The Magical Law Library Staff

Rebecca Gebhardt
February 12, 2019

Guest post - by a UK Law Firm Librarian

Did you know that law firm librarians are magicians? It’s true, you know.

Lawyers, like many other library users in any sector, have very short memories, and little interest in anything beyond their immediate work. So, it never occurs to them how those important books they need just happen to be available when they need them, in the current edition. Or how it is that they can access those nice electronic databases. Or how the latest news on their work area arrives in their inbox. Or how their legal questions get answered so well.

It’s all done by the magic of the library staff.


The library staff are the ones trialling, assessing and selecting electronic databases, and negotiating prices and contracts for access to them. They’re constantly reading publisher information, to find relevant new titles, and keeping an eye out for new editions of current book stock. They’re monitoring multiple news sources for information pertinent to the work of the firm, and putting it into categories and formats that will get that information to the right people, as efficiently as possible.

Not to mention the research. The librarians are the ones who take the vague query they’re given, work out the core of it, learn the legal issues around it, collate relevant materials, and pass back a useful and relevant answer… even if sometimes the answer is “there’s no answer”, because nobody’s covered that point before (which happens a LOT more often than is fun for us – it’s not our fault no material exists on certain points!). We know our users, and which ones will expect not only the requested material, but also for you to have read it, and be able to have discussions about the content of that material.

And yes, we fee-earn too….if we can ever wrestle the file/matter number references out of the enquirer. It’s amazing how much in-depth research we’re asked to do for things that apparently “don’t have a file/matter number yet”!

Or the favours called in, from a network of information professionals across all areas, from academic to institutional libraries, when a query goes beyond the scope of the knowledge or resources of the library staff.

Or the hunting down of elusive, and urgently required books. As lawyers are far too important to use such silly things as systems that tell everyone who has a book, much library staff time is spent hunting down the books that users need, which involves checking desks, emailing all staff, and banging our heads on the desk in frustration. But we find them, and hand them over, usually with a heartfelt plea that they be signed out, in order to prevent such a hunt next time… a faint hope, but we try.

Or the budget balancing and negotiations – none of these lovely products are free, and it’s a constant battle for library staff, to balance the competing demands of the Finance Department wanting to cut the budget, and fee earners wanting new, costly items which require a budget increase.

Or the training of staff on how to use various resources, both in-house and external, and troubleshooting their problems. And maintaining a master list of their passwords, because they NEVER do as they’re told, and keep the email with the information on it in a safe place.

Or the unofficial Agony Aunt role to trainees and more junior staff, when they’re sent on a research wild goose chase, or they just need a sympathetic ear from someone not in their department, and advice on how to manage the expectations and workload that come with their role.

Or being an unofficial IT person – access to the server, shifting computers and phones, de-activating and re-activating internet access points…not in the job description, but just one more thing that needs done.

Of course, we’re not sitting on our laurels either. Library staff are always assessing the needs of their users, and if their service is meeting those needs properly. No library service is ever static, and redevelopment and reassessment is often going on behind the scenes, frequently in close partnership with other teams.

We are valuable law firm assets – we help all fee-earning staff to be better informed about developments in their work area, save them wasted time trying to find reliable resources, stock the physical and electronic library with current, valuable resources for their work, we make sure they’re trained to get the best from all in-house and external resources, and we fee earn when we’re given the chance to.

But to the lawyers, we’re just those people sitting quietly typing at a desk, doing, as far as they can tell, nothing.

But smart people know better… right?

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