I was fortunate to have some good advice when I was thinking about my move to law librarianship. By now, towards the end of my career, I have many observations and opinions of my own to share with readers who are now thinking about that move.
This article began over 20 years ago 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? I discuss salary below, but I’ll also discuss 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 finding their higher calling (as one colleague put it) 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, business people, bartenders, 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 jobs you have held before.
What About the Money?
According to the American Association of Law Libraries’ Biennial Salary Survey,1 the median salary for a law librarian in a one-person law-firm library in 2019 was $88,000 (p. 72). The median salary for an instructional/reference/research librarian in an academic law library was $76,000 (p. 59), while the median for a catalog librarian in an academic law library was $69,530 (p. 52). The median for a director/chief librarian of a law school library was $158,731 (p. 42).
There is considerable variation within each category. For instance, looking at instructional/reference/research librarians in law schools, someone in the 10th percentile in the South Atlantic region made $55,000 and someone in the 90th percentile in the Middle Atlantic region New York City made $105,739 (p. 59).
Of course, these are aggregated figures. Individual salaries will be higher or lower based on experience, education, quality of work, and the competition for a given job.
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. If you’re an AALL member, you can read it online.
Skimming the current job listings on AALLNet can also give you an idea of the job market.
More than Staff Who Are Not Librarians 2
In general, librarians are paid more than other library staff. According to the 2019 AALL Biennial Salary Survey, the median for a library clerk in a law firm was $50,680 (p. 86) and for a library assistant/paraprofessional was $50,000 (p. 85). Library assistants in the 90th percentile made more than some librarians, but generally librarians are paid more than assistants.
Less than Lawyers …
Law librarians make less than many lawyers but more than some others, for example:
- A law school graduate who clerks for a federal judge for a year typically makes $55,756 (JSP-11). But there can be adjustments, based on region—for example, in Seattle, where I work, the rate for JSP-11 is $70,821, because of the high cost of living. 3 (When I wrote the first version of this article in 1999, law clerks made more than the median for librarians in one-person libraries or law school reference librarians. Librarians have gained ground!)
- The median salary for 2019 law graduates was $72,500. In law firms, the median was $125,000. The median starting salary at public interest organizations was $54,325. 4
Your comparison group affects how you feel about salary. If you are a lawyer and compare yourself with law school classmates who are associates or partners at big firms, then a salary of $70,000 might make you feel impoverished. On the other hand, if you compare yourself with legal services lawyers, schoolteachers, or social workers, that same $70,000 can look pretty good. Consider that in 2019, the median income for American households was $68,703.5
Law librarians generally make less money than others in their organizations. In a law firm, the highest paid people are 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? Will You Be Good at It?
Now that we have faced the salary issue, we reach the more interesting questions: Do you want to do what law librarians do? Will you be able to learn to do it well?
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. Library staff people might have a good idea of what the librarians they work 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).
Within this wealth of diversity, I offer the following generalizations about law librarians’ jobs:
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 needs a fast turn-around on a task, then you might find some parts of law librarianship vexing.
Most law librarians I know juggle many different duties and projects.5 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 update 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, structuring an intranet site). 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 be fair to all the law students in a school or setting up a check-out system for a firm library that is likely to be used by all the attorneys in a firm.
Role in Decision-Making
Many 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. It might be good news to have a say, but it’s not good news for you if you don’t want to do the work of sitting in meetings, writing and reviewing proposals, and hammering out compromises.
Some libraries have strong upper management. In those institutions, librarians on the lower rungs might be less involved in the big decisions—but they might still have to grapple with decisions about smaller programs and projects.
Like most professional work, law librarianship requires good communication — in many settings, using many media. Are you interested in leading a class or training session? Could you explain the pros and cons of subscribing to a new database to colleagues in a selection committee meeting? Would you like to write research guides or create websites? If you had to summarize research results in a memo to a law professor or a judge, would you convey professionalism and intelligence?
Librarians often belong to regional and national associations where they might serve on committees, hold office, speak, and so on. Some professional involvement includes public service projects (for example, educating the public about the law and legal research, even if you aren’t in a library that’s open to the public). 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.
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.
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 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, arrogant) 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.
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 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.
If your preferred location is a big city with lots of law schools, law firms, government agencies and courts (think Washington, DC, or New York City), then you will have many opportunities on your doorstep. If you are committed to being in a smaller market, then you will need to be more flexible—e.g., being open to working in other type of libraries,
Find Out More About What Law Librarians Do
A new book gives a great overview of law librarianship in different settings. Check out Introduction to Law Librarianship (Zanada Joyner & Cas Laskowski eds., 2021). It’s public domain!
For a snapshot of the daily lives of sixteen law librarians, see Scott Frey, comp., “A Day in My Law Library Life,” Circa 2018, 111 Law Libr. J. 71 (2019).
Talk to us. We law librarians 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.
AALL’s About the Profession page has lots of information.
If you’re thinking seriously about the field, see about working part-time or volunteering in a law library to get a closer look.
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 program in library and information studies. (What used to be called library schools are now often called Information Schools or some variant, because they train people to work in many settings besides libraries. The typical degree is still a Master’s in Library and Information Science.) 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 that school provides—you have to show up in class, do the reading, write papers, and produce projects—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. If you aren’t already a techie, library school will help you get up to speed on databases, blogs, wikis, and other tools that are common in libraries nowadays.
Going to library school does require a commitment of finances and time. For the finances, AALL offers several different types of scholarships . But don’t stop with AALL: check out ALA, your state library association, and your information school. Many schools offer internships or graduate assistantships that place students in library jobs while they are working on their degrees.
What About Law School?
A common misconception is that all law librarians have law degrees. In fact, fewer than half of AALL members do.7
Many academic law libraries require law degrees for reference librarians and many middle management positions. Most academic law library directors have law degrees; many of them are members of their law school’s faculty.
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. 8
Won’t Technology Make the Profession Obsolete?
A long time ago, a librarianship student told me that one of her law professors advised her not to go into librarianship because the field would be dead in 10 years due to technological changes. The student became a librarian anyway. Years have passed, and I still disagree with that law professor.
It’s true that more legal information is available online each day and that researchers are less dependent on a librarian handing them books. But I have observed that the proliferation of online resources makes librarians more important to their institutions, not less:
- We are engaged in training and teaching more than before. Think of the lawyers in 1960 who learned how to use a digest, an annotated code, a legal encyclopedia, and Shepard’s. Those skills would carry them through most research tasks for the next twenty years. Today a legal researcher needs to navigate a wide range of resources—Lexis, Westlaw, specialized online services, electronic filing systems, and (still) print—and the resources change all the time. Librarians are helping researchers evaluate, learn, and use all the tools that are now available.9
- Electronic resources don’t manage themselves: someone has to negotiate the licenses, monitor the billing, and make the resources available to the users — not to mention decide which products to subscribe to in the first place! Librarians do all that.
- When there are millions of documents available, librarians can help researchers find those that are most relevant for a given problem. Busy lawyers don’t want millions of documents: they want the ones they need.
- Librarians help their organizations stay on top of new developments by sorting through the flood of information and directing it to the people who can use it. Years ago this took the form of flipping through the Federal Register in print; now it might include setting up online alerts, following blogs, and creating tailored RSS feeds.
There are more large law firms and more law schools than there were thirty years ago. Even if a new law school decides not to have many books, it still needs skilled librarians. Law firms are devoting less floor space to their libraries (many have gotten rid of long runs of regional reporters and other old standbys), but they still have librarians.
Some libraries have smaller staffs than they once did. Some are employing more high-level librarians and technology experts and fewer clerks, since they don’t need as many people to file looseleaf services, check in print serials, and so on.
I think demographics are on the side of new people entering the profession. Librarians from the Baby Boom generation are retiring and will continue to retire in the next ten years, and their libraries will need bright, capable successors to fill their shoes.
Of course, I could be wrong. Predicting the future accurately is really tough. (Ask meteorologists, stock analysts, or people who bet on sporting events.) But I don’t think the profession will become obsolete so quickly that you couldn’t make your living at it for some time. And what you’d develop as a law librarian—organizational skills, knowledge of research tools and techniques, writing and speaking ability, computer skills, teamwork, flexibility, resourcefulness—would stand you in good stead in whatever career you moved to next.
There are opportunities for law librarians in all parts of the country, in many types of law libraries, and in different library specialties. It’s possible to make a comfortable living and have a rewarding and challenging career. If you think law librarianship might be for you, welcome!
- American Association of Law Libraries, The AALL Biennial Salary Survey & Organizational Characteristics (2019), https://www.aallnet.org/salary_survey/aall-salary-survey-2019/ . The online version is available only to AALL members; you might be able to find the print edition in a local library. The 2021 edition is due out in November 2021. <back to text>
- Staff who are not classified as librarians have various titles, such as library technician, library assistant, and paraprofessional. I am trying out “Staff Who Are Not Librarians,” because some people find “paraprofessional” to be demeaning. See Hannah Schilpereert, Alvaro Quezada & Frances Lezcano, Words Matter: Interpretations and Implications of “Para” in Paraprofessional, 109 J. Med. Libr. Ass’n 13 (2021). I saw a proposal on Twitter that everyone who works in a library be called a librarian, but the fact is that our workplaces do differentiate positions by duties, responsibilities, and education, as well as by title. Some staff who are not librarians do great work and have lots of responsibilities. Sometimes they even have an MLIS. But in this section I’m trying to sort out what difference being a “librarian” makes in pay.
- OSCAR (Online System for Clerkship Application and Review), Qualifications, Salary, and Benefits (updated Feb. 1, 2018); U.S. Courts, Judiciary Salary Plan Base Pay Rates Effective January 4, 2021; U.S. Courts, Judiciary Salary Plan, Seattle-Tacoma, WA – Table SEA 27.02% Locality Payment Included Effective January 4, 2021 <back to text>
- National Association for Law Placement, Jobs & JDs: Employment for the Class of 2019: Selected Findings at 6, 7 (2020).<back to text>
- Jessica Semega et al., U.S. Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019 (2020). <back to text>
- See, e.g., Mary A. Hotchkiss, Managing Multiple Projects, or the Art of Juggling, AALL Spectrum, Sept. 1998, at 12-13. <back to text>
- In 2019, 40.8% of respondents to the Salary Survey had both M.L.S. and J.D., and 5.7% had JD but not MLS. AALL Biennial Salary Survey at 10 (2019). The proportion of law librarians with JDs has grown: In 2007, 27.2% of AALL Salary Survey respondents had both an MLS and a JD, and 5.4% had a JD without an MLS. AALL Biennial Salary Survey at 10 (2007). <back to text>
- For more on this topic, see George Butterfield, Commentary: Is a J.D. Necessary for Law Librarians?, LLRX (June 25, 2007). For more of my own musings on this topic, see Law Librarian, J.D. or Not J.D.?, 100 Law Libr. J. 185 (2008). <back to text>
- Twenty years ago, I argued that “perfect” catalogs wouldn’t eliminate the need for librarians (The Trouble with Utopia, 93 Law Libr. J. 203 (2001)), and I still find myself convincing. But that’s just me. <back to text>