A recurring question for me is how to build lateral growth in the flat hierarchy of a law library. In many law libraries, you’ll have three tiers of personnel: director, intermediate management, front line subject matter experts. When you do the math, there aren’t enough jobs for early career law librarians to move up into, and there never will be. So how, as a law library director, do we create an environment that enables professional growth without promotion?

A good example of what not to do is the traditional law firm approach. The number may vary but I’ve always heard that, as a new associate, you essentially had 7 years to make partner. Otherwise you could find yourself on the outside looking in. This is without taking into account the number of women who enter the profession only to leave in the first five years.

As I was working on this post, I found this law journal article – the Quiet Resignation (10 UC Irvine Law Rev. 799) – really useful for thinking about the reasons why professional women are underemployed. Walking Out the Door, an ABA/ALM collaboration, was also helpful. Both have quantitative data to illustrate the problems they discuss.

Lots of professions have this. The military has been struggling with its own “up or out” problems for decades. The US Marine Corps is shifting from “an industrial focus” to one that focuses on long-term retention. Instead of creating a career path based on a pyramid, with shrinking opportunities, how do we create one based on a square (or a cube?) that has lateral long-term retention?

Even the representations of these paths don’t really make sense in a law library. The “ladder” assumes that everyone has upward mobility within their knowledge domain: reference, cataloging, technology, outreach, etc. A lateral lattice, something like what’s on the left in the image below, makes more sense but most law libraries do not have more than one or two layers of upward mobility even if they can manage multiple lateral ones.

An image showing linear v. lattice career progressions from a Deloitte article “The Corporate Lattice: A Strategic Response to the Changing World of Work“, Cathy Benko, Molly Anderson, Suzanne Vickberg, Deloitte Review, Issue 8, 2011

This can raise its head in weird ways. In my last role, where I’d been recruited to be the library director, I was offered a promotion to leave the library and take over a different unit. One for which I had no subject matter expertise. It was a red flag that reflected that the organization and I didn’t value the same expertise and assumed managers wanted promotion, regardless of their own knowledge domains. I wasn’t interested in the role and it went to another fungible manager.

My ideal would be a single cube, not something that looks like a Rubik’s cube with multiple levels. And within that cube, librarians could go from the lower, entry side to the upper side with no limits on how they move around the vertical space between those two points. In general, it would probably be relatively straight up but it needn’t be ONLY that.

A cube showing that people can move from the bottom to the top in a variety of ways. The upward path may only reflect compensation – it need not reflect promotion out of a role.

Up or Out

This is not rocket science. My very first course in library school with Herman Totten, 25 years ago, walked through the career lattice. We should be able to work up or sideways as we go through our career. As leaders, we should be putting those laths down on the lattice to enable that flexibility.

Does your organization have long-term professional growth that doesn’t involve a promotion?

It’s top of mind for lots of folks right now because there’s a lot of concern about retention of our expert staff. This Fast Company article does a good job of summarizing the reasons not to promote a subject matter expert out of their knowledge domain. And for staff, they may be reassessing their long term goals and wondering how to reach them in flat structures with a small likelihood of higher positions opening up.

The greying of the library profession is well-reported. We are overlaying a pyramid of growth by promotion with an inverse pyramid of senior professionals, compounding upward mobility. Law librarianship is a great early career knowledge domain but a librarian could find themselves in a dead end within a decade.

There is a lot to think about. I talked about some of my own experience as I was in the middle, moving into leadership but also in need of personal growth. The threshold question: do you love what you do now or do you want to grow to love something else? A law library director is not a librarian in the same sense that a cataloger or user services librarian is.

AALL 2021 Salary Survey data represented in a chart comparing different law library contexts

We overlap in skills but a good law library director is fundamentally a manager and leader, a strategist and relationship builder. The extent that I can still manage servers or build web sites or answer reference questions or add records to the catalog is limited by the skills I need for my current role. The better I am at the former, the weaker I will be as a leader, who should be delegating those other activities to the people who are really the experts.

I still often introduce myself as a librarian but it’s mostly as shorthand. And, realistically, the skills I have now are probably more portable than when I did more recognizable reference or front line work. My own career development increasingly considers what I could do with my skills outside of law libraries.

But our front line staff have deep expertise. We shouldn’t want to promote them out of their knowledge domains unless they want to leave them. Our organizations will be richer if we can retain those knowledge experts in roles that they enjoy but can still grow within.

Dial Up or Broadband

One of the nice things about being back at my own shop and not part of a corporate management structure is that there is more flexibility. And one of the first things that struck me was our salary structure. Like many organizations, we have tiers of specialist roles. Even before you hit management, you can progress in seniority from Librarian 1 to Librarian 2 and so on. Some examples:

A law library in a larger organization may have additional complications. In my last library, the library staff were distributed with other information staff and a variety of other roles across a wide salary band. Here’s an example:

A chart showing salary bands with numbers in the left column and the right column showing some job role titles, with library ones in bold: library director at 6, library managers at 4, librarians at 2

This can mean that the gap between law library roles can be substantial, as the organization needs to account for other roles. In particular, roles with a law degree may be inserted above librarian roles, and IT often needs its own considerations because of scarcity and retention issues.

This can lead to illogical outcomes. In one case, I had two librarian roles that were essentially the same but one had a higher salary target due to experience. The higher salary target forced it into a higher pay band that it wasn’t allowed to go into, because those roles around the organization were low-tier management roles. This sort of foolish consistency forces managers to rewrite jobs or create creative job titles to game the system in order to get the salary and the role to align properly.

We compound this hierarchical growth with our knowledge domain silos. A cataloger probably isn’t going to lateral to run reference. A librarian with a technology background, like me, is going to struggle in interviews for leadership roles that will oversee reference or technical services, areas that we are unlikely to have deep expertise in. So we tend to choose a stream and stick to it in our careers, further restricting professional growth.

This work by Ithaka S+R is interesting although at a scale far beyond most – all? – law libraries. It is interesting to conceive of rethinking management roles to break away from the domains from which those people emerged. When you have a reference head who emerged from reference, they may end up advocating for their team at the expense of the other teams. You can end up with a leadership team that does not share a holistic view of the library’s strategy and goals.

Law libraries are smaller than that and can probably do with much simpler environments. One of the things I’ve been looking at is broadbanding salaries. It’s not novel but it seems like it gets overlooked because it doesn’t work in larger organizations. It’s new to me because salary bands are not something I’ve had an opportunity to impact before. But it seems particularly well-suited to flat organizations with highly skilled subject matter experts.

A library with with multiple librarian categories would collapse all of them into a single one. The salary range would start with the lowest end of the entry level role and end with the highest end of the most senior role. Easy. Now, any librarian can progress in salary without having to expend a certain number of years or receive promotions that may be space limited (waiting for a more senior role to open).

You would take a salary band structure like this:

A simple salary band structure for a law library

and collapse the middle of it:

A broadband salary structure for a law library

I left the multiple librarian job titles in there but, in reality, I’d collapse them into a single one: “librarian.” And if my library had a metadata librarian or a digital services librarian or a community outreach librarian, they’d all fall within that same band.

But it’s not so easy, really. Now you’ll be plotting your staff across a vast map and that can cause a couple of problems off the top of the head:

  • how do you compensate two reference librarians who have been working for the same amount of time? The same? Differently? I could see this creating issues if one person was better at negotiating than another but was otherwise doing the same work;
  • how do you ensure that librarians from one silo aren’t treated differently from those in another (reference and technical services, for example)? The competitiveness on the public-facing side could create the need to pay more to attract new hires but the salary compression could negatively impact other staff.
  • do you need to create some analog to the promotional expectations? For example, after what amount of work or time does a large salary bump happen? I think probably not, because the expectation would be that those large jumps wouldn’t happen and that growth would be continuous over the entire salary band arc. There wouldn’t be leaps up.

So you have created more opportunity for a librarian to remain on staff and growing in compensation by removing arbitrary obstacles. At the same time, you create new issues of fairness. However, these may be less dramatic than they appear, if we are talking a small organization. And in some law libraries, that have only one or two salary bands, it may be that there is no way to broaden what is already in place.

The other side of this, though, is the realities of the budget. At what point do you have a salary band that freezes. This would mean that, inevitably, longer serving staff would hit a ceiling. The other thing that would need to be considered is how to enable longer serving staff to have their compensation surpass their leader’s. It seems incongruous but not impossible. In fact, it may have more to do with how the leader sees their own value, because it’s non-conforming with how they got to their role: up and in.

As often is the case, I don’t have any answers, just questions and some thoughts. But I think it’s a conundrum we have to solve. If we continue to see rigidity in staff being willing to move to new jobs, then we will need to figure out how to deal with staff who want to be successful where they are right now. Otherwise we may see an outflow of subject matter experts from law libraries to jobs that provide that professional, compensation or knowledge, growth.