Law Firm v. Academic Librarians

I recently graduated from library school and started my law librarianship career. Although I had previously set out to become an academic law school reference librarian, I was presented with a wonderful opportunity to begin my law librarianship career at a top law firm. I am often asked how being an academic reference librarian is different than a law firm librarian.

The first two words that come to mind are “billable hours!” During my first few days at the law firm, I was overwhelmed with all of the client matter numbers. For everything from making a copy, scanning, phone calls, and searching Westlaw and Lexis, you need a client matter number. I can no longer search computer assisted research services broadly and freely like I used to in the academic world. Now, when I login to a billable resource, I need to have my specific client’s purpose in mind and be as effective and efficient as possible. This was a transition that I had to overcome. Luckily, my fears of client matter numbers and billable hours have subsided with time and practice.

Academic reference librarians usually spend time within the classroom teaching their users about research. Even if academic librarians are unable to gain time in the classroom, they still teach through one-on-one sessions by demonstrating a resource to a user who comes to the reference desk. In law firms, librarians do not have a direct opportunity to teach on a daily basis. In fact, many of their interactions with users are through e-mail and phone calls rather than in person. However, law firm librarians always have the opportunity to train each other and the newer associates either within a larger setting or one-on-one.

While many of the primary and secondary resources that law firm and academic librarians use are similar, their questions and scope are diverse. Typically, academic librarians assist with faculty research, law journal cite checking, student course work, and other law school extra circular activities. In contrast, law firm librarians perform research dealing with companies, filings, profiles, and other specific research relating to the various practice groups unique to their firm.

Also, the user base that we serve is different. Academic law librarians typically see a wide variety of users – law schools serve law students, faculty, staff, alumni, attorneys, judges, undergraduates, visitors, some members of the public, pro se patrons, and much more. Conversely, law firm librarians typically only serve one type of user- their attorneys and staff. However, law firm librarians are generally able to work with attorneys and other librarians from all of the law firm’s offices, whether domestic or global, which allows for diverse perspectives.

Even though there are some key differences between being an academic and law firm librarian, we both share many commonalities. As law librarians, we are all trying to best serve the research needs of our users. We are both presented with unique and challenging requests by users in high-pressure environments who seek immediate assistance. The research we provide for our users is vast, always evolving and rewarding. At the outset of my law librarianship career, I hope to experience more collaboration and blending amongst the law firm and academic law librarian world, as we both can be a tremendous help to one another.