The Tao of Law Librarianship: Do-It-Yourself Professional Development

For years I have been advising new arrivals from law school to think about the experiences they would like to have in their first year at our firm, and to seek out those individuals who could provide them appropriate opportunities. Looking back over the last few years, I realize I have subconsciously done the same in my own career.

I do admit to being an avid conference attendee, and I regularly attend seminars, workshops and courses. You likely do the same. Some of these are required for work, while others meet our personal interests. But what if these sorts of "organized" activities don't meet our professional development needs? What if they are all starting to blend together, starting to become a rehash of past sessions and no longer giving a new perspective? What if we want to actually develop those skills, not just hear about what we should possess? Let's explore some of the alternatives.

First, think about the type of opportunity you are looking for. Are there specific skills that are weak and should be developed? Perhaps you are looking for inspiration for an upcoming project. Or you need a challenge or overall career change. Then again, you may just want to do something fun. There are any number of ways to liven up your professional interest, while at the same time benefiting both you and your employer.

Arrange Your Own Business Trip

Back in 2003 when some of my law firm colleagues thought we could benefit from attending the Practising Law Institute's annual library seminar in New York City, The Law Librarian, we aimed to attend as a group the following April. To make the trip worthwhile, we contacted a number of law firm libraries to view their operations generally and to see their intranets specifically. When we approached our firms to cover the cost of the trip, it was our library tour rather than the seminar itself that interested them. We gathered six people to attend, and we toured six libraries, sometimes splitting up to go to different firms. We compared notes, shared opinions, and learned from one another. The insight gained from this one trip has continued to inform decisions and opinions I have been providing my firm ever since.

Some lessons we learned:

  • It doesn't hurt to ask for a meeting or a library tour. Some library managers were more open to our visit than others, but in the end we came away with a positive experience.
  • You don't have to wait for an annual conference to visit libraries in another city.
  • It doesn't hurt to ask for your organization to support your efforts. They may just see the same benefit as you do, or perhaps even see other benefits;
  • Dream big and go for it! We aimed for loftier goals as a group than we likely would have individually. As well, everyone taking on part of the organization made for lighter work in setting up the trip.

Unable to travel? Then look for other ways to participate. For example, the following year I took part in the webcast of PLI's The Law Librarian, this time out of San Francisco. I read blog coverage of conferences that I covet. If I cannot visit someone in person, I will often call up or email colleagues and ask for their experiences and opinions.

Set Your Own Writing Assignment

If you enjoy researching a subject, then why not write about it? Blogs are a terrific outlet for ongoing short writings, especially if you like to spout off personal opinions. For longer texts, association publications are always looking for content, as is your friendly neighborhood or global e-zine, such as LLRX.com.

If you are not sure what to write about, editors and colleagues can often suggest topics. If you are unsure about committing a lot of time to blogging, consider joining with others who have similar interests to start a co-operative blog. Legal research examples include Out of the Jungle and Slaw. Betsy McKenzie's writing in Out of the Jungle is particularly inspiring as she rants, raves, and waxes poetic about law librarianship.

Find Your Voice and Claim Your Audience

If public speaking terrifies you, why are you not doing something to change that? I profess to naturally being a shy person. Some may now find that difficult to believe. All through school, including my graduate library degree, I had a difficult time even asking questions in class, much less giving presentations.

I identified this as a weakness that could eventually hinder my career, so I specifically worked to overcome my stage fright. I started with radio, volunteering as a deejay on late night campus radio. I played the usual campus fare of alternative/rock music, and I can't say I was particularly talented. This did, however, challenge me to think quickly on the spot and speak extemporaneously without having to look at a live audience. I fondly recall the small following of about five listeners during that stint.

If this idea appeals to you, and participation in radio is rather unrealistic, consider looking into podcasting. That is, putting together regular or one-off audio blog entries. Think about who your audience will be and find a focus for your broadcasts. I haven't tried this out (yet) but it sure looks like great fun. Take this a step further, and put together a video blog or vlog. I am a huge fan of the daily technology/news/humor vlog RocketBoom.

To get your feet wet speaking in front of real people, look for small opportunities. For the last few years I set a personal challenge to ask a question at every conference session or seminar I attended, no matter how large the audience. Sometimes it was extremely daunting. Gradually, however, it became easier. Next came the chairing of meetings and giving speaker introductions. The focus was not on me for these, so it was a lot easier.

Finally, I have started seeking out speaking opportunities. In the past year I have gone from five minute presentations to fifteen minute presentations in front of relatively large audiences. Within the next decade, I could well be up to a full hour!

I am no longer terrified of speaking and don't mind standing in front of others when needed, even without preparation. It has taken time, many small steps, and concerted effort, but what was once a weakness has now become a strength. What areas are holding you back? What could you work on?