For the New Law Firm Librarian: A Conversation Between Two Veterans

Before the Interview
During the Interview
Library Partner or Library Committee
The Collection
Managing the Collection
Vendor Relations
Library Staff
Communication Within the Firm
Your Image Within the Firm
Professional Associations: ALL, SLA, and Local Groups
Best Advice Received
One Special Tip to the New Law Librarian


Several weeks ago, we met at a LinkedIn seminar. We had not seen each other for a few years so we decided to have lunch. Since both of us have over 20 years of law librarian experience, it is not surprising that we began discussing the field of law librarianship and what a new law librarian might encounter as he or she enters this unique profession. As the conversation flowed from topic to topic it occurred to us that the comments might be useful to a new law librarian, as well as veteran law firm librarians.

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Before the Interview

We began the conversation with comments about preparing for job interviews.

ELAINE: Make sure you research the firm prior to the interview. At the very least, check the firm’s profile in the NALP Directory of Employers. This profile will give you an excellent idea of the structure of the firm and how they see themselves. Whether or not the firm is listed in the directory, it is worthwhile to contact the previous librarian employed by the firm to get his or her input. The vast majority of law librarians are very willing to share so the librarian may be willing to give you his or her personal perspective.

KAREN: Absolutely! We are a very collegial group as a whole. If the previous librarian left on good terms, the wisdom he or she imparts could be the single most valuable source of information.

ELAINE: Dressing appropriately for the interview is important too. If you are currently employed and your firm has embraced business casual, with an emphasis on casual, think about taking a vacation day so that you can work on your appearance. Be prepared to stay longer if asked.

KAREN: I have noticed that people dress differently than they used to. To some extent it may be generational, but I think as a whole, especially when clients are present, professional dress is certainly the norm unless you are told otherwise.

ELAINE: Equally important as your appearance is being mentally prepared with a thoughtful list of questions in order to learn as much as possible about your potential employer. It is through tactful questions that you will learn if you are a good fit for the employer. Perhaps more important is if the employer is a good fit for you.

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During the Interview

KAREN: It is a good idea to try to get a feel for the management. Inquire about the library services the attorneys use and what they expect of the library. Ask to see the catalog and to speak with the IT department. Also, the management committee may not be aware of the potential conflicts between the needs of the library and the current IT structure.

ELAINE: I couldn’t agree more. Some IT managers decide what technologies the library needs, giving little credence to the specific requests from the library director. If the IT department refuses any requests from the library you usually can not override it without going to firm management. It is difficult to complain about an uncooperative fellow manager when you are starting a new job (or have been their law librarian for several years). It is equally difficult to delay or relinquish library projects because you can not get the software/hardware you require. However, other IT managers are willing for you and your staff to handle all library technology projects, supplying assistance whenever asked. They respect your qualifications and are guided by your requirements when providing support and they work cooperatively with library staff members who possess computer skills. An interview with the head of this department will give you an insight as to how they will interact with the library.

KAREN: I tend to agree. You may even want to find out in advance whether there is an integrated library system in place, what operating systems are being used, and how the firm feels about outside programs on the network. These are all important things when applying for a position, particularly a management position.

ELAINE: Be sure to ask about a library budget. Some firms have a budget for the library and some do not. In one law firm, without a library budget, I was told everything they need is purchased including the “nice to have” titles. Also, ask about your approval level. In another law firm, my approval limit was $5,000. In my very next law firm the approval level was zero dollars! I had to email the managing partner with each purchase request. I would receive an e-mail in return with approval or denial. In other firms, various practice areas have their own budgets, such that approval comes from the attorneys within those groups to purchase materials.

ELAINE: Ask if you are required to bill your time. In one firm, I was given a billing number, but had no requirement to bill time. If the firm in question has a billing quota for the librarian, try to negotiate up front the requirement to bill no more than 1/4 of your work day. You can easily spend 3/4 of your day managing your library and assisting the attorneys and paralegals with their research projects, which will make it difficult to consistently reach and maintain a billing quota.

KAREN: Much of this depends on the firm’s different type of clients. If it is an insurance defense firm, your time will likely be written off. If your efforts are written off by the partner, you should not be insulted; it is just part of normal operations. With time, you will know how your billing and accounting departments operate. If you work a lot for client X, then you will be familiar with the client number and you just will not bill.

ELAINE: When getting a feel for the firm, try to learn how the firm is governed. For example, it could be a friendly dictatorship or an open democracy or any form of management in-between these two extremes. Ask if managers of the firm meet regularly to discuss management and professional responsibilities. At some firms, the non-attorney managers meet on a regular basis. This is an excellent way to build cooperation and respect among the various departments.

KAREN: Agreed. Firms’ procedures cover a whole spectrum of situations. In some cases, a secretary will enter the time. This usually is a secretary who works for several named partners who are semi-retired and working part-time. In other firms, the accounting department may choose to enter things directly into their own system. You may also want to know whether the billing department has special ways of entering invoices and time, as well as who controls the budget. Some library budgets are subject to revision by the accounting department so you might want to ask about the budget process.

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Additional Topics to Cover During the Interview

Library Partner or Library Committee:

ELAINE: Inquire if the firm has a library partner or committee. If so, the partner or committee will have considerable influence over how you do your job. Ask to speak with the library partner to learn their point of view about the library and how it should run. You will be at a great advantage if the library partner or committee supports your requests and decisions, and intercedes for the library when necessary.

KAREN: In some cases, the library committee members are chosen based on their use of the library. This type of committee has members who are more “hands on” when considering the resources needed. They know first-hand the services and requirements necessary for a fully functioning law firm library. However, this type of committee may or may not have much decision-making control. The composition of the committee changes from time to time and you may go from a new partner to an experienced partner who will be your voice and your champion.

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The Collection:

KAREN: With collections, much depends upon whether this is a litigation firm or a transactional firm. For litigation firms, make sure major practice treatises are available. Some firms will have at least one set of federal and state statutes, digests, and regulations. Also, each practice area will have their own standard publications. What is ordered depends upon the firm.

ELAINE: Be sure to ask for a tour of the library. Walk up and down the aisles, look for any signs of cataloging, including how and where items are shelved. Think about what changes you could introduce to make the library more user friendly for the attorneys. Also, most titles are now available via online databases. If you see several books on the shelves that seem outdated, you might ask how much of the collection is available online.

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Managing the Collection:

KAREN: Coming from a technical services background, I would say that you probably want to have some sort of database to function as your catalog for the library. For instance, make sure you can check to see if a title is updated through a certain date. Many large firms have an integrated library system. This is not necessarily mandatory, but it is desirable. Depending upon the size of your firm, these functions can be done using an Excel spreadsheet or an Access database.

ELAINE: One of the things I have always asked for at each firm is an integrated library system. I think “turnkey” because off the shelf modular software is a value added product, i.e., the cost to produce a comparable product in-house is more than the sale price of the ready-made software. The computer design work has already been done and with a little bit of customization you are ready to go. Be prepared to give the interviewer a reasonable cost estimate for several of the currently available integrated/modular library management systems.

KAREN: If you have an integrated library system, make sure there is an acquisitions and serials component, and some method in place for checking loose leaf filings. Out-of-date or missing pages results in out-of-date material and exposes the attorneys to liability. You need some sort of system to be sure that all issues of your publications are received. This is particularly important when managing loose leaf titles.

ELAINE: If the interviewer picks up on the idea of an integrated library system for the library, it is important to emphasize that you’re really talking about two things: (1) an OPAC and (2) a staff-side software management package. You could wind up with your catalog on a spreadsheet or an Access database. This would not be that helpful to the attorneys. I think the attorneys need an OPAC, particularly if the firm has offices in several cities. It is important that the attorney in City A can go online and find out what is available in City B. You may only be able to acquire the management portion of the software at first, but that is a good start since it will help you manage your library. You can always request OPAC software for the attorneys in subsequent years or during another budget cycle so that reference and research questions can be asked via a library management software.

KAREN: It is also a good idea to have a database of the many publishers you must deal with, e.g., account numbers. It can become time consuming changing passwords each time you visit a publisher’s website. One idea for the portal page is to keep a list of passwords for publisher websites, especially if you order regularly from the website or download invoices. Some firms pay their library invoices directly online from the publisher’s website. The librarian may have their own firm credit card. A “read only” function for the attorney who needs a database password could also be useful.

ELAINE: I agree. I currently have many titles that are routed to attorneys via interoffice mail, email, or through databases that require passwords. Having a dedicated publishers’ database, which keeps track of access codes and passwords saves a lot of time. However, password security can be a problem, especially when an attorney is working late at night and can not access a database.

KAREN: That is certainly a consideration. Having control over what is being ordered is important too. If an employee orders something that will need to be updated later on, it becomes an issue when you don’t know where the item is located. Also, password sharing among attorneys and staff may make it difficult to find out who incurred the charges, which can result in firm write-offs.

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Vendor Relations:

ELAINE: Make sure you ask about the quality of customer service.

KAREN: I think this is where good networking begins. Talk to librarians whose institutions are using various products. Most likely, they will tell you the pros and cons.

ELAINE: Be careful about the “extras” you receive from vendors. In the past, gifts have ranged from umbrellas to tee-shirts to brief cases. It was also accepted that a new law librarian would be taken to lunch (usually a very nice lunch) by Wexis. The gifts have almost disappeared, except maybe for pens and mugs and special items at vendor sponsored seminars. I think government agencies usually set the correct standard for their law libraries by not allowing the librarian to accept anything from the vendors.

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Library Staff:

ELAINE: What staffing assistance will be available to you? I have always had a library clerk, paralegal, or a secretary that was shared with another attorney. Earlier, Karen, you mentioned loose leaf collections. I have always been able to hire a filing service for loose leafs. You need to know if you will be spending your time as a professional filing loose leafs, i.e., spending your time running the library’s mail room. If you don’t have someone to help you, you will become the library clerk—and that may or may not be okay with you. The point is, you should know in advance before you take the job if you will be spending your time doing more clerical chores with less time available for working with the attorneys.

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Communication Within the Firm:

KAREN: Another important aspect of the interview is questions regarding communication. How will you communicate within the firm or with the attorneys and staff? Will you have access to an intranet? There are many ways you can communicate with attorneys concerning the operation of a library. Many of these solutions have to come through your IT department, which is why you should develop a good relationship with them. Be sure to get yourself invited to some of the firm meetings, but do not feel insulted if you are refused an invitation. Additionally, some firms have installed an instant messaging system where you can send short messages to someone within the firm. Similarly, Twitter has corporate accounts where you can communicate within your firm. I had access to an IM system at my previous firm. It was in the fledging stages and was used when someone was in a meeting and needed the library’s services.

ELAINE: On a very basic day to day level, the attorneys need to know when new books are purchased or when a new database is available. Emailing the information may be one way, but designing a library newsletter may be a better way.

KAREN: Much depends on how updated the firm’s network is. Many firms do not have access to an intranet or portal page. For example, I worked at a firm that had a highly developed portal. The OPAC was accessible via the information services portal page. We had a database with passwords so that the attorneys could get their Wexis and BNA passwords 24/7, a database training sign-up sheet, and a continuously updated acquisition list. Since this was a nationwide firm with at least 12 offices from California to New York to Florida, access to the firm’s portal page was invaluable. It was a necessity for the attorneys to have access to up-to-date information.

ELAINE: I think that situation is ideal. Your experience sets the standard of what a multi-office law firm should have for internal communication.

KAREN: Communication with the attorneys can also be facilitated with the use of library maps with stack numbers. This is especially valuable for new employees. A map should be created if one does not already exist. It is important to have good signage in the library too. If you don’t see this during the library tour, it is something to consider doing once you are hired.

ELAINE: The map is an excellent idea. One of the first things to do when hired is to create an orientation packet for the associates and law clerks. When attorneys are hired you will have something readily available to hand them as they tour the library. You should, at the very least, do this so that you can become thoroughly acquainted and comfortable with your library.

ELAINE: Some firms are organized by practice groups. At one firm, I was invited to the practice group meetings where I could hear the discussion on new cases and anticipate what resources would be needed. I have also worked for firms where I was not invited to meetings. If you are invited, go and try to offer something. If not during the meeting itself, at least after the meeting, discuss with the individual attorneys or the practice group heads about resources that would be beneficial.

KAREN: You also may be asked to present or arrange a vendor presentation at some of these meetings. This is a great way to increase your visibility within the firm.

ELAINE:Communication within the firm also includes communication with your co-workers, the IT director, the marketing director, etc. During the interview, ask if the managers in the firm meet on a regular basis to discuss firm policies, departmental projects, and accomplishments. Whether they meet together as a group regularly or not at all will give you an idea regarding the amount of collegial interaction and professionalism that exists within the firm among the non-attorney managers.

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Your Image Within the Firm:

ELAINE: Ask how the evaluation process works. If hired, you should anticipate your first formal review by preparing information regarding your work, e.g., the number of interlibrary loan transactions, research projects completed, etc. By the end of your first year, you should have a good record of your work and accomplishments, which will demonstrate your value to the firm.

KAREN: I have been told that many firms are moving towards a system of using objectives on which to base your review. You should think about what you do and make sure that the objectives relate to what you do. Show how you have met those objectives over the year. Counting all projects equally, without regard to complexity, can be counter-productive. However, a journal can become an integral part of Knowledge Management and may help you keep track of the firm’s needs.

ELAINE: Keeping a journal, especially of reference and research questions, is an excellent idea. Some questions do re-appear and a question you receive in June, which was answered or partially answered in February, can be a valuable time saver. I agree that this is a form of Knowledge Management on a grass roots level. Your task then is to merely update your previous research.

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Professional Associations: AALL, SLA, and Local Groups:

KAREN: Professional connections are essential, especially if you are a solo librarian or the only librarian in your office. Professional connections outside the firm with the local branch of AALL and SLA will provide you with much needed information and social interaction.

ELAINE: You should take advantage of the invaluable continuing education opportunities provided by professional library associations. Inquire if the firm supports CE for the firm’s managers, especially for the IT staff. IT departments process many mandatory updates for both the software and hardware for the firm and the library. In order to keep abreast of all the changes, the IT staff needs to continually update their knowledge through professional meetings, seminars and CE courses. If the firm does not support IT personnel attending, at firm expense, CE courses then you may find it a challenge to garner firm support for your CE and for your attendance at AALL or SLA meetings and conferences.

KAREN: I strongly believe in attending conferences, even if using personal resources. There are many ways to cut costs, such as finding a roommate. The resulting knowledge you acquire and connections you make will be very important, whether it is your current position or a subsequent one.

ELAINE: I could not agree more. If the firm will not pay for your memberships, CE courses, or conferences, you should pay for it yourself and include the expenses in your personal budget. Professional participation is too important to relinquish. These necessary expenses could be brought up during any conversation regarding your starting salary. Be sure to mention the value of interlibrary loans to the firm and how the process is facilitated by local professional memberships. The interviewer will understand that no law firm library has the budget to purchase or house everything the attorneys’ need. They will clearly see the value when they realize that interlibrary loans are facilitated by your local professional membership, which is paid by the firm.

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Best Advice Received:

ELAINE: Well Karen, the lunch hour is almost over, but before we go, I’d like to ask you a question. What is the best advice you have ever received from another librarian?

KAREN: My answer is two-fold. First, never stop the learning process. Even in difficult circumstances, nothing will be lost. Much is gained from an attitude of lifelong learning. Secondly, don’t isolate yourself. Find a way to stay connected both to your firm and to the outside library community. Okay Elaine, now your turn.

ELAINE: That’s an easy one for me, Karen. The best advice I ever received from a librarian was just after taking my first professional job in D.C. During lunch one day, I commented on the state of the library and questioned the work ethic of the previous librarian. Good manners should have prevented my comments. Luckily my lunch companion, an experienced librarian, said something like the following:

Do not complain about your library. The previous librarian still works in this town and is very much liked and well respected. You have no idea what conditions that person worked under or what political challenges he or she faced on the job. Just be grateful that you have a job where you can use your skills and hopefully the librarian after you will believe that you did your best under the conditions you encountered.

What great advice! A few months later, I was introduced to the former librarian and I found the person to be delightful and we became friends.

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One Special Tip to the New Law Librarian:

ELAINE: Consciously plan your career. No need to obsess over it, but at least once a year take the time to figure out where your career is headed and why. After reflecting, if you can say you are happy then celebrate your good fortune. If, however, you find that you are unhappy—plan an exit strategy. Planning includes many things from dusting off your resume to taking courses to entering a new profession. Planning your way out protects the income stream. However, there may be one exception to protecting the income stream and that is when the unhappy circumstance has reached your inner shell. If your self-esteem is assaulted to the point that you are rapidly changing your professional and/or personal outlook or if the job is teaching you to really understand the phrase “I don’t care,” then think seriously about running, not walking, to the nearest exit. Personally, you may have a family dependent on your income or maybe there is just you. Whatever the family situation, in that circumstance it might help to think of yourself as a rescue swimmer—they protect themselves first—because if they drown they won’t be around to rescue or help anyone else.

KAREN: I don’t have anything to say that would be more important that that. Your satisfaction with your career stays with you even in difficult circumstances and you should make every effort to maintain it.

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The lunch hour went quickly and we only covered a few of the most important aspects in seeking a law firm librarian position. We offer these comments and insights, for what they are worth, to the newest colleagues in our profession. As a professional law librarian, you bring a wealth of knowledge to your employer. If the firm is wise, it will value and use your skills in library management, legal research, and library vendor relations. We wish you as much professional fulfillment, enjoyment, and fun in the profession as we continue to have.

[Note: Originally published in the Legal Division Quarterly, Volume 17, Numbers 1 and 2, Winter/Spring, 2009-2010. Reprinted with permission – Legal Division Quarterly, the newsletter of the Legal Division of the Special Libraries Association.]

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