Do I Have To?!: Professional Development and Law Librarians

By Clanitra Stewart Nejdl

The question raised in the title of this post is whether law librarians have to participate in professional development. The answer is yes. Yes, we do. I thank you for your time. Have a great day!

Alright, fine. There is obviously more nuance to the issue than that and there are various factors involved in the consideration. In fact, it may be more helpful to reframe the question from “Do I have to?” to “Why wouldn’t I?”. The answer to that question will still depend on a few factors but framing your analysis in this way allows you to review your existing priorities to determine if there are specific impediments to your participation in professional development or if there might be other issues at play. Because my personal experience as a law librarian is limited to academia, this post focuses on academic law librarianship. However, other types of law librarians clearly face similar considerations, and I would love your feedback on the extent to which professional development is valued in non-academic law libraries. 

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

First, let’s focus on what constitutes professional development. For many, there is a misconception that professional development is all about service to the profession (e.g., committee work, presentations, etc.). That’s certainly part of it, but professional development is really meant to enhance your skills and knowledge to make you better at what you do as a law librarian. That could mean enhancing your abilities and performance in your current position, but it could also mean improving your knowledge and skills as they relate to law librarianship overall. Being a “better” law librarian encompasses both the present and the future.

That said, service to the profession, scholarship, and other opportunities for active participation beyond the immediate workplace are indeed a key part of professional development. This aspect of professional development will definitely help you learn about the profession and become more capable, but it also enables you to gain experience working with and learning from other law librarians across the country (or the world) while making important connections for the future. 

You didn't come this far to only come this far.

Remember, professional development should not benefit you only in the moment; it should also benefit you in the long term. What the “long term” looks like is obviously different for everyone. All of us have at least some ideas about where we hope to be professionally in the future. But even if we think we know what the future has in store for us, we can never really know. As the old proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” 

With that in mind, I’d like to address a few questions that might arise as you gauge your capacity for and interest in professional development as an academic law librarian. 

I’m a new law librarian. I know I need to attend meetings, webinars, and trainings, but I don’t have enough experience to serve on a committee.

I’ll bet you have more relevant experience than you’d think! First, I encourage you to read the wonderful blog post from Brandi Robertson for tips on advocating for yourself and knowing your worth. Secondly, I think you’d be surprised at the wide variety of opportunities to volunteer that are out there! If you are volunteering for service or leadership in national organizations like the American Association of Law Libraries, the Special Libraries Association, or the American Library Association and have not yet been selected, keep trying and make sure that you are emphasizing the varied experiences you have that would make you a great fit for service on that level. But don’t forget that there are plenty of options for participation on the local, state, and regional levels as well. Make sure that you are registered on various listservs and keep an eye out for emails from chapters and SISes. Also, don’t forget that there may be opportunities to serve within your law library, law school, or within a larger University setting. Once you get started with one volunteer opportunity, I have no doubt that many more opportunities will come your way. Possibly more than you’d like.

What about scholarship? As a new law librarian, I don’t have enough experience to publish anything.

Untrue, my friend! Not every article about law librarianship is a long, scholarly piece. If you feel you’re not ready to write a long article, consider publishing a short piece in a chapter newsletter or a SIS blog. Need a topic? Think about the things you do as a law librarian every day, how you do them, and why you do them. Then think about how others might benefit from reading your thoughts on those services and activities as well as your ideas on how to improve them. Writing about what you’re doing is a good way to get more comfortable with scholarship and to start to develop your scholarly interests.

There is a lot of information available about how to get started with scholarship as a law librarian. For example, Meg Butler discusses the ins and outs of law librarian scholarship in great detail here. PEGA-SIS regularly hosts its Beer & Edits writing workshops to help law librarians develop writing ideas and get feedback on drafts. Those are just a couple of the resources out there. There are many more, which you will easily find because you’re a librarian and you’re awesome!

I’m an experienced law librarian. I’ve got more than enough on my CV.

It’s wonderful to feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, and you should! But remember that professional development is not just about doing but also about learning and improving. No matter how much experience we may have, there is always more to learn and there are always innovations in services and practices that we need to recognize and understand. Secondly, whether it is fair or not, experienced law librarians are looked to by less-experienced law librarians as examples. To my mind, a law library in which the experienced law librarians fail to value, participate in, or encourage various types of professional development is not one that is helpful for the professional growth of newer librarians. So, I encourage you to think beyond your CV to the other benefits that professional development can provide.

I’m at a great institution that doesn’t require professional development and I’m never leaving. So there.

Okay. First, please refer to the proverb I mentioned above. Let me also throw out two scenarios:

1. You never leave your current workplace.

Do you have any interest in being promoted at your current institution? Would you like a substantial raise? If so, what qualifications are needed for said promotion or raise? Do you currently have those qualifications? If not, how will you get them? 

One might think that taking proactive steps to expand your skills and abilities as well as become familiar with new trends and services might be a good place to start.

2. Life happens, and you do indeed eventually work elsewhere.

If I were a betting person, I’d bet on this scenario. There are myriad reasons (some positive, some devastating) that might lead someone to leave a workplace. Ideally, if that does happen, you’ll be well-positioned to find a job as great as or better than the one you left.  But how does that happen if you haven’t been keeping yourself marketable? What will differentiate you from the many other qualified law librarians out there who are also applying for jobs? Will the employer considering your application view professional development differently than it was viewed at your old workplace? These are important questions to consider.

I’ve been reading about slow librarianship. Where does that fit into the equation?

The philosophy of slow librarianship, as defined by notable proponent Meredith Farkas, includes many laudable aspects, particularly those aspects that are patron-facing and service-oriented. However, to the extent that slow librarianship might be erroneously interpreted as giving license to librarians to avoid consistent and ambitious professional development, or to the extent that it fails to recognize the realities of the professional world, there is cause for concern.  

With the existing structures and hierarchies that apply to most academic law libraries, slow librarianship as it applies to law librarians as employees may prove impractical. Tenure-track academic librarians, for example, will likely find it difficult to meet the service and scholarship requirements of tenure without actively (and sometimes relentlessly) pursuing opportunities that meet those requirements. It’s also worth noting that there is a very real fear for many professionals from marginalized communities that they must work harder to be recognized professionally than their peers who are white males, particularly regarding promotions and pay. For those individuals the idea of moving away from a productivity-based outlook will be understandably difficult.

I agree with all (or some of) your points, but I’m tired and I need a break.

Totally fair! Burnout is real and finding a balance is critical. Each of us has things to do besides being a law librarian. That’s why it’s important to remember that not all professional development opportunities will be right for you. Holding a position on a committee focusing on a topic that you have no interest in is little help to you other than as an item on your CV. Attending a webinar or conference that will provide you with no new or useful information just to say you’ve attended is a misuse of your time.  Just because you’re asked or invited to attend or participate in something doesn’t mean that you have to do it. Plus, you certainly can’t do everything at one time

To the extent that you are able and based on your own professional circumstances, being thoughtful and strategic about the specific opportunities that will help you advance your own goals will help minimize burnout and prevent the feeling that you’re overdoing it. When making decisions about what to volunteer for or participate in, consider not just your work responsibilities but also your mental well-being and need for time to recharge.

My hope is that after reading this, you’ve determined that yes, you do have to participate in professional development, but not all the time and not with every opportunity that comes your way. You shouldn’t try to do everything, but you should regularly do something that helps meet your professional goals.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.