This is the second in a series which will shed light on alternative career paths carved out by graduates since 2007, including strategies and tactics that they have used successfully, and advice they offer to prospective and current law students.
Technical Services Librarian
Northeastern University School of Law
J.D. Northeastern 2009
MS Library & Information Science, expected 5/14
Simmons School of Library and Information Science
Focused Beginning: change the world
A major in sociology helped Anna Lawless focus on her desire to identify wrongs in the world and to be part of fixing them. An AmeriCorps year refined that focus and led her to take the LSAT. Selecting Northeastern University Law School, with its public interest focus and co-op program, seemed to be a logical choice for the next steps on her career path.
Debt-driven change in direction
A year of private practice and an economic downturn changed her life. Finding an alternative career became a goal.
“When I was going through law school, I was still excited about public service,” she said. “I did the domestic violence clinic, other programs and co-ops. Then I started to look at the debt and I got scared.”
Although it represented the “opposite of why I went to law school, I wanted to make a dent in my debt,” so Anna answered the call of summer associate recruiting. She summered and accepted an offer in a large firm’s corporate group. In retrospect, she was not surprised to find that “the people were great, but the work – except for the pro bono work – was not fulfilling.”
Timing is Everything
“In 2009 I was lucky to have a job, then when the firm started talking about letting people go, it looked like I would be on the list.” Prodded by this handwriting on the wall, Anna began to undertake some serious self-assessment, starting with “do I want to stay in the legal profession?” She talked to the career services office at Northeastern Law. “They were very helpful in helping me figure out and define what I was looking for,” she said.
Making the most of a connection
“I had been friends with law librarians and remained close to them. While I was still working at the firm, I talked to the associate director at Northeastern’s law library about the profession in general. A few weeks later a temp job opened in her library.”
Anna jumped at the opportunity, noting “If I hadn’t talked to Sue[the librarian], that wouldn’t have happened.”
Soon thereafter, a permanent position opened in the back end (technical services) of the library, and she was hired. The work that she does now includes ordering books, periodicals, and other resources for the library. Part of the technical services function is “making sure we receive all the material that has been published; getting materials ready to go out on the shelves; and helping the cataloger.”
Loves the job
“I love working with students. They are so excited about the law in ways that many practicing attorneys aren’t. Professors, too, are passionate about their research.”
In the library, she has “found the idealism and strong values that sent me to law school in the first place. Democracy can’t function without making information available, and my job is all about pushing people toward information and making it available to them.”
Regrets or second thoughts?
Anna does miss some of the down and dirty work that she experienced at the firm – the time spent scouring contracts, crafting documents, and ensuring the best deal for the client. The time she spends now, however, is fulfilling in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
Going to library school
Anna is a student at Simmons School of Library and Information Science working toward a Master’s degree, a four-term, 36-hour program. “How hard can this be?” she thought, and then began taking two classes a semester and working full time. Of course, this turned out to be very difficult, but the time commitment remains about the same as working at a large firm, she notes.
She has taken courses in information organization, reference, and technology. The work is thought-provoking and challenging. Libraries are changing rapidly right now, and the course work focuses largely on technology, information architecture, and preparing students for the many different forms information access currently takes. Students have to be prepared for libraries to continue to change and be ready to meet the changes and challenges head-on.
Although it makes sense in retrospect, Anna was initially surprised by the focus on technology. Basic web development is a large part of her coursework, which was not something she associated with libraries before starting school.
In the Simmons’ program, Anna found “the coolest people I’ve ever met. The classes play to parts of my personality that were missing. It is an idealistic place where the goal is to make as much information as possible.”
She has embraced one of the great challenges for information professionals which is training relatively young students whose research projects have always started (and sometimes ended) with Google. “It is a good resource, but there are so many other resources out there. Librarians need to educate people, showing them the value of developing keyword searches, using tables of contents, and other resources.” Students also need to learn how to find resources that don’t have “law” in the title or are not published by large legal publishing firms but contain useful information and answers to the many kinds of questions clients present.
Because she is working for a non-profit educational institution she has public interest loan forgiveness in place and will have income-based repayments when she finishes at Simmons.
“Debt was a real worry for a very long time, but I have come to peace with it. It is in perspective now, and I know that it will go away.” She has a “kind of resignation about it at this point,” treating it like a car payment or rent.
Thinking about a library career?
Most people go to law school first, she says. “It helps to have both degrees,” because the career ladder in law libraries usually requires them. “ Brush up on legal research. Most attorneys think that they know how to do legal research, but it is a lot more complex than lawyers realize.” “Don’t be surprised to get to library school and find out that the world of stored information is thousands of times larger than you ever imagined. A librarian’s job is to know where the information is and think about how to make it accessible to the public,” she added.
Talk to people
If you have even a glimmer of a question about this career path, “Talk to people. Ask your firm librarian, social (membership) librarian, or your alma mater librarian about the work that they do.” This strategy clearly worked for Anna.
Conferences are key
While still working at her law firm, she went to a half-day law librarian’s conference. “I was amazed at how nice people were to one another.” They created and shared tools and research guides, urging others to “use it and make your own.” Coming from a law firm, this spirit of collaboration was pleasant and inspiring.
Jobs for people with library training include circulation, reference, and technical services as well as periodicals librarian, cataloger, archivist, preservation manager, web designer, digital asset manager, publisher, information architect, and knowledge manager. Libraries can be found in academic, government, corporate or private/special settings.
Heads of libraries and library systems are often managing an institutions’ largest asset other than its human capital. Those managers (often titled “associate dean” in law schools) need to be both challenged by and comfortable with all aspects of managing multi-million-dollar organizations.
There are 51 accredited schools of Library and Information Science in the US. Among them are University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Syracuse University, University of Washington, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Rutgers-New Brunswick, Indiana University- Bloomington, University of Texas-Austin, Drexel University, University of Maryland-College Park, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Law librarians’ dedicated professional organization is the American Association of Law Libraries, but there are other organizations of interest. The American Library Association has a number of divisions including Association for Library Collections and Technical Services and Library and Information Technology Association. The Special Libraries Association is an independent organization.