In this interview, three members of the San Diego Area Law Libraries network (SANDALL) discuss the unique aspects of law librarianship. Our panelists’ credentials are given at the end of the article.
How many law librarians are there in San Diego? Who employs law librarians?
Lisa Foster: I don’t have a figure for all law librarians in San Diego, but the SANDALL membership last year was around 110. I believe all of the local law schools and courts (superior, federal, and appellate) have law librarians who manage their law libraries and assist patrons with research. Likewise, several of the larger local law firms employ law librarians. A handful of corporate libraries, such as the one at Qualcomm, hire librarians with a legal background to conduct patent research.
Do you need a JD or paralegal training to work as a law librarian?
Betsy Chessler: In law firms, there is a mix of credentials. Some law firm librarians have JDs, and some, like myself, have paralegal experience. Almost all have MLIS degrees.
Lisa: At TJSL, and other academic law libraries I am familiar with, we also have a mix of credentials. Most of us who do reference work and teach have a dual JD/MLIS. Some of the librarians in technical services (such as cataloging) have the MLIS but no JD. We also have one librarian with a JD only, and another with JD/MLIS and LLM (advanced law degree). A mixed bag. The same was true when I worked at the San Diego (County) Law Library. The librarians there have mixed credentials.
Michele Knapp: Use and understanding of legal materials and research can be learned through on-the-job training. However, educational requirements vary depending on the organization. At USD, all of our reference librarians and administrators have a JD, but most of our technical services librarians do not. In my experience, it is mixed at most libraries. It is more common for academic law libraries to require a JD than it is for court, law firm, or corporate libraries.
How is law librarianship distinct from other library specialties? Are the differences primarily in reference services, or do they extend to collection development and technical services?
Lisa: In my opinion, the only thing that distinguishes law library work from other library specialties is the specialized legal resources that we work with. I think there are more similarities among the library specialties than differences. Other librarians such as corporate librarians also perform research, and sometimes it is legal in nature (such as patent research). Our reference work follows the same principles that are used in public and general academic libraries. As with medical or engineering libraries, however, some subject specialization is definitely helpful.
Michele: Not only do we assist students with research in their academic studies; we also train them to use resources as legal practitioners. Materials used in the practice of law are quite different than those used in academia. Given a lawyer’s ethical duty to clients, we teach the importance of doing a complete job with legal research and of determining whether a law is still valid.
Betsy: Law librarians need to not only know what legal resources are available, but also how they interact with each other, and what the legal process is. Is this a primary source (statute, case, regulation), or a secondary source (treatise, commentary, etc.)? Is this a state or federal matter? Or something else, like tribal law? And of course you need to know how to update everything.
What specialized research services do law librarians provide? Is the work similar to that of a paralegal?
Betsy: I work for a large law firm (1000+ lawyers) and we answer a wide range of questions about lawsuits, witnesses, companies, intellectual property, and legislative history, in addition to general factual research. We also do the typical ILL requests, where we obtain scientific articles and legal treatises. We also gather competitive intelligence and marketing information. Sometimes we do handle paralegal requests.
Lisa: In an academic law library, doing legal research is not our core function. Our core function is to teach the law students to do their own legal research, so we do not do research for them. We help them locate the resources they need to do their own research, and we help them learn to use the resources. When I do research, it is usually to assist a faculty member with a project, or to prepare my own instructional materials.
Michele: My work involves instructing students on legal research methods and strategies and teaching legal research in the classroom. Our reference department offers a series of legal tech talks to educate students and faculty on current technology tools and trends. I work with members of our three student-run law journals, assisting them with citation-checking, choosing paper topics, and understanding best practices in publishing. I assist faculty members with their research. Additionally, I manage interlibrary loan operations. This includes obtaining materials from other institutions for USD students, staff, and faculty and sharing our materials with other libraries. We participate in interlibrary loan with numerous types of libraries — academic, corporate, government — many of which are not law libraries.
Do you sometimes have difficulty drawing a line between the research of a librarian and the analysis of lawyer?
Betsy: Our research requests are getting more and more complex, and I think they do sometimes stray into analysis that a lawyer should handle. In that case, we provide preliminary information and tell the attorney that he or she needs to determine the legal ramifications of any information provided.
Lisa: In law library work, it is important not to cross the line between providing research assistance and giving legal advice. That has not been a problem for me in the academic library, but it was more difficult when I worked for the County’s public law library. A lot of the patrons there are laypeople handling their own cases, and they often misunderstand the librarian’s role. Members of the general public frequently asked for information that would constitute legal advice (such as what forms to use for their case). We told them that we could not provide legal advice, but instead helped them find the books or online resources that would help them discover the answers to their own questions.
Michele: Usually, it is easy to draw that line. More often, the difficult part is getting the patron to realize the limits of our assistance. I have worked with patrons who want an answer to a legal question, although they do not always realize that what they are asking for constitutes legal advice. I cannot provide such information, even though I am trained as a lawyer. When this situation arises, I explain that although I cannot offer legal advice, I can direct them to materials that may help them. When it is clear that a patron needs legal assistance, I offer referrals to local agencies that may be able to provide them with representation. Unfortunately, a growing percentage of the population cannot afford to hire an attorney, so we see more and more pro se litigants in the library.
What do you enjoy most about being a law librarian?
Betsy: I like the variety of questions. I never know what will pop up in my inbox each day. I also have had the opportunity to work on many pro bono projects (legal work for the public good), which has included research on villages in Ethiopia and background for Supreme Court amicus briefs.
Lisa: I enjoy several aspects of law librarianship. Like Betsy, I like the variety and the fact that I am always learning. I like being able to use my legal background to help people, without the stress or long hours of practicing law. I like working with law students, and teaching them research skills. I like the collegiality of the profession. Librarians are very service-oriented, and are always willing to help each other, even between different institutions.
Michele: Like Betsy, I enjoy the variety of tasks and research involved in the job. Every day is different and the law is always changing, so I never get bored. Teaching, whether in the classroom or in an informal setting, offers endless rewards. Seeing the light bulb go on above a student’s head when they understand how to use a resource or how to choose the best research strategy is particularly satisfying. Additionally, I enjoy meeting and collaborating with other librarians. I am fortunate to be able to attend conferences and participate in committee work, all of which has introduced me to smart, creative people with innovative ideas.
What is SANDALL? What events do you have coming up?
Lisa: SANDALL is the San Diego chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries. Our next seminar will be in January on the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA). Additionally, we host a monthly “Buddies” luncheon that pairs professional law librarians with library students, new librarians, and other information professionals who are interested in the field of law librarianship. We host social events several times a year, usually at the holidays and in the summer. We have other committees such as Social Responsibility (planning public service activities and events that members can participate in) and Advocacy (keeping members informed about political and legal issues important to librarians, and taking positions on issues such as pending legislation of interest to librarians).
Michele: SANDALL offers library tours and educational programs as well. This year, I am working on group tours of the Salk Institute and a local museum. I look forward to collaborating with SLA-SD and attending the Networking Happy Hour in October. We welcome new members, whether or not they work in a law library. Currently, we are beginning a new membership year. For more information, please see http://www.sandallnet.org/join.
Thank you so much for your time.
Lisa Foster is a Reference Librarian at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She holds a JD from California Western School of Law, and practiced municipal law in the San Diego area for 23 years. Michele Knapp is the current Vice President of SANDALL, and works as the Reference and Interlibrary Loan Librarian at the University of San Diego Legal Research Center. She holds a JD and practiced criminal defense law. Betsy Chessler is a research analyst at Morrison & Foerster, LLP, a general service law firm with over 1000 attorneys and 17 offices worldwide. She worked as a paralegal for six years before becoming a law librarian, and is a former president of SANDALL. All 3 earned their MLIS from the University of Washington.
Local Law Libraries
- San Diego Law Library (a “special district government entity with branches in downtown San Diego, Chula Vista, El Cajon, and Vista)
- California Western School of Law
- Thomas Jefferson School of Law
- USD Pardee Legal Research Center
- The Riverside County Law Library has a branch in Temecula
-Tim Gladson, SLA San Diego Communications Committee