Navigating a Career in Law Librarianship


Tina Dumas; Catherine McGuire; and Holly M. Riccio

Professional development is a cornerstone of any successful career in law librarianship. It not only enhances existing knowledge and skills but also facilitates building a solid foundation for future growth. However, when undertaken successfully, it is by no means a spectator sport—legal information professionals need to play an active role in crafting individualized plans to get the most out of associations, publications, conferences, and other professional offerings and volunteer opportunities. Leveraging the broad spectrum of professional development—from venerable professional associations and publications to social media and other 21st-century technology—and finding just the right mix of information and insight can fuel a lifetime of professional success and career fulfillment.

Key Concepts
  • Understand the structure and requirements of your organization and incorporate those into your plan.
  • Play an active role in constructing and re-evaluating your path.
  • Reach outside the standard structure of opportunities to the full spectrum of options.

This chapter will look at professional development through a variety of lenses to illustrate differences and commonalities in both approach and application by library type—academic, private, and government. The authors will take a deep dive into various professional development types, from committee work to conference attendance, from scholarship to social media. This chapter will explain the structure of library and legal organizations and provide insight into how best to navigate the opportunities therein. Lastly, the authors will provide guidance on how to get involved, network, and make the most out of professional development.

Professional Development Perspectives

In this section, the authors will explore professional development from three different perspectives: academic, government, and private law libraries. Requirements, expectations, and opportunities can be different in each environment.  Finding and justifying funding may be an issue, depending on your employer organization. Then, there is the matter of identifying the right professional development opportunities for your work environment and career goals. There are some common tactics to try to mitigate or minimize the cost of professional development opportunities, including the following:

  • Take advantage of online/virtual opportunities that are either made available at no cost or have nominal registration fees.
  • Look for conferences and events put on locally, by your AALL chapter, or other local organizations.
  • Consider volunteering to plan or speak at a conference—while this is no guarantee of receiving funding to attend. It often helps create a stronger, more successful argument for attendance.
  • Identify sources for grants to attend conferences, remembering that these can come not only from the larger entity (e.g., AALL), but also specialized subgroups (e.g., Chapters, Special Interest Sections).
  • Find out what training/learning opportunities your employer makes available, and take advantage of those as appropriate.


Professional development for academic law librarians is often a required part of a position. Unlike private and government libraries, where development is often pursued for purposes of personal choice and preference, for academic staff, professional development, and more specifically publishing, may be required for promotion and advancement purposes. You should know what is required and what support you will be given towards those requirements before you accept a job offer.

Performance review standards in an academic library may include scholarship, service, and teaching. Academic libraries benefit from staff knowledgeable in specific topic areas. For example, in a law school with recognized status in a particular topic area (such as entertainment, environment, or international law), having knowledgeable library staff is necessary. A high level of subject specialty can be fostered through professional development. In addition to augmenting reference provision, subject-specialized staff help increase the strength of collection development, enhance classroom instruction, and improve faculty interactions.

Like other law libraries, staff must be conversant with changing technology, re-evaluate processes, and innovate to meet changing demands in library space, reliance on digital collections, and a growing exploration of non-traditional library services.

Private, Corporate, and Consultants

There are usually no publishing requirements for information professionals working in private law firms, corporate legal departments, and consulting firms, as in academia, but writing articles for a professional publication can be a fulfilling experience, maybe more so without the requirement to produce. Attending professional development events and trainings can enhance job knowledge and provide benchmarking and trend information to an employer for strategic planning purposes.

Funding can be a challenge in any organization. Still, it’s helpful to tie professional development funding requests to revenue or expense savings or, more broadly, to the organization’s mission and goals in the private legal field. Look for educational opportunities that can teach more efficient use of a database or vendor negotiation tactics or tout the potential to discover more cost-efficient databases in the vendor hall.

Government, Courts, and Public

While professional development is equally crucial for law librarians working in and with the government, courts, and the public, effort in this type of setting presents its own set of unique circumstances and challenges. The obvious barrier is often funding, as securing funds in a government setting to attend conferences and other professional development offerings can be hard to do. The first step is to know your institution, the policies and procedures that need to be followed, and what funding sources may be available to you.

For law librarians working with public patrons, there is often an additional need for training that non-law librarian organizations may offer. Look to other entities, such as public libraries and legal services associations, for professional development opportunities focused around many of the soft skills needed when interacting with the public (e.g., communication, conflict resolution).

Professional Development Opportunities

Opportunities for growth and development appear in a multitude of formats, arrangements, and locations. Opportunities can appear in expected or surprisingly serendipitous events. Awareness of the many avenues of possibility will help you recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.


The most obvious and usually first-mentioned opportunity for professional development is through conferences. Conferences can be a single day or across a span of days; can be offered by any professional group with a library relationship (AALL, ABA, SRLN, Partners for Justice, Computers in Libraries); can be national (AALL) or local (Chapter, county bar association). They can be library-related (ALA, SLA), law-related (ABA, bar association), or neither but relevant to the needs of a professional arc (education).

Conferences provide an opportunity to learn through educational sessions. And further, they offer excellent opportunities to network with like-minded members of the same or similar fields. Committee meetings, roundtable discussions, and social events provide ample opportunity to connect with fellow members and discuss opportunities for participation and growth in the profession.

Association Roles

Professional associations generally have a small staff of employees who run the basic functions—management, legal compliance, technology, etc. Beyond those basic functions, the association’s membership drives community communications and educational development opportunities—generally, the benefits that pull professionals to join the association in the first place. Those “peer-powered” functions need volunteers to operate. Those association roles provide ample opportunity for professional development.

As an illustration, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) operates with a small staff that supports several thousand members. The Association has a complex structure of Committees, Boards, Special Interest Sections, Chapters, and other sub-sets that focus on geographic and topical areas of membership interest. For example, the Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section provides opportunities for academic members to construct and produce webinars, write articles and publish newsletters, and discuss with the wider academic law library community issues of concern to their subgroup. The SIS has leadership and committee positions filled by volunteer members, where work is completed and made available to members. These positions are an excellent opportunity for professional development, allowing librarians to learn or build on a skillset, like web content development, newsletter publishing, management of finance, and other skills that help them grow professionally.

Mentors, Sponsors, and Coaches

Mentorship and similar roles offer an opportunity for professional development to both the mentor and the mentee. Novice professionals can engage with mentors to build knowledge and network with others in the field. Veteran professionals can connect with novices and by passing on knowledge, encourage development, and inspire professional growth.

More in-depth coverage of mentorship is forthcoming in future chapters.


Either solo or in conjunction with others, research and publishing provides an excellent opportunity to expand knowledge and connect with colleagues. Opportunities to research and write abound.

For more in-depth coverage of scholarship, see Chapter 26.

Webinars, Seminars, and Podcasts

Multimedia provides easy access to professional growth opportunities. Material is streamed through podcasts, conducted online, presented face-to-face, or in a hybrid format. Time, space, and technology flex to accommodate individual learning preferences. Live or recorded sessions can be accessed while seated at a desk and computer, in a car while commuting, or on a back deck while on vacation. Online sessions are posted by professional associations (AALL, ALA, SLA, association subgroups), through affiliations or corporations (OCLC’s WebJunction), and through vendors (Westlaw, Lexis, HeinOnline, ILS-based).

This category of professional development opportunities is generally available to any interested party. They can be excellent introductions to a new topic and to someone considering the library field, a specialty within the library field, or advancing knowledge in a sub-specialty.

Certificate and Continuing Education Programs

Development can be sought through more formal educational programs, available from educational institutions or from certificate programs through corporations. Completing a program in Paralegal Studies, Criminal Justice, or Adult Education through a university or local community college can help round out a non-legal library background. A certificate program in conservation and digital curation or archives can provide marketable abilities in areas peripheral to, but often much-needed in, the law library field.

Unlike most other professional development opportunities, certificate and continuing education programs generally have selective admission. Applicants are required to submit materials illustrative of their worthiness for admission, including transcripts, resumes, and letters of recommendation. Such programs require a higher level of commitment in terms of time and money than other development opportunities.


Kendall accepted a position on the reference staff of the state supreme court law library. Before starting the job, Kendall had significant reference experience at a public library but no training or exposure to law and legal reference. After the first few months of hearing questions about the detailed vocabulary and procedural complexities of law, Kendall discovered that the local community college had a paralegal program with evening classes. When Kendall expressed an interest in developing her knowledge, the supervisor pointed to the employee manual, which explained that the court would pick up part of the cost of courses relevant to job duties. Kendall applied online and completed the paralegal certificate, with support from the court.

Social Media

Social media is a broad term that encompasses a variety of platforms. It offers a multi-level opportunity to develop professionally. Social media serves as networking, marketing, and educational gateways. Platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook allow professionals to view colleagues’ activities, respond in real-time, exhibit notable efforts and accomplishments, and generally stay abreast of the industry’s events. Connecting through social media promotes recognition of names active in parts of the field, and allows for easy connection in areas of interest.

Online professional learning communities, which come in a vast array of structures and include wikis, MOOCs, and blogs and the more social platforms above, allow professionals to collaborate and learn cooperatively and exhibit ongoing research and discoveries. As an illustration, Hack Library School, a collaborative project, began as a Google Doc, moved through a wiki form, and today is a web-based collaborative space for information professionals to express ideas on the profession. The core staff (editors) welcome guest posts, providing an opportunity for developing ideas and writing ability beyond standard reports and messages. The authors are mainly current or newly-graduated MLIS (or variant) students.

Teaching and Presenting

Librarians of all kinds include teaching and presenting among the many tasks and duties that make up a position. Teaching brings professional development full circle—giving the opportunity to develop oneself, while simultaneously providing development to others. Presenting material to an audience, whether live, recorded, face-to-face or virtually, is always an opportunity to review and assess one’s own knowledge.

Teaching material and concepts you know well improves your own skills in observation, communication, and organization. Teaching strengthens your capacity for learning through an increased understanding of learning and communication styles.

As with other professional development forms, opportunities to teach are all around. There is a multiplicity of one-off events, such as information lectures for patrons or members of your staff or organization, presentations at association conferences, and guest lecturing at a nearby law school or library science program. There may also be opportunities to teach a full semester-long course, perhaps for the legal studies program at a nearby community college.


Pieter, a reference and instructional law librarian, was contacted by the Director of the Legal Studies Program. The Program was rewriting its curriculum on Legal Research and Writing to decrease a long-standing focus on print resources and expand on digital resources. The Director asked for Pieter’s input and feedback on the planned curriculum. After a lengthy discussion, Pieter was asked to construct the curriculum’s resources portions and teach the two sessions of the semester-long course where online research was explicitly addressed.

Benefits of Volunteering and Supplemental Opportunities

There are many benefits to volunteering beyond the obvious main benefit of contributing and giving back to the law library profession. The skills gained through volunteerism are transferrable and universal—leadership, public speaking and presenting, interpersonal communications, people and time management, delegation, meeting management, etc. Volunteering, especially at an early stage in one’s career, can be a great place to acquire, develop, and hone soft skills that one may not have an opportunity to gain within the work environment.


The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) is the primary association for law librarians and legal information professionals, and it provides a myriad of volunteer opportunities to its members. Below is a glimpse into the variety of offerings and opportunities members can choose from.

Committees and Juries

There are numerous standing committees and award juries that members can volunteer for, and a call for volunteers will come from the AALL Vice President/President-Elect in the fall. The AALL Appointments Committee makes appointments to standing committees and award juries in the spring. In addition, there are often other volunteer opportunities, such as special committees, task forces, and editorial boards, that are either appointed by the AALL President or have a separate call for volunteers process and timeline.

Special Interest Sections

These groups provide members the opportunity to become involved with their peers in specialized areas of law librarianship. Each Special Interest Section (or SIS) has their own volunteer offerings, including board and committee service and publishing and speaking opportunities.


AALL Caucuses are smaller, more informally structured groups formed by members to discuss various focused areas of interest, and most have leadership and other volunteer positions.


AALL has many chapters across the US that provide a great way for law librarians to get involved locally. While part of the AALL organization, they are considered separate entities, with separate membership requirements and dues, which are typically very affordable. Chapters have volunteer offerings similar to SISs, but since chapters are smaller and regional, they often have opportunities for connection and increased responsibility on a more local level, and are often a great way to start on one’s professional volunteer path.

Other Professional Organizations

Depending on library type and/or job function and responsibilities, law librarians may also want to join and volunteer with other professional associations.  These may be in the general library or legal fields, or even beyond. For example, involvement in the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) may be of interest for those whose jobs encompass or incorporate legal technology. Networking with peers and asking what associations they are involved with and members of is often a great way to identify other professional organizations one may want to join. Regardless of the association’s focus, volunteering for any professional organization provides the opportunity to learn and practice universally transferrable skills—whether that be to one’s job or work environment or to a volunteer role with another association organization.

Other Volunteer-Based Opportunities

Balance and diversity of experience are important aspects of one’s professional career, and one way to obtain and maintain both is to explore volunteer opportunities outside of the legal profession. Taking on a leadership role with a group or organization that matches a personal passion or interest adds to one’s soft skills toolkit and brings personal fulfillment and enjoyment. Taking time for this kind of self-care adds value to one’s life experience overall and makes for a more effective and successful employee.


When Riley was working as a reference librarian, they were asked to serve on the Board of Directors for a non-profit organization that ran after school programs in several locations in their city. Riley was involved in managing, hiring, and firing of the non-profit management staff, budget discussions, wage negotiations, and fundraising at the organization. They served for three years and developed valuable communication and management skills. This allowed Riley to develop skills that transferred to their career when they applied for a management job in a law library a few years later.

Taking Ownership & Getting Involved

The volume of professional development opportunities is so vast, it may feel overwhelming to choose among them. Determining which projects or involvements in which to engage can be managed through careful review and selection, based on several factors. First, consider your professional and personal development goals. Then, review the development opportunity carefully. Examine any course objectives or takeaways provided for training courses. Determine if the result or product has value to your personal and career goals. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the opportunity against factors like usefulness for your actual job, usefulness for your preferred career path, time commitment, and personal interest. Remember that the opportunity itself does not need to be specifically relevant in the moment; it may provide a foundation or important experience down the road. Look for deficiencies in your current knowledge, and build to fill them.

As an illustration, AALL’s Body of Knowledge (BoK) provides a guide for domains, competencies, and skills relevant to professional law librarians. The guide can be used to help identify areas where you may wish to begin learning or build on a nascent skill. All AALL professional development content, including programs, publications, webinars, and resources, identify the related BoK, to help you determine if a particular experience will serve to augment your knowledge or skill in that area.


As part of the firm’s annual review process, Wendell is a private law firm library manager and is asked to identify professional development areas and skills he would like to develop. Using the BoK, he lands on Teaching + Training and Research + Analysis as two areas to strengthen and hone, and identifies both a webinar (Using Cognitive Theory to Boost Long Term Retention) and AALL Spectrum article (Artificial Intelligence: Legal Research and Law Librarians) that will help Wendell start to achieve his professional development goals.

Growing Your Professional Network

One of the most important resources any law librarian can have is a robust professional network, made up of a diverse mix of individuals from whom one can learn from and turn to when needed. While much of one’s network develops organically over time, it can also be cultivated purposefully and intentionally. As you meet and connect with other law librarians through work, conferences, and professional events, add them to your network by sending a LinkedIn invitation or a follow-up email. Think about your career aspirations and cultivate relationships with people in positions to which you aspire. Don’t limit yourself to law librarians, either—there is so much to gain from networking with others in the broader legal and information industry. Your network can often help fulfill a seemingly impossible research request, which can be used to demonstrate the value of association membership and involvement to your institution. And, finally, be willing and able to help when someone in your network calls on you for a favor or help, as your professional generosity will always come back around and benefit you in the end.

Getting the Most from Conference Attendance

Pre-Conference Preparation

Advance preparation will make conference attendance more productive and enjoyable. It is helpful to preview the schedule of sessions on the conference website and make a list of sessions of interest. Prioritize the list according to relevance and interest, then add the sessions to a calendar of choice. Many conferences have an app with a scheduling feature available. Attendees should ensure that the association or sponsors have updated contact information to stay informed of changes and invitations to social events.

Information professionals are great at research, obviously, and the keynote speaker(s) will be a highlight of the conference. Advance research will enhance the experience and prepare attendees for the session. It might also suggest a question to ask if questions are allowed at the end of the keynote session.

Review the schedule for events beyond the educational sessions. Committee and caucus meetings, advisory groups, and Board Q&A sessions can add to the value of conference attendance and provide interactive career development. Search for meetings with potential interest and add them to your schedule.

RSVP for all social events you are even remotely interested in and ask if you can bring a guest. You will often meet someone who didn’t rsvp, but wants to attend, and then you can bring them along. This is an easy way to deepen a connection with a newly-met colleague.

Reserve time for yourself. Conferences can be exhausting, and a little self-care can improve your overall experience. If the conference is in a new city, take an hour or two to explore and re-energize. Find an independent bookstore, a museum, or a park of interest. Or, if you need solitude for replenishment, find a quiet garden or just take a break in your hotel room. You’ll get more out of the conference if you don’t overtire or overtax yourself.


Tasha registered for a summer conference with excitement and anticipation. As the days of the conference approached, she reviewed the list of educational options, vendor-sponsored gatherings, and committee meetings with growing trepidation. Many events in which she was interested overlapped, and viewing the schedule through the conference app didn’t allow for multiple-day viewing, making it challenging to determine where there might be flexibility for connecting with former colleagues and viewing vendor demonstrations. Tasha decided to set up a spreadsheet of events and include those items she was considering, so she could evaluate the entire conference for balance. By noting overlapping events in a clear manner, instead of deleting those she thought she couldn’t make, she could be ready to change course through each day if new information arose.

 Active Participation

Make the most out of conferences by actively attending as many sessions and events as possible (keeping in mind the tip above about self-care). Attendees should attend educational sessions that are of interest as well as those outside of their usual sphere. Sometimes session descriptions may be misleading or confusing—it is okay to leave a session and go to another one while in progress. This is an advantage of keeping an overlapping schedule (see Concept in Action, above). It is often helpful to ask questions during the Q&A portion of a session as others might be interested in the answer, too.

Visit open meetings of committees or other subgroups you identified in your advance preparation. These can give you a sense of the group, and if their goals and mission align with yours, being present demonstrates your interest, and informs you about how to get involved and active.

The exhibit hall can also be a great learning experience during a conference. Make time to visit. Meeting vendors (and collecting swag—free vendor treats and toys you can pick up as you visit) can be a great way to learn about new products that may benefit your employer. Vendors will usually scan attendees’ badges to obtain contact information to follow up, but some will also collect business cards for raffles. Take some of your cards with you, stashed in your badge holder or handy side-pocket, for this purpose.

Social events provide a great opportunity to meet people in a more relaxed atmosphere. Select them carefully, choosing from those more closely aligned with your interests, but chance serendipity can also lead to long-term professional relationships and friendships. Having business cards handy in a badge holder will also prove helpful at social events, as other attendees cannot scan a badge for contact information. Make notes on the back of any cards collected to remind yourself of conversations with other attendees.

Post-Conference Follow Up

Collect business cards in one place and try to reach out to any new contacts as soon as possible, either while you are still at the conference or upon returning to work. Connecting via LinkedIn or email with a brief description of how and where you met is a great way to stay connected.

See if your employer requires a written report and if there is a preferred format. If not, it is still a good idea to write a brief summary of your experience. Focus on what you learned and how it will be helpful in your work. You can include contacts you made with other information professionals or possible vendors from whom your organization may benefit. Highlight the positive benefits to your organization, which may help you get funding to attend other conferences.

Remote Conference Participation

Attending a remote conference or webinar is becoming more and more common. It’s critical to carve out time for the conference or webinar and avoid distractions to get the most out of the experience. The important interpersonal connections will be harder to capture, but connections can still be made. Some conferences (but probably not webinars) may offer virtual social hours. A chat or question pane for webinars and virtual conferences offers another way to make connections with other participants and speakers. If the schedule offers it, reserve some time for chatting with new connections.

Securing Professional Development Support

Making the Case for Attendance

An employer may require a brief memo or email explaining why and how attendance will benefit the organization. Tying attendance to the employer organization’s strategic plan or mission is the best way to support attendance. It is also helpful to estimate any possible cost benefits to the employer.

Provide a realistic budget. Check to see if your organization has policies for expenses at conferences. Your employer may provide a per diem, or they may reimburse. If they reimburse, there may be a limit on the amount (e.g., $12 for breakfast, $15 for lunch). Be sure to carefully note what they will not pay for or reimburse, such as hotel staff tips, alcohol, or hotel wi-fi connection fees.

A budget should include:

  • Registration costs
  • Transportation, including airfare and/or ground transportation
  • Hotel
  • Meals
  • Miscellaneous costs, e.g. shipping items back to the office or changes to travel plans.

All budget estimates should allow for taxes and tips.

Grants, Awards, and Other Funding Options

Many professional organizations offer grants to attend specific conferences, sometimes to conferences put on by other organizations. Other awards for writing papers or research projects may also be available. In most cases, the application will require information about interest in the program or financial need. Some, but not all, may require a personal statement.

Writing a personal statement for a professional development grant or scholarship is similar to writing a college entrance essay. It should include a personal introduction with information about your interest in the event that the grant will support. Other relevant work experience or expected outcomes from attending the event should also be included, and of course, a strong conclusion that reiterates the applicant’s qualifications and needs.

Salary Negotiation

Many people don’t think to ask about professional development support when interviewing. However, it can be a strong tool to use when negotiating benefits. As with any salary or benefits negotiation, the topic should never be brought up at the beginning of the interview process unless the employer asks about it specifically. However, asking about the kind of support that the potential employer provides can be a part of later salary negotiations.

Questions to ask:

  • Are memberships paid for?
  • Will the employer pay for memberships to multiple organizations/associations?
  • What is the employer’s policy on conference attendance?
    • Do staff take turns, attending in alternate years?
    • Is preference given to individuals who are leaders in a professional association or if you are speaking at a conference?
  • If the employer does not pay for conference attendance at all, will they still allow time off to attend? In this last case, try to negotiate for a higher salary that would cover the costs conference attendance (registration and travel).


In a late interview, after the interviewer brought up salary and benefits, Dany asked how the firm supported employee professional development. The interviewer told her that the firm would pay for national and local memberships that were appropriate to the position but would not pay for her position to attend a conference. She would not be docked for any time she took to attend the conference, though. Dany also asked the interviewer what the salary range was that was being offered. As conference attendance was important to her, she calculated how much she would need for travel and registration expenses (if days off were required, she would calculate the cost of that, as well). The next time she spoke to the representative, she was able to explain that because these costs would be coming out of her own pocket, she was asking for slightly more than the highest end of the salary range. Her counteroffer was accepted.


Professional development is a career-long journey that will enhance your job experiences. Knowing your employer’s perspectives and expectations will help you to find the best opportunities that will increase your worth. Knowing what role professional associations can play will bring value and fulfillment to both you and your employer.

Regardless of the type of library in which you work or aspire to work, this chapter should help you to identify ways in which you can hone your knowledge and skills, get involved and grow your network—all key components of any successful professional development plan and career path.

  • Caroline Osborne, Carol A. Watson, and Amy Eaton, Securing Professional Development: Getting to Yes. 22 AALL Spectrum (January/February 2018).
  • Alyson Drake, Franklin L. Runge, and Austin Martin Williams. A Smarter Way to Make Early and Mid-Career Decisions: Tips for Evaluating Your Interests, Setting Priorities, and Building a Network. 24 AALL Spectrum (January/February 2020).
  • Teresa Miguel-Stearns, Fostering a Culture of Teamwork around Continuous Professional Development, 24 AALL Spectrum 12 (January/February 2020).
  • Rebecca Knight, How to Get the Most Out of a Conference, Harvard Business Review (July 8, 2015),


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Tina Dumas; Catherine McGuire; and Holly M. Riccio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book