1 The Profession of Law Librarianship
Aamir Shahnawaz Abdullah; Kaylan Ellis; and Heather J. E. Simmons, J.D., M.L.S.
This chapter introduces some topics related to law librarianship at a high level—later chapters will provide more details. We will cover the history of the field, why and how people find their way into law librarianship as a career, its status as a profession, and whether you need a Juris Doctor degree to be a law librarian.
- Law librarianship has a deep and multifaceted history as a profession in the United States.
- Whether an individual obtains both a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. or only one of the two will affect opportunities and have implications for their law librarianship career, though we are potentially at a tipping point for change.
- Individuals take varied paths to law librarianship.
A Brief History of Law Librarianship
Law libraries were established early in United States history, the first being Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia, founded in 1802.i The American Association of Law Libraries, our national organization, was founded a century later in 1906.ii Foreign and international law librarianship experienced a renaissance in the years following World War II as refugee lawyers from mostly European countries became law librarians rather than attempting to qualify to practice law. In the early 1970s, legal literature was one of the first bodies of knowledge to be digitized in full text. Today, law librarians are at the forefront of legal technology as new tools are developed to provide access to and analysis of legal information, including advances related to artificial intelligence, data literacy, and information visualization.
What is Law Librarianship?
Law librarianship is an uncommon profession, with the American Association of Law Libraries comprising about 4,000 members in the 2019-2020 membership year.iii Unlike lawyers, hardly anyone says, “I’ve wanted to be a law librarian since I was a child.” Instead, we each discover law librarianship differently following numerous paths. Law librarianship is a profession that can be challenging to explain to other people. We are often confused with paralegals and legal secretaries. Like most librarians, compared to the general population, many of us are introverts; we are organized, detail-oriented, and share a passion for helping others.
The Ravenclaws of librarianship, law librarians are sometimes perceived by other librarians as elitists. Undeniably, law library print publications are especially challenging to catalog; almost everything is a serial. Law librarians track and maintain many serial and standing order subscriptions, each having multiple parts and pieces to account for—even individual loose-leaf pages. Some of these issues are resolving as resources transition to online and digital formats. But the ever-changing nature of our subject—the law—makes it a highly complex form of literature to maintain and use.
There are many types of law libraries. However, law libraries fall into three main categories: academic, law firm, and government. Academic law libraries provide information, research, and instruction for faculty and students of a law school. Some academic law libraries participate in the Federal Depository Library Program, requiring them to provide public access to government information. Law firm or private law libraries are not open to the public but rather serve the attorneys and other legal professionals in a law office. Government law libraries are located in courts, legislatures, or government agencies at the national, state, or local level. Their mission is to provide information to judges, legislators, and attorneys who work for the government. Some government law libraries, particularly county law libraries, are open to the public and work hard to provide programs to make their materials more accessible to laypeople.
Is Law Librarianship a Profession?
People have long debated whether law librarianship is a profession. But what is a profession? Job postings for law librarian positions typically require at least one “professional” degree – a master’s degree from an American Library Association (ALA)-accredited program in library and information science. Academic law librarian positions may also require a J.D. from an American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law school. Most law librarians believe that any discussions with patrons seeking legal research help are confidential because a patron must relate the intimate details of their legal issue before a law librarian can help them. We may not have formal professional privilege, like doctors or priests, but librarians have gone to jail to protect patron privacy. Librarian malpractice does not seem to be an issue; as far as anyone can tell, this has never happened. People are usually just grateful to find someone willing to help them. Requiring an advanced degree, maintaining client confidentiality, and liability for malpractice are factors that typically define a profession. What do you think? Is law librarianship a profession?
CONCEPT IN ACTION: DISCOVERING LAW LIBRARIANSHIP
Sameer, a 22-year-old, just completed his final semester at the University of Houston. He is days away from attaining a degree in psychology. With commencement looming, he now ponders what to do with his life.
Sameer decides to walk around campus and eventually wanders into the University of Houston Law Center’s John O’Quinn Law Library. While rummaging through the stacks, he overhears someone yelling at the law librarian at the checkout desk. The person identifies themself as the parent to a law student and is demanding the book checkout list for a student.
While paying attention to the commotion, Sameer accidentally walks into a wheeled cart. Fortunately, he does not fall. However, there is now a pile of what looks to him like serial textbooks, barcoded items titled “pocket parts,” and individual recently released books.
Sameer feels embarrassed as law students studying nearby look at him sideways. He eventually realizes the mess he’s made and tries to put the books and documents back on the cart. But, an older man indicates that Sameer should stop because there was a precise order to how the material was laid out.
Not wanting to be a nuisance, Sameer goes to sit at an empty table. In front of him is a book about whether one’s LSAT score is indicative of a student’s success in law school.
After reading a few pages, Sameer decides he should go. On his way out of the building, he overhears someone else. This person is looking for a form to respond to a foreclosure on their property.
Unauthorized Practice of Law: Legal Reference or Legal Advice?
Law librarians who work with the public spend a lot of time thinking about the unauthorized practice of law. Consider medical librarianship. A patron approaches the reference desk and lists symptoms that a medical librarian types into a database. If the medical librarian prints out a list of diseases matching those symptoms, is she practicing medicine? Probably not. After all, differential diagnosis and treating disease by prescribing medications are complex processes. In the law, the only things we have to work with are words and what they mean. Interpreting a word’s definition and exploring how it applies in a specific context, like a statute, is practicing law. Law librarians worry a lot more about the local bar coming after them for unauthorized practice than they do about getting sued by patrons, but neither problem is likely to occur.iv
What Are the Benefits & Drawbacks of Having or Not Having a J.D. as a Law Librarian?
Within the profession, there is much conversation regarding the necessity of attaining both a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. Historically, both the J.D. and M.L.I.S. have been required to attain “good” positions as a law librarian. However, as time goes by, many view the M.L.I.S. as being enough to succeed and thrive throughout the profession.
Below are two tables providing the benefits and drawbacks for both propositions: having dual degrees and just having an M.L.I.S. These tables will help parse the difficult decision of paying for more degrees. Ultimately, through a careful evaluation of the tables, one can truly make a meaningful decision.
Interestingly, from the standpoint of the would-be professional, the most important aspect is one’s ability to attain a job. From this perspective, turning to “job requirements” or “job qualifications” in job postings is the best option. And, these tables will help distinguish whether earning those degrees is worth the cost, effort, and time.
|Salaries are generally higher compared to other library types||Cost to earn both degrees is significant, as is the time commitment|
|May relate well with law students, attorneys, and law school professors||Only a handful of hybrid online programs exist, but part-time and evening programs are available|
|Likely required for certain career goals, particularly in academic law libraries||May feel “stuck” in the profession to make use of both degrees|
|May enjoy increased credibility among patrons and colleagues||Further removed from the layperson experience|
|Earning only the M.L.I.S. is faster and significantly less expensive||Steeper learning curve to enter the profession, especially for early-career law librarians|
|Reputable online and/or part-time programs are plentiful||May need to be willing and able to relocate, as fewer non-J.D. positions are likely to exist in each law library|
|Can pursue opportunities in other library settings; not tied to law librarianship to make use of a J.D.||Opportunities for advancement may be limited|
|Legal layperson perspective can help connect to patrons, particularly 1Ls and pro se patrons||May struggle to earn the respect of patrons and even colleagues compared to those who attend law school|
|Variety of opportunities exist, particularly in law firms and as public and technical services librarians in academic and government libraries||There may be an assumption that all law librarians have a law degree|
When considering a career in law librarianship, available positions, locations, and salaries are among the many key factors to research. Thankfully, there are multiple resources available to guide would-be professionals as they explore their options.
Consult school advisers. Every M.L.I.S. program should have advisors who tend to be active in the field. They have connections and insight that rising law librarians can utilize. Some programs even offer law librarianship as a focus or specialty, and these advisors can help work these specialties into a plan of study.
Find a law librarian organization. Interested in working in Canada? Join the Canadian Association of Law Libraries. Interested in working in Houston, Texas? Choose between the American Association of Law Libraries, South Western Association of Law Libraries, and the Houston Area Law Libraries Association—or join them all. Each provides job boards, mentorship, career information, and so much more. These associations range from broad, nationwide organizations to regional, local, and even city-level organizations.
New law librarians are encouraged to join the American Association of Law Libraries. This organization provides information regarding salary negotiations, a mentorship program, a job board for national jobs, and communities to connect with other law librarians with similar interests. It is an invaluable resource that all law librarians can benefit from.
Connect with the local network of law librarian professionals. Law librarians can be found in academic institutions, military institutions, correctional facilities, courthouses, and anywhere else where there may be a law library. Many law librarians are willing to meet with new and rising law librarians. The easiest way to connect with law librarians working in any of the above locations is to simply introduce oneself. Pick up a phone and call, locate a professional’s e-mail address and email, or simply connect via LinkedIn. Introductions are the hardest part, but these cold connections can be the beginning of a great conversation if done in earnest. These professionals have a wealth of information pertaining to local associations, potential job openings, other available resources, and the like.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE
Xia, a 26-year-old, is about to begin her final semester for a J.D./M.L.I.S. program. She wants to gain hands-on experience within the field, but she does not know anyone currently working for a law library. With graduation looming, she now worries about her future career aspects.
Xia attends an in-person university located in New England. Her law library is fully staffed with both law librarians and support staff. Although she has spent roughly 4 years at the institution, she has not had much, if any, contact with any of them.
Xia has a social media presence. She is very active on Twitter and TikTok. However, other than updating her LinkedIn profile picture, she does not use that service often.
The law school advisor is quite unfamiliar with the M.L.I.S. program. But, the university does provide an openly available contact page with information concerning how to contact personnel who work for the university system. Xia is chagrined over not connecting with people who can provide her guidance.
Read relevant publications. Finally, new law librarians should look toward journals, blogs, and articles about the field. Career information is everywhere, especially in this digital world. There are articles and resources about specific areas of law librarianship, the field in general, and even articles about growth and development within the field. Publications like AALL Spectrum, Law Library Journal, and Geeklawblog.com are a few resources that provide a wealth of information about the field of law librarianship.
With all of these resources, new and would-be law librarians have many places they can turn to for career advice beyond this textbook. Just remember that reaching out, asking questions, and being earnest and honest will always be the most productive.
Case Studies: Many Paths to Law Librarianship
Sam: A Traditional Path – First Career – Academic Law Library (J.D./M.L.S.)
Many law librarians pursue this profession as their first career. In this path, dual-degree law librarians, having both an M.L.I.S. and a J.D., obtain their professional degrees either at the same time or consecutively and then find a position in a law library, having never previously practiced law nor worked as a librarian. While in law school, they may find that they are not interested in the practice of law, or they may fall in love with doing legal research, preferring to focus on finding and providing legal information rather than advising individual clients.
Sam attended law school because they did not want to study advanced mathematics and did not know what to do after college. Not interested in litigation or appearing in court, they planned to practice transactional law. Sam soon found that legal research was their favorite part of law school. On the day they saw an American Association of Law Libraries brochure at the career office of their law school, they knew that they had found their vocation. They got a job at the circulation desk of their law school library, graduated, passed the bar, and immediately enrolled in library school.
During library school, Sam completed an internship at a large academic law library. While finishing their last semester, they started working part-time at the reference desk of another academic law library, where they were hired as a full-time law librarian after graduation. The busy reference desk serves many public patrons and local attorneys in addition to the faculty and students of the law school. Answering a broad spectrum of reference questions from so many different people is a great learning experience. Sam also teaches a one-credit course in legal research—a mandatory course for first-year law students. This includes drafting lesson plans and designing assignments and assessments. They assist law school faculty with research projects and serve on law school and university committees.
Monique: A Traditional Path to Law Librarianship – First Career – Firm (M.L.I.S.)
A path for people with a master’s degree in library and information science who don’t want to devote the time and expense of an additional graduate/professional degree is to work as an information professional in a private setting—a law firm.
In library school, Monique took a class in legal information and found that she really enjoyed it. At a career fair, she was surprised to find that she could pursue a career in law librarianship without attending law school to earn a Juris Doctor degree. She completed an internship at a law firm library, where she found her supervisor to be a great mentor. She decided to focus on preparing for a job in a private law library as an information professional. She sought other relevant library school courses and studied law librarianship, government information, and competitive intelligence.
When Monique graduated from library school, she was hired as a reference and research librarian at a 150-attorney law firm with offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. She is based in the Chicago office, but the librarian she reports to works at the New York office. The law librarians in all four cities have a virtual weekly status meeting. One of Monique’s jobs is to provide orientations for new associates (junior lawyers) who join the firm. Her challenge is to figure out how to introduce them to all the publications, databases, and tools the library subscribes to that help the attorneys do their work.
Monique’s job is fast-paced as her customers–attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants–all have short deadlines and need the requested information as fast as she can find it. In addition to identifying relevant primary and secondary legal publications, Monique collects and analyzes competitive intelligence on current and potential client companies. Other law librarians at her firm use knowledge management techniques to organize the firm’s collection of prior work products—memos, briefs, forms, and filings. All the librarians work as a team to evaluate new information products and software and negotiate with information providers to obtain the best value for the subscriptions the lawyers and other legal professionals need to do their work.
Elena: An Unconventional Approach – Early-/Mid-career – Academic
Not everyone who becomes a law librarian does so after years of intentional training and maneuvering to achieve the goal; for some, it is a happy accident. Elena majored in music education as an undergraduate student, intent on becoming a high school band director. She worked in the college music library for four years to help pay for her education. As an advanced library student assistant, she learned the basics of cataloging and metadata, collection management, archival processing, and more, and soon realized librarianship was her true calling.
While pursuing her M.L.I.S., Elena worked in a number of unique library settings, performing conservation treatments on special collections materials in a conservation lab, managing acquisitions and providing reference and instruction in an emergency services library, and working with government records in a state records center. Each library and information center setting had its own unique characteristics and challenges, but the core tenets of technical services remained the same across the board.
After graduation, Elena worked as a cataloger in an undergraduate academic library but soon sought greater responsibility in a different setting. Law librarianship seemed intimidating since Elena had no legal expertise. Still, she felt confident in her ability to learn the terminology, issues, and cultures within law libraries after her experiences in many other special libraries. She accepted a position as a technical services librarian in an academic law library, where she can apply her skills as a cataloger, archivist, conservator, and records manager to enhance operations within the law library and law school as a whole.
Elena made efforts to learn about issues inherent to legal education, relying on her research skills and the help of J.D.-holding colleagues to fill the gaps of her legal understanding. Though there was no intention to become a law librarian and the path was far from direct, the skills Elena developed through her experiences in several unique library settings prepared her for the challenge of technical services law librarianship.
Duc: A Public Service Path – Early-/Mid-career – Government
From a young age, Duc had always been interested in how governments function, how laws are made, and how individuals can participate in their democracy. He was an enthusiastic participant in his high school’s Model U.N. program, debate club, and mock elections. When it came time to choose a college, Duc knew he wanted to study in Washington, D.C. and earn a political science degree in the nation’s capital.
Duc completed several internships during college, working first in a political consulting firm, then a congressional office, and finally with an administrative agency. He became interested in how government information is disseminated to the public and recognized how difficult it could be for the public to effectively access and interpret that information.
Duc consulted with his college career advisor, who suggested he might enjoy a career in a government law library. After completing his political science degree, he turned down a job offer from a lobbying organization and enrolled in library school instead. Duc again pursued internships to gain experience in the field, this time working the information desk in a county law library and then landing a competitive internship at the Law Library of Congress, where he honed his legal research skills and assisted patrons with a wide variety of challenging queries.
Duc’s resume stood out to potential employers because of his significant amount of real-world experience. After graduating with his M.L.I.S., Duc moved back home and accepted a position as an outreach librarian at the State Library. In this capacity, he provides reference services, conducts workshops, and develops research guides and marketing tools. Duc enjoys applying his interests in politics, government, and information literacy to help members of the public become active, informed participants in their government.
Shawn: Attorney – Second Career (J.D./M.L.S.)
Shawn always knew that he wanted to become a lawyer, and he pursued his goal with vigor. He worked hard to move quickly through high school, college, and law school until he finally became a practicing attorney. Entering practice after the Great Recession, the legal landscape was not as promising as he had anticipated while pursuing his studies, but Shawn was undeterred. He was able to secure work as a solo attorney, partnering with his peers to build a steady practice which kept him living quite comfortably.
Soon, he began to notice that the legal profession was changing. Modern technology had finally begun to impact the bar, and Shawn felt he was witnessing a legal technological renaissance. Opposing counsel could be served via email, but Shawn noticed most of his opposing counsels seemed to struggle with the process regardless of age. Digital notaries could be used to authenticate documents virtually, though some courts continued to fight against such advances. Increasingly, hearings, depositions, and alternative dispute resolutions were held via virtual meetings over video conferencing.
Most importantly, Shawn realized that along with this digital reformation, legal resources were becoming more accessible to pro se litigants. Local county law libraries offered free access to legal research databases, various bar organizations offered forms and directions for simple cases online, and more companies were entering the legal landscape to offer simple and easy tools to help educate both attorneys and pro se litigants on the laws.
After practicing for several years, Shawn wanted to give back to both his professional community and his community at large by serving as a law library professional. He learned that there is a need for qualified professionals to fill open law librarian positions and that there is room for advancement in the field, particularly for those holding dual degrees. Shawn searched for an online program to attain his M.L.I.S. and pursued that degree with as much vigor and passion as his previous studies. Upon graduation, he accepted a position in an academic law library where his experience as a practicing attorney helped him provide quality reference and instruction services. Shawn can impact the legal profession by helping to train the next generation of practitioners how to best navigate the body of legal information and apply advances in legal technology to their practice.
- AALL Biennial Salary Survey & Organizational Characteristics
- AALL State of the Profession Report
- Richard A. Danner, “Redefining a Profession,” Law Library Journal 90, no. 3 (1998): 315.
- Raquel J. Gabriel, “Diversity in the Profession,” Law Library Journal 102, no. 1 (2010): 147.
- Frank G. Houdek, A Day in the Law Library Life, circa 1910-1920, Law Library Journal 89, no (1997): 239