library and law school at which the vacancy exists. Because academic law librarian positions are limited, candidates may need to move to other areas of the country to secure their first position as an academic law librarian.
The next step is to follow the directions for applying for the vacancy closely. In many cases, this will require providing a resumé or curriculum vitae (CV), while in other cases, the candidate must also complete an online employment form provided by the institution. The importance of tailoring your resumé or CV to emphasize your qualifications for the position cannot be understated. Candidates should also prepare a cover letter and a list of references. The cover letter is used to express your interest in the position but should primarily highlight why you are right for the position. The directions may also require the submission of references who can provide information on your skills and abilities, particularly those related to the skill sets needed for the position. Be sure to proofread all documents submitted carefully.
The hiring law library may offer several candidates an interview by phone or via a video conferencing program like Skype. This initial interview will be relatively short and may take place with the entire search committee or specific search committee members. In preparation for the interview, the candidate should research the institution and publications from the law library’s employees, especially the law library director. Candidates should research potential questions that may be asked during the interview process and prepare to answer those questions while including information that shows why they are the best fit for the position. They should also prepare questions to ask of the interviewers that will help determine whether to take the position if it is offered. Many consider it inappropriate to ask about salary during the initial interview, but that asking about benefits is appropriate.
Candidates who are successful in the initial interview may then be invited for a final, in-person interview. The in-person interview process is far more rigorous than the initial interview. The in-person interview usually involves dinner with representatives from the law library the night before the day of the interview and a full-day interview the following day. As part of the interview, the candidates will meet with many individuals in the law school, potentially including the other law librarians, law school faculty members, administrators, and law students. Candidates may also be required to give a presentation, which will allow the search committee to evaluate the candidate’s abilities and suitability for the position. Recognize that the candidates are being assessed for suitability for the position throughout the entire process, from the dinner the night before through the end of the interview day. Therefore, they should comport themselves accordingly and maintain a collegial yet professional demeanor throughout, using every opportunity to share information that shows suitability for the position. As with the initial interview, candidates should have questions prepared to ask during each portion of the interview process.
After the interview, candidates should send thank-you notes to each member of the search committee. These notes can be sent via email or by mail, but cards sent by mail should be sent as soon as possible after the interview. It may take some time, but a candidate will be notified as to whether they have been selected for the position. If the candidate has been selected, an offer will be made that includes relevant details such as the salary, benefits, start date, and other aspects of the position. The candidate should then consider whether to accept the offer or to negotiate the salary or benefits. Once the candidate accepts the offer, it is important to obtain written confirmation of the agreements made.
Opportunities for Advancement in Academic Law Librarianship
Opportunity for advancement is important in any position, and academic law librarianship is no different. Often academic law librarians hired in one position can earn promotion to a higher position within the same law library. However, it is sometimes necessary to move to another institution to advance to a higher position. There are multiple levels within the law library hierarchy between the entry-level position and the highest position in most cases. Such positions include serving as a department head for certain services (e.g., “Head of Reference” or “Head of Technical Services”). Beyond that, positions as “Assistant Director” or “Associate Director” may be available. The requirements for promotion to such positions vary depending on the institution, although for tenure-track positions, those requirements will generally be provided in writing at the time of hiring.
The highest position in the academic law library is that of the law library director. The law library director may or may not be on the tenure track, depending on the institution. Law library directors on the tenure track are typically part of the law faculty and will therefore have teaching-related, scholarship-related, and service-related responsibilities in addition to their administrative responsibilities related to running the Law Library. Law library directors are sometimes also assistant or associate deans within the law schools. Several resources that provide valuable insight into life as a law library director are provided in the endnotes.ii
Moving from One Type of Law Library to Another
Because the library and information sciences skills are so highly transferable, it is not uncommon to see people with varying types of libraries on their resumes or CVs. The time may come when you decide to leave a position in one type of law library for a position in another type of law library. Before you make this transition, you should be aware of a few practical considerations. While the core competencies remain the same between law libraries, the day-to-day expectations and responsibilities may vary.
First, there are financial implications to making a move between public and private institutions. While the salaries for private institutions may generally be more competitive, the long-term employment benefits available at public institutions should not be overlooked. Additionally, court and government law libraries have a mandate to provide services to members of the public, while academic and firm law libraries may limit their services to specific user groups. Therefore, the length and depth of your interactions with patrons may vary depending on your institution. Finally, because work-life balance expectations fluctuate between types of law libraries, be sure to ask questions about hours and workload during the interview process.
With all of this information in mind, remember to keep an open mind when pursuing your career goals. As with other types of careers, there is no one route to a successful career as a law librarian. Law librarians may pursue multiple paths and roles in the course of their careers and may find themselves working in multiple sectors. Given the realities of the economy, the job market, and the changing world of law libraries, circumstances can often direct a career as much as any planning. With adequate preparation and self-reflection, however, a law librarian can forge a career path that is both fulfilling and long-lasting.
- Meadows, Judy. “Trends in Public Law Librarianship.” Trends L. Libr. Mgmt. & Tech. 20 (2010): 9.
- Jennifer S. Murray, “The Zen of Law Librarian Job Interviews: How to Interview for a Job and How to Interview the Job,” Law Library Journal 96, no. 2 (Spring 2004):295-316.
- Sara, Anne. “Public law librarianship: Objectives, challenges and solutions.” (2014): 264-265.
- Selwyn, Laurie, ed. Public Law Librarianship: Objectives, Challenges, and Solutions: Objectives, Challenges, and Solutions. IGI Global, 2012.