Surviving—and thriving—in law librarianship

The dynamic role of a law librarian

Home Career blog posts Surviving—and thriving—in law librarianship

With high salaries, high prestige and interesting work, law librarianship has always been a hot career field among LIS professionals.

But these days, law librarianship is a profession in flux. Roles and responsibilities are changing, new opportunities are opening up as others are contracting, automation is starting to make its presence felt, and smart law librarians of all types are working hard to position for their future careers.

Today’s law librarianship landscape

There are a number of ways to think about how law librarianship lays out. One of the most familiar is who you work for. Among the options:

  • Large law firms. By far the largest employers of law librarians (as well as lawyers), these private practice firms are typically located in larger metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Depending on the size of the organization, they may specialize in one discipline (for example, water law or intellectual property concerns) or represent clients across a diverse range of industries and issues.
    The leading professional organization for these law librarians is the Private Law Librarians & Information Professionals, a group within the American Association of Law Librarians.
  • Law schools. Many academic institutions have their own law schools, and all of these also have their own law libraries. Although a J.D. is often required, depending on the size and/or prestige of the institution, sometimes not. You’ll work with faculty and students; the latter have been known to threaten library staff with lawsuits when the copier breaks down Sunday night.
  • Government agencies and departments. The judiciary at the federal, state, and municipal levels all have their own legal teams, including law librarians who need to have an excellent understanding of government legal processes, including regulatory requirements.
  • Large corporations. Many large corporations have in-house legal teams that include law librarians either on staff or as contract employees. Work can range from loose-leaf filing to legal research on which literally millions of dollars may be riding.
  • Highly specialized industry corporations. There are several industries where the legal requirements may be highly specialized, highly regulated and fairly highly unpredictable in terms of future outcomes. Law librarians working with these types of organizations would need to be highly adaptable to changing circumstances, quickly mastering changing legal requirements and resources and helping their organizations stay ahead of changes. Good examples here would be the healthcare, pharmaceutical and cannabis industries.
  • Legal research firms. These independent firms perform all types of outsourced or contract law librarianship work for their clients, including legal research, onsite law library maintenance, government document retrieval and staff research training, among other services.

Brad Rogers, LAC Group Director of Recruiting and Client Services Manager, points out that another variable is a law librarian’s environment and “customer.” For example, “in a law firm, your customer is probably an attorney, and you’re working in a fast-paced, intense, deadline-driven environment. On the other hand, law librarians in law schools tend to have students as their ‘customers,’ and generally, work at a more relaxed pace than do those in high-profile private practices.”

Bottom line, per Rogers: a law librarian might flourish in one type of environment, but be miserable in another. So it makes sense for you to thoroughly research the environments, cultures, and work expectations for any type of law librarianship you’re considering. A few strategic informational interviews should help you unearth all the relevant information.


Areas of specialization

Another way to think about law librarianship is what expertise you might specialize in—for example, a quick check of the AALL Career Center mentions “foreign and international law, government documents, patents [and] taxation” while other options might include immigration law, water law, intellectual property law and similar types of specialization.

In addition, law librarians are increasingly moving into competitive intelligence research roles.

Alternatively, you might choose to become an independent law librarian and specialize only in a type of outsourced product or service: for example, new business development research, market research, document retrieval and delivery, mergers and acquisitions due diligence, records governance or, increasingly, competitive intelligence.

The future law librarianship landscape

Shifting organizational processes, contracting budgets and the pervasive and growing impact of automation are all beginning to affect the nature of the work law librarians do, how much need there is for their current skills and roles, and where new opportunities may be opening up for them.

As with all aspects of the LIS profession, assume that your core career competency as you navigate the future of law librarianship will be adaptability. That is, your ability to adapt to (or create) new ways to add value with your skills, new ways to help your organizations succeed, new roles to move into (for example, new business support, marketing, or research training).

We know that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will bring pervasive change to what work law librarians do and how they do it. In their May/June 2017 AALL Spectrum article, “Artificial Intelligence: Legal Research and Law Librarians – The law librarian’s role in teaching and implementing AI best practices,” authors Sherry Xin Chen and Mary Ann Neary describe the impact of AI on document review processes, enhanced document retrieval, due diligence, and even generation of legal research citations and the associated “explanatory language in a memo.”

Clearly this is only the beginning of a wave of changes that will disrupt the practice of law and law librarianship in coming years. But your ability to adapt, anticipate and create new roles for your skills will determine whether those changes represent threats or opportunities. As evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin made clear, those who most effectively adapt to their new environments are the ones most likely to survive—and thrive.

Kim Dority

Kim Dority

Kim Dority is a library and information science (LIS) career adviser and consultant. As Adjunct Faculty at the University of Denver's Library/Information Sciences Program, she teaches graduate courses on alternative MLIS career options. Special Libraries Association (SLA) has awarded Ms. Dority the Rose L. Vormelker Award for her commitment to teaching and professional development.
Kim Dority
Kim Dority

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