The Skill Development Disconnect in Law Libraries

I read today’s post by Sarah Sutherland in the On Firmer Ground blog, “The developing skill-employment disconnect in law libraries and what to do with it” with interest. Sarah Sutherland is Manager, Library Services of McMillan LLP in Vancouver and currently Vice President of the Vancouver Association of Law Libraries. In this post she argues that law libraries have been sheltered from technology changes as compared with others in the library industry, and have therefore as a group not developed the skill sets now needed, or which will be needed in the near future.

In my work as consultant advising to libraries and the legal industry, as well as teacher and parttime professor, I think about this quite a bit. Where is the legal industry heading? What skills will we need to meet the future? How will we all develop those skills?

Sarah points out that those who already have the skills needed are usually gainfully employed and so will cost more to recruit from other firms. A better option, she therefore suggests, is two-fold:

  • develop existing staff
  • when hiring new staff, hire the skill sets not just that you need today, but for the future.

I would add a corollary:

  • when hiring new staff, hire those who have the aptitude to develop new skill sets.

Professional development plays a key role she says:

Part of the solution to this problem is for library managers and organizations to be open to the idea of training staff on the job and being open to providing more funding for professional development. Library staff should also take responsibility to develop this paradigm. Staff members can take the initiative and approach their employers with proposals to develop skills in anticipation of coming needs and changes. This will enable them to remain relevant and take advantage of some of the benefits of employment that are of most value to them in the form of professional development time and funding.

It always saddens me when I hear legal organizations not supporting staff to go to conferences because, really, they are just shooting their own organizations in the proverbial foot, putting them further behind where the industry is heading. In the world of law libraries it is often conference attendance that plays a big role in professional development. This is where we compare notes and learn from one another as a profession. I would encourage employers not to discount attendance just based on cost, but look at what is being discussed at the conference.

But we all learn in different ways. Other alternatives to conferences for professional development and learning new skill sets:

  • continuing education offered at universities
  • certificate programs in areas such as information management, records management and project management
  • webinars from associations, vendors and other interest groups
  • reading, reading reading! Blogs, articles, books and anything else you can get your hands on.
  • working on projects, especially as part of a team, to expand skills and learn from those with the expertise. This could include in-house work projects or committee work such as within an association
  • writing articles or blog posts
  • speaking on a topic
  • talking with and learning from people with expertise.

One thing I find is that employers–especially in the legal industry–tend to look for new staff who have already done the work they are hiring for. But, this does little to challenge and develop a staff member. I believe you are better to hire someone who has done work slightly more junior than what you are looking for, but who has shown an aptitude to catch on quickly and can learn. People need to be pushed outside their limits to advance, so hiring people completely inside their comfort zone means they likely will not be challenged, and therefore could become complacent and disinclined to learn.

What are your thoughts–are you seeing a disconnect with skill sets? If so, what can we do to improve the situation?


  1. Great points in here Connie! As a young(ish) professional, I can say that I and my organizations have (I hope) benefited from seeing development potential to fill a role by growing into it. I think that the challenge created therein fosters a lot of growth and hard work in terms of an employee, and leads to greater engagement with their work.

    I also think that the other side of the coin to this challenge is that librarians need to do more to advocate for themselves to attend conferences and pd events. Employers don’t see value in this if we don’t show it to them – unfortunately, the question of demonstrating value is an ongoing challenge for our profession. As well, there are lots of creative ways to engage with pd on a shoestring – getting a discount on attendance for volunteer work or speaking engagements, attending virtual events or free/low cost unconferences, auditing courses. Being creative about pursuing pd not only allows librarians to be able to demonstrate the value of being on receiving end, it also allows us to show personal commitment to growing our skills, which smart employers should see as a massive advantage.

  2. Thank you, Eileen–some great points. I agree, you are investing in your own future by finding a way to obtain professional development however that is accomplished. We can’t wait for our employers necessarily to provide it for us.

    That being said, I don’t think employers should put out grand edicts such as “no travel to conferences outside the city” when the main way to obtain PD is through conferences outside the city. It can be a false economy to save a few dollars on the travel (and law librarian conferences are quite inexpensive compared to lawyers’)

  3. certificate programs in areas such as information management, records management and project management

    Courses offered from other disciplines are helpful on:

    adult education and instructional design
    business process analysis
    facilitation skills
    negotiation skills

    And may I add: electronic discovery, especially if law library is organizationally married with records/information management within a firm. Here, there seems to be huge disconnect in the legal sector where lawyers and IT (hired as technical guns) might work together but on the sidelines is the law librarian/information records manager who has oversight and skills on deep information digging combined with how information is exchanged, changed and communicated.

    From a former law librarian who worked in law libraries for over 50% of career (govn’t, private, court, legal aid) before knowledge and document management.

  4. Those are great additions to the list, J. And I’m sure we could come up with many more.

    As a law librarian I saw myself as sitting at the nexus of people, information, and technology and, as such, had the skills to help these all talk to one another. It often irked me that others did not recognize and tap into that. But, unless we tell them they will not know.

  5. I also wonder about the value of MOOCs in helping librarians gain exposure to other disciplines and emerging ideas. Are employers willing to treat these programs as “real” learning? Does it matter?