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Features - Choosing Law Librarianship: Thoughts for People Contemplating a Career Move

By Mary Whisner, Published on August 2, 1999

Mary Whisner is Head of Reference at the Gallagher Law Library of the University of Washington.


Editor's Note: Please see the updated version of this article.

I was fortunate to have some good advice when I was thinking about my move to law librarianship. Now, after a dozen years in the field, I have many observations of my own to share with readers who are thinking about it.

This article began as an email response to a library paraprofessional who wondered whether it would be worthwhile to go to library school. She framed the question in monetary terms: could she double her salary in a few years if she got an MLS? Salary should certainly be a consideration for anyone pondering a career move, but there are many more factors, from how you feel about your daily work to how you are regarded in your community.

Law librarianship is a field people often come to after doing something else. I know many law librarians who went to law school and practiced law for a while before -- as one colleague puts it -- finding their higher calling and moving to law librarianship. Some law librarians began as library paraprofessionals then made the transition to librarianship. Some law librarians started their careers in other types of libraries -- from school libraries to special libraries -- and happened to land in a law library. Some law librarians were teachers, businesspeople, bus drivers, musicians, homemakers, or nearly anything else at some point. This diversity of experience enriches the profession. It also means that your reactions to the profession may vary because of the job from which you are moving.

What About the Money?

According to the American Association of Law Libraries’ Biennial Salary Survey 1997 (p. 3), the median salary for a law librarian in a one-person library in 1997 was $39,333. The median salary for a reader services librarian (a category that includes reference and circulation) was $39,000. The median for a director/chief librarian was $63,636. There was considerable variation within each category. A director/chief librarian in the 90th percentile, for instance, made $107,900, while a director/chief librarian in the 10th percentile made only $38,256.

More than Paraprofessionals …

In general, librarians are paid more than library paraprofessionals. According to the AALL survey, the median for a library clerk was $21,067 and for a library assistant/paraprofessional was $25,000. Library assistants in the 90th percentile made more than some librarians, but generally librarians are paid more than assistants.

To see the Biennial Salary Survey and study all its detail, with tables breaking down salaries by region, type of library, years of experience, and gender, check to see if your local law library acquired a copy. AALLNet has some summary information at http://www.aallnet.org/services/salary.asp, but the hard numbers about salaries are only in the print product. You may also order your own copy from AALL. Skimming the current job listings on AALLNet can also give you an idea of the job market.

Less than Lawyers …

Law librarians make less than many lawyers. For example, a law school graduate who clerks for a federal judge for a year makes $40,714 -- more than the median for librarians in one-person libraries or reader services positions. Incoming associates at selected big firms in big cities make between $60,000 and $107,000. On the other hand, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Central Texas might make only $29,709.1

Your comparison group affects how you feel about salary. If you are a lawyer and compare yourself with law school classmates at big firms, then a salary of $40,000 might make you feel impoverished. On the other hand, if you compare yourself with legal services lawyers, schoolteachers, or social workers, that same $40,000 can look pretty good. Consider that in 1996, the median income for American households was $35,492.2

Salary Envy

Law librarians will generally make less money than others in their organizations. In a law firm, the highest paid people will be the attorneys; in a law school, the deans and professors; in a court, the judges. If it will bother you to go to work each day and see people who make a lot more money than you do, then consider another field.

Will You Like the Work?

Now that we have faced the salary issue, we reach the more interesting question: do you want to do what law librarians do? Even people who have spent considerable time in law libraries often do not have a good idea of what law librarians do. For instance, law students and lawyers see reference librarians at the reference desk, but have no idea of what they do away from the desk -- let alone what catalog librarians, acquisitions librarians, and others do. A library paraprofessional might have a good idea of what the librarians she works with most closely do, but not know about other librarians in the institution or in other types of libraries.

Law librarianship is characterized by variety. There are different types of law libraries (serving law firms, government agencies, law schools, courts, corporate law departments). There are different sizes of law libraries -- from a one-person library serving a law firm with thirty attorneys to the Law Library of Congress. And there are different law librarian positions (from catalog librarian to library director, from computer services librarian to rare books librarian).

Although exceptions exist, I offer the following generalizations about law librarians’ jobs:

Service

Librarianship is fundamentally a service profession. The staff members of a law library serve the larger organization -- law school, court, agency, or law firm. If you like customer service and you enjoy coming up with ways to serve your organization better, you could have a long, happy life in the profession. On the other hand, if you do not like the idea of setting your project aside because Professor Procrastinator or Larry the Last Minute Litigator has a deadline, then you might find some parts of law librarianship vexing.

Juggling

Most law librarians I know juggle many different duties and projects. (See Mary A. Hotchkiss, Managing Multiple Projects, or the Art of Juggling, AALL Spectrum, Sept. 1998, at 12-13, http://www.aallnet.org/products/pub_sp9809.pdf). In a given week, a reference librarian might work at the reference desk, do research for a partner or professor, serve on a committee, edit a newsletter, conduct a training session, and clear a printer jam. Meanwhile a technical services librarian might catalog some books, supervise the paraprofessional who is checking in serials, negotiate a contract with a bibliographic utility, serve on a university committee, and write a policy manual.

Organizing, Organizing, Organizing

An essential feature of library work is that it involves organizing. Librarians organize materials (cataloging and classifying). They organize information (creating bibliographies, setting up brief banks). They organize people and projects. Librarians also tend to think institutionally about policies and procedures -- for example, setting up a system for assigning study carrels that will fair to all the law students, setting up a check out system for a firm library that is likely to be used by all the attorneys.

Role in Decision-Making

Most librarians are involved in setting library policy and making decisions about personnel and resources. Some people think it is rewarding to be involved in the decision-making. Others think it is awful to have to figure out how to balance a budget or decide when to discipline an employee who is not performing well. The good news is having a say; the bad news is sitting in meetings, writing proposals, making tough calls.

Professional Involvement

Librarians often belong to regional and national associations where they can be involved by serving on committees, holding office, speaking, and so on. (This is more than a way to be clubby -- our professional involvement helps us do our jobs!) At many institutions, librarians get support for this involvement (e.g., having leave time and a travel budget to attend a conference). Librarians also often write for publication. In some academic settings, librarians must publish in order to receive tenure or promotion.

Self-Education

Law librarianship and legal research are always changing, so it is important for professionals to devote substantial efforts to continuing self-education. This includes reading professional publications, monitoring discussion lists, and attending training sessions.

Job Market

Law librarianship has a national job market. As a librarian you could apply for -- and might even be recruited for -- jobs in other parts of the country. The good news is that you can go many places in the field. The bad news is that -- depending on your city -- you might need to move in order to get the sort of position you want. For example, if you want to work in an academic law library and the one law school in your city does not have any openings now, you will need to apply elsewhere. Law librarianship also has local job markets. For instance, many (perhaps most) law firm jobs are advertised and filled locally.

Status and Stereotypes

Law librarians are generally valued contributors within the organizations they serve. However, just as they do not get the biggest salaries, they do not have other markings of status: the corner office, the best parking space, and so on -- those will go to the partners, deans, and judges.

Some organizations have some ignorant, rude individuals in positions of authority who do not treat librarians (or any support staff) with the respect they deserve. They are an occupational hazard.

Changing professions can mean swapping stereotypes. Some lawyers who become librarians miss the positive stereotypes of lawyers (smart, powerful, important) and regret the negative stereotypes of librarians (dull, mousy, prim). On the other hand, it can be refreshing to lose the negative stereotypes of lawyers (greedy, argumentative, unscrupulous) in favor of the positive stereotypes of librarians (smart, knowledgeable, helpful, committed, energetic).

Through our own conduct, we all help to shape the stereotype. The people who come to our libraries and see us in action know that librarians are accomplished, highly-trained professionals.

Find Out More About What Law Librarians Do

One way to get a sense of what law librarians do is to talk to us. We are a chatty lot and many of us are happy to talk to people who are considering the profession. Talk to the librarians at the law library you use or contact your local chapter of AALL. To get a snapshot of many law librarians’ workdays, see Frank G. Houdek, comp., "A Day in My Law Library Life," Circa 1997, 89 L. Libr. J. 157-237 (1997).

What About Library School?

Some people work as law librarians without formal training in librarianship. For instance, a paralegal in a small firm might have responsibility for filing the looseleafs and pocket parts; as the firm grows, the responsibilities grow to include reference, budgeting, and other duties and the paralegal is called the firm librarian. Some law libraries hire lawyers with good research skills to work as reference librarians; on the job, they pick up knowledge about other library operations.

So a library degree is not necessary to work as a law librarian. However, it certainly opens more doors. Many job ads call for a master’s degree from an ALA-accredited library school (a list is at http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oa/lisdir.html). Even if the degree is not strictly required, it will give you a competitive edge over applicants who lack it.

More importantly, library education can give you skills and knowledge that will make you a better librarian. While it is possible to pick up a lot through on-the-job training, self-education, and independent reading, a good graduate program will expose you to more in a shorter time. With the structure of classes and having papers to write and projects to produce, you will learn a great variety of things, from the basics of cataloging to issues of intellectual freedom, from setting up a web page to managing a department.

Going to library school does require a commitment of finances and time. AALL offers several different types of scholarships. Scholarships are also available from other sources -- check out SLA, ALA, your state library association, and your library school.

What About Law School?

A common misconception is that all law librarians have law degrees. In fact, only about 29% of AALL members do.3

Many academic law libraries require law degrees for reference librarians and many middle management positions. Since academic law library directors are usually members of the law school faculty, almost all of them have law degrees. A law degree is less important for other positions in academic law libraries -- for example, in cataloging, acquisitions, circulation, government documents, and computer services -- although some people in those positions do have law degrees.

Law firm library jobs seldom require a JD, but some law firm librarians do have law degrees. Court librarians may or may not have law degrees; several of the court library directors I know do have JDs.

A background in law can be helpful in reference and in working with the library’s parent institution. However, not everyone who has a JD is a good librarian and there are some terrific law librarians who have not been to law school (I work with some). A JD/MLS combination does increase your job options, but it is not the only way to go.

Conclusion

Law librarianship offers many challenges and rewards. If you think it might be for you, come on in!

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Footnotes

  1. In Focus: What Lawyers Earn, Nat’l L.J., June 14, 1999, at B7-B15. <back to text>

  2. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, Table 738, http://www.census.gov/prod/3/98pubs/98statab/sasec14.pdf. <back to text>

  3. John Geraci and Coleen Meagher, AALL 1996 Survey of members Summary Report, AALL Spectrum, Oct. 1996, at 18. <back to text>