Commentary: Is a J.D. Necessary for Law Librarians?


It was not too many years ago that the President of the United States answered a question during his grand jury testimony with the response, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”1 Is a Juris Doctorate degree necessary for law librarians? It depends on what the meaning of the word “necessary” is. It also depends on what the meaning of the words “law librarians” is. As there are different types of necessities, there are also different types of law libraries and law librarians. This paper gives an overview of this topic and then looks at the three main types of law libraries, namely, academic, government, and law firm. It considers the various roles within those libraries. It distinguishes between those roles where a J.D. is “necessary” because of certain standards by either the American Bar Association or the hiring institution or “necessary” because, without it, the librarian could hardly do his or her job. The paper concludes with some reflections on the possible future of the J.D. in the hiring practices of law libraries.


There are differing views on what is required to educate a law librarian. There is a widespread consensus that the MLS is foundational, the law librarian entry-level degree,2 although a few believe that diversification and specialization will make it less important in the future.3 The Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education of the American Association of Law Libraries reports that 85% of those working as law librarians have the MLS and only 30% have a JD or LLB and that less than 20% of the jobs in the field require the MLS and JD.4 It appears that most law librarians receive their legal training either from courses taught as part of their MLS degree or through on-the-job training.5 The American Association of Law Libraries emphasizes that the MLS is an essential qualification for a law librarian and that a core competency is “enough legal knowledge to direct their patrons to the correct resources” whether or not the person has a JD.6 Perhaps there is no one educational model for law librarians because there are different settings and requirements for law librarians. Those settings and requirements are the subject of the remainder of this article.

Academic Law Libraries

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Law Libraries, 45.8% of law librarians have an MLS with no JD, 5.4% have the JD with no MLS, and 43% have both degrees.7 Since only about half of all law librarians have the JD, is it necessary? Within the academic law library setting a distinction must be made between the various positions that are available for a law librarian. There are different rules and expectations depending upon the role the law librarian plays within the institution.


The Director of an American Bar Association-approved law school library must have the JD. ABA Standard 603(c) states, “A director of a law library should have a law degree and a degree in library or information science and shall have a sound knowledge of and experience in library administration.”8 Although the language says “should” and not “must,” the possibility of getting a job as a law school library director without the JD is slim. There are several reasons for this. First, the director is chosen by the law school. ABA Standard 603(b) states, “The selection and retention of the director of the law library shall be determined by the law school.” Interpretation 603-2 of this section clarifies this by stating that “The dean and faculty of the law school shall select the director of the law library.” Law school deans and faculty almost exclusively have the JD and tend to want someone in the library who also has the JD. A second reason why a law school director will invariably have to have a JD even though the ABA standard does not require it is that the director position is a tenure-track faculty appointment. ABA Standard 603(d) requires that “Except in extraordinary circumstances, a law library director shall hold a law faculty appointment with security of faculty position.” Law school faculties generally have JDs. Although it is possible for a law school director with faculty status to not have the JD, it is rare.9


Reference librarian positions in academic law libraries also tend to require the JD.10 Reference positions are often on a faculty tenure-track. Reference librarians in many law school libraries teach basic and advanced research and writing classes. A JD for a reference librarian is looked upon as fundamental to doing legal research and responding to law school students and faculty reference requests.

Other Positions

Although positions other than the library director and reference librarian may not require a JD, there are several reasons why an aspiring law librarian in any of those positions may consider the JD personally necessary. First, the JD has become associated with higher compensation.11 Second, and perhaps more significant than compensation, is that the JD makes a potential law librarian more competitive in the academic law library marketplace, especially since a lot of the competition is dual-degreed.12

Government Law Libraries (County, State, and Federal)

Langland’s survey found forty-eight job postings for court and government law libraries. Nineteen of those postings required the MLS and JD degrees. Twenty-one required the MLS only. Seven required the JD or MLS and only one required the JD only.13 The survey categorizes the job postings as for “court” or “government” libraries. The problem with this is that the standards for the various county, state, and federal law libraries differ and the survey does not make these distinctions.

County and State

County and state law libraries vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Their educational requirements also vary. For example, in Texas a county librarian must have a certificate from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.14 To receive the certificate the law says that the county librarian must have a degree in library and information science,15 but it appears that this law is not enforced. In Denton County, Texas, the law librarian has a bachelor’s degree only. In Collin County, Texas, the law librarian has an MLS and JD. Grayson County, Texas, recently advertised for a new county law librarian and for the first time required that the candidate have an MLS. The authorities who hire the county and state librarians obviously do not believe that the JD is necessary. The JD is seldom required for any of these positions.

In fact, it can be a point of frustration for a person coming into the law library with the JD only to find that the directors and leaders of the library do not have a JD and do not see the need to increase compensation for those who have it. The following anonymous comment by a member of Generation X says it well: “As a state court librarian, I am often frustrated with regard to salary. In an interesting way, this issue is related to generations in law librarianship. The title of “librarian” in the N.J. court system does not require either a J.D. or M.L.S. Many of the older librarians who have been in their positions for years do not possess either. In addition, they have no reason to lobby for change with regard to the “librarian” job title. As one of the newer librarians, I don’t feel that I am being justly compensated for my level of education. I also feel like I would have very little support from some of the older librarians if I wanted to seek a reclassification of the job title. I enjoy my work tremendously, however, my salary is extremely low considering my amount of student loan debt. (I have both and (sic) MLS and a JD).”16


The federal law libraries are in a totally different realm than are the state and county law libraries. For example, federal circuit court libraries come under the authority of the judicial branch of government. Their purpose, funding, and qualifications for employees are very different than their county and state counterparts. For example, the federal circuit court libraries are headed by Circuit Librarians. The MLS degree is required and most also require the J.D.17 The same requirements are true for the Deputy Circuit Librarians as well as most of the librarians that work in public services, including the Heads of Public Services and the Reference Librarians. The MLS is required for the branch and satellite librarians and for other librarian positions at the federal headquarters libraries but the JD is generally not required.

Law Firm Libraries

Law firms tend to have an ambivalent attitude toward the law firm librarian having a JD. On the one hand, it is generally not required for the job,18 although there may be a trend toward requiring the MLS and JD for reference librarians.19 The American Association of Law Librarians does not have a recommendation on this for law firms. In its core competencies it states the obvious that “[w]hether a dual degree is important in the law firm setting is an organizational decision that depends on the firm’s specific needs and attorney preferences.”20 On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that the JD may even be a liability for the person who applies for a position in a law firm.21 Attorneys in the firm may suspect that the law librarian with a JD is trying to come into the firm through the back door.22 Law firm librarians with a JD can also be misunderstood by the practicing attorneys in the firm who think of the law librarian with the JD as basically a researcher. Jennifer Stephens has been a law librarian in a Dallas law firm for several years and she states that law librarians with the JD have told her about situations where their law firms wanted them to interpret the law. She tells of one friend who said of her law firm that “they wanted me to read all the cases in a project and basically write a brief on them.”23 This may not be common but reflects a misconception that some attorneys have in law firms where the law librarians have JDs.

The JD Creates Some Additional Hurdles for the Law Librarian

Law librarians who do not have a JD and are not members of the appropriate bar violate the law if they practice law without a license. Although a law librarian with a JD and bar membership can theoretically practice law, most are in a position where they are explicitly not permitted to practice law in the course of their work in the library. A law librarian is a librarian, not a lawyer, whether they have a JD and a license to practice law or not. The purpose of this article is not to explore the problems encountered by a law librarian who crosses the line and practices law but it is important to mention that law librarians with the JD should be extra cautious. There are a plethora of problems that can accrue to a licensed attorney who holds themselves out as an attorney when they should be simply doing work as a law librarian.

Another hurdle expressed by those law librarians with the JD has to do with the way others look at them. Are they burned out attorneys or lawyers who could not cut it as an attorney and opted for an easier job in the law library? Murley asks, “Are we just ex-lawyers, or perhaps recovering lawyers, who work in a law library?”24

Finally, how do law librarians with a JD look at themselves? Can they make the transition to being a librarian or do they still feel the need to hold on to their life as a lawyer? Murley wrote an interesting article entitled “Please don’t call me a ‘lawyer librarian.'”25 She objects to this term because a lawyer is one who practices law and a law librarian does not practice law. At one point she practiced law but she gave that up to become a librarian. She ponders why people would use the term “lawyer librarian.” Is it because of insecurity or because they do not think that merely being a law librarian is good enough? Is it because they want to set themselves over those who do not have both the MLS and the JD? Murley argues that using the term “lawyer librarian” is an unnecessary offense to the thoroughly professional men and women who are outstanding law librarians and do not have a JD. Secondly, it does not really impress anyone. Students and faculty want good service and help with their research and they do not care what degrees the librarian has. Finally, Murley believes that the term shows a certain insecurity. Do law librarians with JDs feel inadequate as law librarians? Why else would a person need to refer to a former job to describe their current profession? Murley was a lawyer once but now she is a librarian, not a lawyer librarian. In the same way she was a baby sitter once but now she is a librarian, not a baby sitter librarian.

The Future of the J.D. in Law Library Hiring Practices

According to the AALL’s Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education, there are eight US universities that have joint MLS/JD programs.26 These universities certainly believe that there will continue to be a need for law librarians who have the JD. This is stated very clearly in an advertisement for the joint MLS/JD program at Indiana University. The ad states, “The demand for law librarians with dual degrees in law and library and information science has increased dramatically in recent years. The joint J.D./M.L.S. degree prepares students for careers as law librarians in academic, governmental and law firm settings. Candidates study law courses during their first year, adding courses from the School of Library and Information Science during the remaining three years. Students are required to participate in a law library internship and write a research paper covering a topic that is relevant to both areas and supervised by faculty members from both schools.”27 Perhaps the necessity of the JD will come with the particular job. On the other hand, it could simply be that the JD gives skills and abilities to the law librarian that will continue to be valuable in law libraries of all kinds.28

There are those, however, who argue that there is little or no future for the JD in preparing law librarians. Some believe that the MLS is sufficient training and preparation for any type of library. Although Bizub, Brunner, Trotta, & Warren write that the joint degree continues to be necessary and that the demand for it will continue to grow, they seem skeptical about the future of the JD because they believe that schools will see the need for more important advanced degrees. For example, they state, “In law schools with large international collections, language skills may be required. In a law firm or corporate library, advanced degrees in business or science may be desirable. Degree requirements will continue to become more complicated and confusing.”29

Other scholars do not see a future for the JD or the MLS because of the trend toward specialization. These degrees will continue to exist but they will not be considered essential to the work of a law librarian. Bernstein gives several reasons why he believes that the JD and the MLS will likely not be necessary in an academic law library setting. First, he believes that specialization is creating a greater need for reference assistance in non-legal databases. He states, “In the age of specialization, reference librarians will need to become better versed in an array of subject areas. Practitioners, faculty, and students will utilize reference librarians more than ever. As researchers rely more on electronic resources and delve into more subjects, more bibliographic instruction on using non-law databases will become a critical role for staff.”30 Since the need for non-legal reference assistance leads to greater specialization, the qualifications and credentials for reference librarians will change.

Secondly, changes in the qualifications for reference librarians are also related to changing dynamics in the marketplace. Bernstein believes that as the number of library schools shrink and concerns arise about recruiting the next generation of law librarians that libraries are likely to turn toward individuals who can serve their primary patron base in their particular specialization. He concludes that “[t]his will likely lead to reference librarians bringing specialized backgrounds to law libraries rather than having the law and library degrees be pro-forma core requirements.”31 He believes that the same thing will happen in law firms. They will need people who know a specialty area more than they know the law generally or library science.32


The JD is necessary for many of the jobs that are available in the law library field. They are necessary for the law librarian who wishes to be a director or work in public services in an academic law library. They are also required for individuals who want to be a federal circuit court library director, deputy director, head of public services, or work as a librarian in public services. The JD is not generally a required qualification for work in any other law library position. In fact, there are settings, such as the law firm library, where a law librarian with a JD has to deal with some unique challenges or even suspicions. On the other hand, is the JD necessary in the sense of being required for a person to be able to do a good job as a law librarian? Almost everyone in the field says that it is not necessary in this sense. Is the JD helpful for a person who wants a career as a law librarian? Certainly it is. It also gives the law librarian candidate an advantage in most law library hiring situations. In conclusion, is the JD necessary for law librarians? In the best tradition of the legal profession, the answer is, “It depends.”


American Association of Law Libraries. 2003. Biennial Salary Survey and Organizational Characteristics. AALL.

American Association of Law Libraries. n.d. Core Competencies For Head Law Librarian. AALL.

American Bar Association. 2005-6. Section of Legal Education & Admissions To The Bar. ABA.

Bernstein, M. 2007. One Size Fits All No More: The Impact of Law Specialization on Library Services. AALL Spectrum 11:16-7, 22-3.

Bizub, J., Brunner, K., Trotta, V., & Warren, G. n.d.. IMLS Study on The Future of The Library Workforce. Panel on Law Libraries.

Brecht, A. 1992. Reference Librarians, Various Degrees (JD, MLS) — Forwarded Message.

Brooks, S. 2005. Educating Aspiring Law Librarians: A Student’s Perspective. Law Library Journal 97:517-36.

DiFelice, B., Duffy, J., Lambert, E., & LeDoux, E. 2004. Generations in Law Librarianship: Results of AALL Survey. AALL.

Hoeppner, C. (1993). Academic Law Librarian: Trends in Compensation of Academic Law Librarians. Law Library Journal 85:185-203. LexisNexis Academic database.

Indiana University School of Law. n.d.. Joint Degrees.

Langland, L. 1998. Educational Requirements For Law Library Directors. AALL Spectrum 2:24-5, 27.

Mead, D. 1992. Re: Reference Librarians, Various Degrees (JD, MLS).

Murley, D. 2002. Please Don’t Call Me a “Lawyer Librarian.” Newsletter of the Law Librarians of New England 22/1.

Noah, T. 1998. Bill Clinton and the Meaning of “Is.” Slate.

Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education. 1998. ALA-Accredited Graduate Programs. Joint MLS/JD Degree. American Association of Law Libraries.

Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education. 2006. What are the Academic Qualifications for a Law Librarian? American Association of Law Libraries.

Texas Administrative Code, Title 13, Part 1, Chapter 5, Rule §5.1.

Vernon’s Annotated Civil Statutes, Local Gov’t Code, Chapter 323.005(b).


1. See Noah, Bill Clinton, ¶ 2.

2. Brooks, Educating Aspiring Law Librarians, 518, 534.

3. Bernstein, One Size Fits All No More, 17, argues that the MLS and JD will become less and less important as specialization continues. For example, a law firm that needs a person who is proficient in a foreign language or a specialty area of the law will hire a qualified person even though they have no library science or legal training.

4. Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education, What are the Academic Qualifications for a Law Librarian?, § 2.

5. Brooks, 534, who believes that the main reason for this is the expense and effort required for the JD.

6. American Association of Law Libraries, Core Competencies,

7. American Association of Law Libraries, Biennial Salary Survey,

8. American Bar Association, Legal Education,

9. Langland, Educational Requirements, 25, looked at job listings in 72 AALL Newsletters (now AALL Spectrum) and found 90 advertisements for academic law library directors. 86 required the MLS and the JD, 1 required the JD only, and 3 did not specify.

10. Bernstein, 17; Bizub, Brunner, Trotta, & Warren, IMLS Study, 4.

11. Hoeppner, Academic Law Librarian, 191.

12. Brooks, 525.

13. Langland, 25.

14. Vernon’s Annotated Civil Statutes, Local Gov’t Code, Chapter 323.005(b) states, in part, “A person is not eligible for employment as a county librarian unless the person has first obtained from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission a county librarian’s certificate of qualification.”

15. The Texas Administrative Code, Title 13, Part 1, Chapter 5, Rule §5.1 states, “Employment in any county library or city/county library requires either a fifth-year degree in librarianship from a program accredited by the American Library Association or a master’s degree in library or information science from a program accredited by the American Library Association or a higher credential from a library school offering an American Library Association-approved degree in library or information science.”

16. DiFelice, B., Duffy, J., Lambert, E., & LeDoux, E., Generations in Law Librarianship, 96, comment #14.

17. Barbara Fritschel, e-mail message to author, February 20, 2007.

18. Langland, 25, discovered 104 law firm job postings in her survey. Only 9 required the MLS and JD. 92 required the MLS only. Langland, p. 27, states that “Law firms…are less likely to require a JD in addition to an MLS….”

19. Bizub, Brunner, Trotta, & Warren, 4.

20. American Association of Law Libraries,

21. See the discussion between Albert Brecht at and Dale C. Mead at, two listserv participants with very different perspectives on the view of law firms toward the law firm librarian with a JD.

22. Susan T. Phillips, the Law Library Director for the Texas Wesleyan Law School, experienced this suspicion as she worked in a law firm and completed her MLS (personal conversation with author, spring, 2006).

23. Jennifer Stephens, e-mail message to author, May 2, 2007.

24. Murley, Please Don’t Call Me a “Lawyer Librarian,”

25. Murley,

26. Task Force to Enhance Law Librarianship Education, Joint MLS/JD Degree, Those universities include the Catholic University of America, Indiana University, the University of Iowa, Pratt Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo, North Carolina Central University, Southern Connecticut State University, and Syracuse University.

27. Indiana University School of Law, Joint Degrees,

28. Langland, 27.

29. Bizub, Brunner, Trotta, & Warren, 4.

30. Bernstein, 17.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., 22.

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