What Do Law Librarians Do?

All-California Institute 2012 – Photo courtesy Leigh Inman
From left to right: Ron Wheeler, Diane Rodriguez, Catherine Deane

I have never been so aware of the roles played by different types of law librarians, as I was at this year’s All-California Joint Institute, entitled The State We’re In: California Law Libraries in Unprecedented Times, held March 9-10, 2012.

Librarians as Instructional Design Experts

At the pre-institute workshop, Coordinating Legal Research Instruction from 1st Year Law Student to 1st Year Associates, I learned from Cindy Guyer about the intensive integrated legal information literacy program that the University of Southern California law librarians have put together. It is the stuff of dreams, mandatory legal research training coordinated closely with the legal writing program. Beyond that, with a staff of eight librarians working on instructional design, they are able to reject traditional pedagogy and instead craft learner-centered experiences for their students, employing multimedia games.

Adaptability of Librarians as Teachers

Since so many of us are still grappling with the WestlawNext and Lexis Advance platforms, Ron Wheeler, author of Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything: The Implications of WestlawNext on Legal Research, reminded us that as the platforms evolve, the way we teach must also evolve so that students still get an understanding of the value of different types of legal information resources.

Librarians as Resource Experts

Working at a law school where there is no mandatory legal research course, and students are so overwhelmed that they often only have 20 minutes to take mini-classes, Thomas Jefferson School of Law Interim Law Library Director Patrick Meyer and author of 2011 Law Firm Legal Research Requirements for New Attorneys discussed his research on the most important sources that we should focus on training our students to use in print and online.

Librarians as Technology Experts

Law firm librarian Betsy Chessler, talked about how she only gets 4 hours of formal training with summer associates at her law firm, Morrison Foerster (mofo.com). This is the limited window of time in which she can provide legal research instruction, because when summer associates return as new associates, they quickly become so busy that they rarely have time to come to training sessions. She leverages new technology to provide help to attorneys worldwide by using remote desktop to demonstrate how to efficiently complete the research tasks before them.

Librarians as Communications and Marketing Experts

No matter what we do, law students and lawyers think Google is a good place to start legal research.  Mark Gediman of Best, Best & Kreiger, put it best when he said, “Google is not about saving time, Google is about wasting time.” But given the ubiquity of Google, convincing lawyers not to use if for legal research purposes is an uphill battle.  Mark explains it to them by focusing on what is important to them, risk management. Google searches may yield bad law in the form of overturned statutes or unpublished opinions, with no citator to warn attorneys of the unusable status of the document.

Librarians as Small Business Managers

Two years ago, when I was applying for jobs, I sent a resume to the Santa Cruz County Law Library. At the time, I really had no clue what the job entailed. This panel was eye opening in many ways, and I have a deep respect for county law librarians. They give new meaning to the phrase doing a lot with a little. In particular, I was moved by the story of El Dorado County Law Librarian, Vanessa Christman. Christman is not just the only reference librarian at her library, she is the only librarian and the only full-time staff member. When she opens up the library,  her first task is to take out the trash. Lunch breaks are difficult because there is no one else to pick up the slack. However much they are paying her, it  is not enough.

Library Directors as Big Business Managers in the Big City

By contrast, Marcia Koslov, Director of the Los Angeles County Law Library discussed her huge revenue stream. She obtains money from filing fees, which are now at about $24 per document. There are about 25-35,000 filings in LA County per year. Money is also generated from their parking garage , and  library services such as MCLE classes and room rentals. With this income, she pays:

  • 60+ salaries
  • Building renovations and repairs
  • Security
  • Custodians
  • Insurance

Librarians as Collaborators & Peacemakers

In Managing the Challenging Client Personality in Your Law Library, Christy Cassisa, Esq. (non-librarian) provided us with a framework for understanding and dealing with behaviors with which we are all too familiar. As service providers who are also experts in our field, we often have to swallow our pride to provide help to people who do not really know what they want and sometimes do not appreciate the help we provide. Navigating the reference interview, collaborating with clients and colleagues, and to be honest, dealing with lawyers are challenging tasks. Our relationships are based on the client’s choice to come to us for help. We then have to sweet talk them into letting us help them. Sometimes I want to put on my business card “law librarian, lion tamer, kitten wrangler”.


It is clear to me that the term law librarian is a catch-all phrase for people who enter the legal industry and then choose to spend their time participating in the legal information service industry. As a group, we have diverse skills and we apply them in ways that in large part depend on the flexibility of our job descriptions and the vagaries of our individual personalities, the needs of those around us, and the whims of the administrators who supervise us or merely outrank us. We tend to be humbly willing to do things that may seem at first glance to fall far outside of the job we signed up. We do all of this, not always because we have to, but sometimes, because we can see that it needs to be done, and we can see that if we do not do it, then no one else will.

  • What is the strangest thing that you have done in your capacity as a law librarian?
  • What would you love to do, but you think it is too far outside of your job description?

About Catherine "Deane" Deane

Catherine Deane is the full-time Reference Librarian at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library. She performs in depth research for the faculty in support of their scholarship, and assists students with their legal research. She will be teaching the Advanced Legal Research course beginning in Fall 2011. She is also responsible for developing topical legal research guides for the TJSL community. She has created eight research guides since arriving at TJSL in November 2010, and has updated several more. She is also a regular contributor to ThomChat, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library Blog. Catherine Deane spent two years working closely with Vincent Moyer, Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the University of California, Hastings School of Law, where she created and curated ten research guides on varying topics in U.S., foreign, and international law. With Mr. Moyer, she published two book reviews and a foreign law research guide on the Laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (her home country). Prior to working at UC Hastings, she spent a year and a half doing contract work at an international law firm in downtown Los Angeles and she spent a year teaching academic writing at the University of California, San Diego. She has a J.D. with a Certificate in comparative and international law, which she acquired while studying abroad in Ireland, England and Belgium. She also has an M.L.I.S., an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology, and a B.A. from Princeton University in Cultural Anthropology with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Her research interests include Native American Legal Issues, Domestic Violence, and Legal Information Literacy.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research Instruction, Patron Services, Resources for the non-Academic, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Do Law Librarians Do?

  1. Pingback: Weekend round-up | jkbeitz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s