Thursday, August 29, 2013

So, You Want to be a Law Librarian?, by Janelle Beitz and Mari Cheney

Janelle and Mari are law librarians. Both work in academic law libraries but their individual academic experiences, as well as their career paths, differ.


What education does a law librarian need?

Mari: I came to law librarianship by accident. I was an English major in college and figured out early on I didn’t want to teach. So, what to do next? I applied to law school and decided on a D.C. school because my fiance (now husband) was moving there for a job. I could write an entire book on why law school was probably the wrong choice for me. However, I was lucky enough to take Advanced Legal Research during my second year of law school. It was taught by a law librarian who also oversaw my seminar paper. It was during my conversations with her that I found out about law librarianship. She encouraged me to apply to library school. It was the best decision I could have made at that point in my career. Very few library schools specialize in law librarianship - I chose the University of Washington as it has a one-year library program for people with J.D.s.

Janelle: Like Mari, I came to librarianship by accident. However, librarianship for me followed several years of legal work. My parents are both lawyers, and I went to law school a couple of years after undergrad (French major here!). I got a joint J.D. and a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, and then I had various and sundry lawyer jobs - I was a judicial clerk (awesome legal job, by the way, and good librarian training), an associate at a law firm, and an editor at a legal publisher. I was not, shall we say, terribly happy with my legal career.

Finally a friend suggested that I look into law librarianship. So I started a series of informational interviews with law librarians, and discovered that they were, by and large, happier with their careers than my lawyer friends. I decided to go to library school. While still in library school, I got an internship at one of the law schools in the Twin Cities. They ended up hiring me as a reference librarian, and it couldn’t have turned out better for me; I’m still here!

I do want to note, though, that not all law librarian jobs require a J.D., especially if you want to work in a law firm, or you don’t want to do reference work. That’s definitely one thing you should talk to law librarians in your area about. If you want to be a reference librarian in an academic law library, however, you pretty much do need a J.D., at least at this point.

What does a law librarian do?

Janelle: Anything her bosses ask her to do!

Seriously, though, at least in academia, that really depends on the institution. I started out mostly staffing the reference desk, answering student, faculty, and public patron questions. Now I not only do that, but I also teach, manage the library’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, work with various student groups on how the library can better serve them, assist faculty with research projects, work at promoting faculty scholarship, and am one of the library’s main point people for educational technology. I do a wide variety of different things each day and couldn’t be happier. I’m always busy and rarely bored. I’m lucky that even though the market is rather rough right now, my library is really open to hearing new ideas and willing to let people try new things (as long as what needs to get done still gets done!).

Mari: After library school, I moved to Salt Lake City to work at the Utah State Law Library. As a public law library, it was open to anyone who wanted to visit but we also served judges, law clerks, other court staff, and attorneys and their staff.

As a reference librarian in a public law library, the majority of my time was spent with public patrons. I helped them find resources like court forms and self-help books, referred them to legal clinics and guided them through the legal research process. The hardest part about working in a public law library is walking the fine line of legal research so it doesn’t cross into legal advice (which is the unauthorized practice of law!).

About a year and a half ago, I moved to Portland to work at an academic law library. I am now the Digital Resources and Reference Librarian. I work at the reference desk, teach Advanced Legal Research, maintain the law library’s website and social media presence, manage the law library’s electronic databases and work with vendors.

A Word to the Wise

Even as an academic law librarian, some of your time is spent dealing with difficult patrons. From stressed-out, highly competitive students, to impatient, arrogant faculty (we probably have more degrees than they do!), to the clueless, scary public, these patrons represent the hardest and sometimes the most rewarding part of law librarianship. (And no, not all patrons are like this.) With students, it’s about calming them down and managing expectations; for faculty, it’s learning to speak their language and communicate the way they want, whether it’s by phone, email or in person. The public patrons are often scared because they don’t know how to navigate the legal system; sometimes they’re scary because they have a mental health issue that influences their behavior and lack of bathing. This topic alone could be its own post!

What’s Next?

You may have heard how the legal job market has tanked, which has a direct effect on law schools. Enrollment is down across the country, which means there is less money for law libraries. Law librarians are expected to do more with less. Jobs are being cut and if someone leaves, their job isn’t being filled. It’s happening everywhere, from the lowest ranked schools to the highest. If you are thinking about becoming a law librarian, know that you will have to move where a job is available. While jobs are harder to find than when when we each graduated from library school, law librarian jobs are still available.

We’ll never be rolling in money as a law librarian, but the job has many perks that make up for that! Interactions with patrons make this job absolutely worthwhile, especially when a student comes up to the desk asking, “Is this the Emergency Desk?” and after I help him he exclaims, “You’re the Master of Everything!”

If you’re trying to decide whether law librarianship is for you, I (Janelle) would highly recommend engaging in some informational interviews. Talk to law librarians about what it is they do all day. Find out if they’re feeling fulfilled, career-wise. See what’s good and frustrating about their experiences. Talk not just to academic law librarians, but public and firm librarians. Honestly, all of the librarians I met with before I made the plunge were more than happy to talk with me. And it’s the start of networking to find a job, too.

Additionally, we would recommend joining a local association - either a local branch of AALL or SLA. If you have time, volunteer for a committee. Before I (Janelle) had even started library school officially, I joined my local AALL section and volunteered to be an editor of their newsletter (I still work on it!). Not only is it a great way to start meeting people in your hopefully-soon-to-be profession, but you can get the inside scoop on the local scene (especially by working on something like the group’s newsletter), which can be invaluable as you look for a job.

Mari Cheney is Digital Resources & Reference Librarian at Boley Law Library, Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. She tweets @maricheney.

Janelle Beitz is a Research and Instructional Librarian at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. She tweets as herself @jkbeitz and as her library @BurgerLibrary, and blogs sporadically at

1 comment:

  1. I came to this profession through years of deliberation. After 8 years of practice I decided to pursue something I really wanted to do. I got the MLIS, I got a very good internship, where they have been very gracious in allowing me to stay far beyond a normal inters term, yet I have not found paying employment, many interviews and no jobs. Unfortunately I no longer think there is room in the profession, at least not for me. I really hate to say it, because I love the work, but it is starting to look like I will have to return to the practice of law. I am very sad about this, but it seems for every opening there are at least 50 other highly qualified applicants. It is a great job if you can break into it, too bad I can't.