Law before library

Mitch Silverman of Nova Southeastern University asked me about how my practice of law has helped or hurt my emerging library career, and specifically what it’s like to work in the library at a firm where I previously practiced law. As my answer stretched paragraphs long, I realized it was a blog post.

Early in my first semester of law school, it became clear that legal research was clicking for me, and I wanted to do more of it. I asked a law librarian what I needed to do to become a law librarian myself. She got very serious and took me aside to ask what my odds were of getting a job practicing law after graduation. I told her I had good odds. She said in that case, I should definitely practice, and only think about library school after giving practice a try. (Sometimes I wonder whether, how, or why the advice would have changed if I had responded differently.) I’m sure the law librarian I spoke to gave me several reasons underlying the advice to practice law before pursuing librarianship, but the one that resonated at the time was financial. I had to admit it made practical sense to at least try to get my law degree to pay for itself before forking over tuition for yet another degree.

I practiced law for more than three years. Even though my focus was public finance, the reality was that folks from other practice areas were also coming to me regularly for help with legal research during that time. And as the junior lawyer in my practice group, I was given such tasks as updating demographic statistics for disclosure documents and learning just enough Sharepoint to create and maintain the group’s intranet page. For me, research (whether legal or statistical) and digital work were among the highlights of my workday; yet if I were going to progress as a public finance lawyer, I would have had to start handing those tasks off to others before long. When a spot in the firm’s library opened up, I jumped at the chance to do more of what I enjoyed.

Having practiced, I got a real sense of the pressures affecting lawyers. For example, it’s one thing to know intellectually that lawyers must account for their time in six-minute increments and that they must collect enough every year to cover salary and overhead. It’s another thing to live with that stress yourself for years at a stretch. I know how fortunate I am to work with kind and courteous lawyers, because I know from experience that when under that kind of pressure, it’s incredibly tough not to become curt and humorless.

It’s a powerful trust builder when a librarian has done a job that a library user is currently doing. If you’re a parent, imagine taking your child to the public library and discovering that one of the children’s librarians is a parent who has a child just a little older than yours. Even though you know that any well-trained, enthusiastic children’s librarian will do a great job of fostering your kid’s love of reading, you’re probably going to feel a bit more of a bond with that particular librarian, everything else being equal. I think it’s the same with law practice. Any well-educated, experienced law librarian can excel at providing the library services lawyers need. But if that librarian has previously practiced law, it may be just a little easier to build trust and rapport with practicing lawyers.

For me, working in the library at the same firm where I used to practice gave me credibility with the lawyers at the firm, not only because of my practice experience but also because I was a known quantity to them personally. They trusted me with complex research tasks from my first day in the library. In particular, the task of marketing the library internally is easier because I already have strong working relationships with so many of the firm’s lawyers from my time in practice. I feel comfortable chatting with them and getting their feedback, and they feel comfortable approaching me about things the library might be able to help with.

One unexpected benefit is that when legal publishers advertise directly to lawyers in my area, I tend to be on those mailing lists myself. This means I’m less likely to be caught off-guard by my library users suddenly wanting certain resources. Instead, I get a head-start during which I can either place the order for resources we definitely want to keep updated, or start researching the business case for (or against) additional resources. It might be possible to get on such mailing lists without being a member of the bar, though; it couldn’t hurt to ask.

There were briefly a few challenges as accounting, HR, and IT figured out how to adjust their workflows that had been designed to fit silos of lawyers or staff to accommodate my transition from law practice to library staff. The professionals at my firm easily surmounted these minor difficulties. From time to time, I encounter people, not at my firm, who scratch their heads trying to understand where I fit in the lawyer-nonlawyer hierarchy. I enjoy doing my part to blast that dichotomy to smithereens because everyone deserves to be treated with basic respect, as well as an added measure of respect due to the professional qualifications they’ve achieved, whatever those may be.

Overall, I’m glad I took the path I did, and I’d recommend it to others who are considering law librarianship. However, law librarians who haven’t practiced law aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage by taking another path; they gain different strengths from their own experiences.