Where do law librarians come from and where do they go to? Organizations that want to promote diversity struggle with the demographics of law librarianship. There’s an issue with finding and attracting diverse candidates. But there’s also the other end: are there positions waiting at the other end, once the candidates are looking for jobs?
Diversity is a challenge for lots of reasons. Smarter people than me have already looked at, discussed, and identified tools or methods to improve the diversity of law library staff. It’s an obvious and positive goal for organizations but it’s not an easy one to solve. There are some things, though, that as a hiring manager, seem like opportunities to change.
There are many approaches to finding ways to increase the number of diverse candidates. This proposed AALL 2020 session is a good example of some oft hose ideas. It’s also good to know there are opportunities to hear how other people are approaching the issue.
I was talking with a group of Canadian librarians a couple weeks back about how to impact the law librarian pipeline. We discussed how to find candidates that would broaden the diversity of the candidate pool. The clearest option from a hiring standpoint seemed to me to change the position requirements.
This is an acceptance that there is little ability to impact the ability of law schools and library schools to attract and retain diverse candidates. There may be ways to do that, but my focus is on what I can impact directly as a hiring manager.
It’s no secret that law librarianship struggles with diversity. Here’s a chart from a Law Library Journal article (free download from SSRN) showing how a law library membership organization’s membership reflects diversity.
Chart showing AALL membership data from 2000-2014 and contrasting overall membership with those identifying as minorities. From John Donovan’s article “Diversity: How is AALL Doing?”
This is soft data, to the extent that everyone who works in a law library in the United States and calls themselves a librarian isn’t an AALL member. The 500+ decrease in AALL membership may represent a loss of law library jobs, or a loss of membership (which could be due to personal choice, employer no longer paying, etc.).
But it’s a starting point. And it shows that people who self-identify as a minority are still significantly under-represented. A hiring manager seeking a diverse candidate pool may want to cherry pick from that membership group.
When we brainstormed about possible pipeline solutions, I was asked two direct questions: what does the MLS offer? and what does the JD offer? My answer in both cases was pretty much the same.
The MLS and the JD are not the only obstacles to hiring a more diverse pool, nor even the most dire. But unlike location, or local population diversity, and other factors, whether or not an advanced degree is required falls directly into the hiring manager’s discretion.
The benefit of the MLS for the hiring manager is that it creates an expected baseline of knowledge. A person graduating from an ALA-accredited library school should have a working knowledge of what libraries do. As we have seen with the competencies discussions, though, not all MLS graduates are created equal.
People can get that working knowledge by … working. I’ve seen more than a dozen folks start in a law library environment and get their credential (MLS or library degree) afterwards. I’m one of them, so that may be why I’m open to the idea.
The JD is similar. The benefit of a law degree is exposure to the legal subject matter that a law librarian will use. Terms of art are helpful in the back office and on reference, and understanding how the gears turn in the legislative and judicial areas is integral.
The only particular value a JD has is that it, anecdotally, smooths the relationship building with other JD holders. I’m not sure that’s a valid reason to require it – an acceptance that you’ll be treated differently, and less well, without it, by decision-makers – but it’s a common one. I’ve seen that in other lawyer-centric organizations that seem to prefer lawyers to subject matter experts because of that sort of caste approach.
But it’s still just a jump start. Like the MLS, it is a short cut to getting a new librarian up and running. There are plenty of skilled law librarians who have neither an MLS or a JD. Each degree requires the candidate to make an additional investment on an uncertain future, which may not pay off – literally, in the sense of financial indebtedness – if the goal is to be in a law library.
For my money, the most important thing a candidate brings to the table is customer service. Most other aspects of a law librarian’s job will be based on experience, which can be picked up, on the job. Then it’s just a question of how much are you willing to invest to improve diversity?
It’s why changing the job credentials may be the easiest way for a hiring manager to attract a more diverse candidate pool. There are lots of things you can’t change but making the MLS and JD requirements equivalence-based (“or equivalent experience”) seems a no-brainer.
It’s not just the front end, though. If we want to encourage people to enter a process, there needs to be something at the other end. It’s like succession planning. It’s no good hiring someone with an eye to succession planning if the person to be succeeded sticks around.
The AALL membership data above shows a drop, which might suggest fewer law library jobs. Again, anecdotally, that’s been a theme over the years. Here in Canada, a number of law library jobs have been eliminated as law firms close or merge or the library is absorbed into other teams.
An article out of Texas crossed my radar yesterday that gives a good example of why these jobs might be disappearing. A courthouse law library position couldn’t be filled because the candidates were too expensive for the position. In the end, the position was changed to a dual role, enabling a person with paralegal experience to handle both the part-time library duties and other court duties.
This may be a job that someone who has just paid for an MLS and perhaps a JD can’t afford to take. The part-time hours may be too difficult to supplement with additional hours to cobble together a full time position. The mixed duties may not be appealing to someone who wants to be an information professional.
The challenge hiring managers face is whether they can encourage candidates to start down a path for which there is no adequate outcome. I think the answer is no. In order to find diverse candidates, we need to find them where they are, with the experiences and credentials they have.
If we maintain our requirements and ask those further along the pipeline – the educators in library and law schools, the candidates themselves – to adapt, I think we’re missing an opportunity to have an impact.
It may be some time before I’m in a position to hire again but when it comes around, I’ll be more successful at reaching a diverse candidate pool if I can:
- eliminate or make optional the degree credentials (MLS, JD, and library technician) to allow experienced candidates to apply
- identify candidate pools (through professional associations or informal references) that would not normally apply, to encourage them to do so
- communicate to our organization that every new hire requires training and acclimation to fit into the team and environment, and a more flexible approach may require, short term, a longer learning curve, but the pay off is a permanently more diverse team