Thursday Thinkpiece: Azzolini on What Distinguishes Law Firm Librarianship

Each Thursday we present a significant excerpt, usually from a recently published book or journal article. In every case the proper permissions have been obtained. If you are a publisher who would like to participate in this feature, please let us know via the site’s contact form.

John Azzolini
Oxford : Chandos Publishing, 2013

Excerpted: pp. 9 and 10-14 from Chapter 2: Tasks, Skills, and Attributes

[Footnotes have been converted to endnotes here.]

Abstract: Law firm librarianship can be distinguished from its public and academic counterparts by examining several of the emblematic features of the firm environment it occupies: client centrality, rapid turnaround time for research results, the importance of practice groups, the prevalence of law and business resources, and the monetization of time…


Law firm librarianship distinguished from other types of librarianship


The essential goal of all libraries is to retrieve and organize information to satisfy the needs of their users. Beyond that baseline endeavor, however, there are major differences among library types regarding the nature of their users and working environments. These factors influence the way information is acquired, evaluated, and disseminated as well as how information work is perceived and carried out on a daily basis. Below are several noteworthy features of law firm librarianship that strongly affect its methods and processes. They are familiar to practitioners (who undoubtedly could point out a few that I missed). To the uninitiated, they will give a more detailed rendering of what to expect should they choose to enter the field.

Client centrality 

A law firm is a professional service firm (see Chapter 2 for more on this organizational type). In such firms the successful resolution of a client’s problems is the overarching goal. Indeed, this is the driving service ethic for lawyers. By dint of organizational culture, the client’s centered place in the firm’s worldview will also be affirmed by most of the firm’s staff. If you are a firm librarian, this means the firm’s client is your client. As the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct clearly state: “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.”[1] If not impelled by a corresponding zeal or adversarial mentality, the librarian must at least be motivated by pronounced levels of dedication and perseverance when tasked with a client-directed information request. When a client seeks (or demands) an answer, those at the receiving end of the question will snap into action, attorneys and librarians alike. The client’s premium place in the value chain is an unquestioned fact of firm culture.

The bulk of a larger firm’s clients are often commercial entities with enough resources to retain such higher-priced firms. These tend to be corporations, investment companies, business trusts, and institutional investors. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that such entities shall, for all intents and purposes, be considered the librarian’s clients as well, despite the buffering presence of the lawyer who provides direct counsel. For example, a librarian may be asked to retrieve some of the supporting legal materials with which an attorney successfully advises a corporate client in acquiring another company, thereby increasing that client’s market share (and the power and influence that go with it). Based on their political or ethical beliefs, some librarians might object to being placed in such a service relationship. If so, law firm librarianship is not for them. The client-based link to profit-driven business enterprises is a fundamental fact of law firms and the only way to avoid it is not to enter the field in the first place.

This all-encompassing regard for the client and the distinct workplace aura it creates are noticeably different from the public library and academic law library environments. For the public librarian, any member of the public who walks into the library with an information need is a patron, customer, or user to be served. They are almost never regarded as clients. That would imply an economic relationship that is unseemly in the public context. Similarly, university law librarians would feel at odds referring to students, faculty, or school staff as “clients.” Like public librarians, they serve their users directly through personal requests or develop resources and initiatives with these users foremost in mind. The firm librarian does have direct users to serve – any firm staff member with an information want is a part of that library’s user community. However, the firm client is a continual background presence and most reference transactions are motivated by the requesting attorney’s duty to respond competently to a client’s call for advice.

Rapid turnaround time: the norm of speed

Most law firm work occurs in the service of business interests. Such an environment is market-based, profit-seeking, transactionally complex, and fast-moving. This last characteristic needs repeating: it is a domain of accelerated interactions and rapidly unfolding events. Time is often

measured in economic opportunities gained, upheld, or lost. The prompt resolution of client problems can initially be pursued for the sake of reputation enhancement, face saving, or routine corporate housekeeping, but time is ultimately about money, and usually a large sum of money. Clients oversee projects with consequential business implications. They pay sizable legal fees and expect quick, expert advice. The attorneys providing this advice will demand the same turnaround of results from the firm’s support staff.

Librarians performing firm research are accustomed to this standard of timeliness. It is not uncommon to receive an urgent (and far from simple) information request that must be answered in preparation for a client call in twenty minutes. Promptness of response is also influenced by which staff member is doing the asking. In the firm hierarchy, partners occupy the top level of status and deference, and so their requests spark the most rapid response. Such an expectation of speedy results is taken for granted by firm librarians. And dispatch has to be complemented with fulfillment. Firm librarians are officially designated as salaried professionals by their human resources departments. This means there is no overtime pay for staying an hour or two past one’s regular departure time to get the right answer into an attorney’s impatient hands. And lunch hours are frequently as filled with searching and retrieving as working hours. The aim is a readily submitted finished work product. Professionals understand that project-free meal breaks and leaving the premises at official closing times are unpredictable bonuses.

Berring (2007)[2] nicely illustrates the value of speed among firm librarians as compared to their counterparts in the university setting:

When a professor asks a reference librarian in a law school to locate an obscure article, there is normally no immediate deadline staring the professor in the face. … By contrast, when a partner in a law firm demands a piece of similarly obscure information, the law firm librarian goes on red alert. A client who is paying by the hour cannot be kept waiting, nor can a court or agency be asked to be patient. The information may be needed now. No excuses are accepted.

Both public librarians and academic law librarians strive to serve their users with resourcefulness and persistence but the sense of immediacy as found in the firm is comparatively lacking. All librarians embrace an ethic of service. High-ranking faculty members command prompt and complete attention. Members of the public who approach the reference desk are usually met with impressive diligence. However, for firm librarians this ethic is infused with an overriding sense

of client exigency and consummated in an environment of demanding status-based relationships. Such a mixture establishes a norm of high-velocity information handling. Of course, this heightened speed is not an unmitigated force driving each and every task throughout one’s day, but it is a parameter always hanging in the background. One should understand it as a potential that can break forth at any moment.


[1] American Bar Association. Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Preamble & Scope. Online at:

[2] Berring, R.. (2007) “A Brief History of Law Librarianship.” In Balleste, R., Luna-Lamas, S, and Smith-Butler, L. (eds), Law Librarianship in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.


  1. “the law librarian goes on red alert”

    A fantastic image to describe how my team responsds to the information needs of our clients (internal and external). Red alert is an exciting state.

    Law fim librarianship is a fabulous career path – after 20 years I am still excited by the challenges, invigorated by the complexity, and to add to the benefits, I still learn something new every day.

  2. I do not think I have come across an article with as much well-written, real-life, wisdom as this. You have obviously been around the block, and are also a brilliant writer. You describe the environment of a law librarian to a Tee! Thank you!