Bypass the Law Librarian

Most lawyers in private practice do not have access to an in-house reference librarian’s service. When I moved to Canada, I was surprised at the research lawyer market, because I hadn’t noticed a similar commercial research option in the U.S. It fits in and above a typical law library reference service. The appeal is obvious and it’s a way for legal professionals to bypass a law librarian, but is there a way for law librarians to push into the same space?

Research lawyers can be found in Canadian large law firms and you can find freelancers pretty easily (I looked in the US, but only found one new lawyer in Kentucky to ask about it). The closest I ever saw was a lawyer who went to a non-ABA law school who was hired in to the firm as a paralegal, but was doing more detailed research. And US-styled law clerks, often law students, would range up and down the research-to-analysis chain as well for the firm lawyers they support.

But that’s not most lawyers. The context I’m considering are the solos and small firm lawyers that are the majority of the North American legal profession in private practice. The American Bar Foundation‘s lawyer statistics report (2006) identified 70% of lawyers in solos to 10 lawyer firms. The Canadian Federation counts firms, and solos are solos even when they work with others, so it’s harder but the skew is still towards the 1-10 firm size. And while many firms may have someone handling collection, it takes a certain number of lawyers to tip over to having a reference service that could absorb both research and analysis. I saw a report that said the tipping point was somewhere around 40 lawyers.

So this is a market of lawyers that could be tapped by courthouse law libraries who are either free to access or are subscriber-supported through membership fees. And it’s the market that reference and research attorneys (or lawyers as they’re called in Canada, never attorneys) can also tap into.

I hadn’t really thought too much about them until I saw this Thomson Reuters ad go by for their reference attorney service.

Tweet from Thomson Reuters Westlaw promoting legal research professionals and reference attorneys.

This is a service that all commercial legal publishers provide, as far as I’m aware. It existed in some form when I was in law school, and I don’t mean to pick on Thomson Reuters (today) or other publishers. It’s an obvious service to provide to complement their legal research content – a legal research help desk for a legal research software company.

And it’s really legal research, but done by a lawyer so it’s … what, compared to a law librarian providing it? The Thomson Reuters reference attorney roles align perfectly with what a reference service provides:

Screenshot of linear graph showing legal research roles provided by Thomson Reuters reference attorneys
Thomson Reuters reference attorney roles are similar to law librarian roles

Some of it is focused on teaching the tool set, or explaining perhaps, since most lawyers will have seen an online legal research database at some point in their practice. Or used Google. I’d love to know what sort of call volume the legal publishers get, and how far up that value chain they find themselves.

A law library could do worse than to benchmark themselves against this Thomson Reuters checklist of activities. Public-facing courthouse and other law libraries may not be able to stretch all the way along that spectrum with self-represented litigants, but they can with lawyers. At the end of the day, the lawyer is responsible for the work product, and so the law librarian can partner to provide a higher level of value without tripping unauthorized practice of law limitations.

A reference lawyer goes further beyond that spectrum, though. Here’s a recent job posting for the role at a Canadian law firm:

Screenshot of a job posting for a Canadian law firm research lawyer.
Research lawyer job posting listing the main duties and responsibilities.

That’s much further up the value chain into the the realms of analysis and outputs. I talk a lot about where law librarians can add value and I’m often visualizing this very old chart from Outsell/ Quantum Dialog, and which I’ve referenced in posts like this one on law librarians as data scientists. It’s clear that we’re all operating in the bottom left quadrant (the colors and labels are mine), although there is a cap in relation to self-represented litigants so public law librarians working with them may hardly slide up the left hand scale..

I think law firm librarians, government and other private law librarians, and private reference lawyers can regularly create information products that are further to the right. The question is, how far to the right can a law librarian go?

I don’t have a particular answer, other than I think we can probably go further to the right than we typically do. It depends on whether the librarians are comfortable with the added-value tasks – a librarian with a law degree may feel more familiar with a wider variety of outputs liked memos or draft briefs – so it won’t work for all law libraries.

From a consumer perspective – the lawyer – there is cost balancing between going to what may be a free-to-me law library and getting reference help and paying a reference lawyer. It’s complicated because most lawyers are also operating in the lower left quadrant when it comes to legal research. And there’s an awareness issue – lawyers may not even consider that librarians could provide that role, and I have seen qualitative research that says they would never consider a law librarian providing anything more than guidepost support.

It seems to me that there is a sweet spot – in the yellow area to the left, and as high up the right as possible – for law librarians to be to market high value services. Not necessarily services that no-one else can offer – even the legal publishers are in the bottom left quadrant – but enough to make law librarians more competitive against other research alternatives. A remaining challenge – because I know law librarians that have attempted this – is that it may be impossible to monetize this higher value through direct payments for service. I’ve talked about premium membership tiers, among other ways to monetize higher value services less directly. That may be more successful than setting up an hourly approach.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.


  1. Hi David,

    Interesting article. When I began reading, the Westlaw reference attorney program came to mind. Quite some years ago, as a Canadian research lawyer very slowly completing an MLIS, I attended US library-related conferences from time to time. I encountered more than a few JD/MLIS librarians, a few who worked as reference attorneys for Westlaw. I don’t recall having met any who worked as research attorneys in firms, though I did meet JD/MLIS holders who worked as research librarians in firms. I don’t know whether any of them were called to a bar or provided legal opinions or analysis in the course of their work. On the UK side, I came to learn of the practice support lawyer model that some larger firms had in place to do work of the kind similar to mine.

    The Canadian market is so much smaller that, it has often seemed to me, research lawyer leaders like Justice Bertha Wilson were able to establish a precedent this line of work for lawyers in the larger firms, and a few dual degreed or dedicated research lawyers (some with other advanced degrees, like LLMs or PhDs) whom I can think of really extended it. When I look at the marketplace now, I see some similar positions (in the 40+ member firms as you note) calling for MLIS degrees and styled as research librarian positions.

    For the record, a firm I worked with as their first research lawyer/information specialist (MLIS underway) was a smaller, ~20 member firm. Most of my consulting clients were small firm or solo lawyers.

    1. Thanks for that. It’s good to have the input of a Canadian research lawyer, and to learn about the firm size. It makes me wonder if, because they can stretch further along that value axis, they’re easier to slot into a smaller firm because they can contribute more to the bottom line.

  2. Very interesting as usual, David. I just did a presentation for some of my members letting them know we can provide legal research for them. I emphasize that we’re not lawyers, so we won’t do analysis, but we can provide the leading cases and commentary on a particular issue so they can do the analysis. It’s much harder to walk that fine line of providing information and not legal advice for self-represented litigants. We tend to err on the side of caution. Law society and courthouse libraries can offer a significant value to their members, if they’ll just take us up on it!

    1. I wonder, though, why you can’t do the analysis. The only thing that would seem to be missing – and not entirely missing – is a full understanding of the fact pattern. You would need to know some facts to research for them. And you would be working under their supervision (Rules of Professional Conduct), so if your analysis was right or wrong, it would still require them to verify, and they would be responsible for any submissions based on it. There are operational considerations – confidentiality, etc. – but other services work with more than one lawyer or law firm, so it’s more a matter of how, rather than if. I think there’s unexplored territory for courthouse libraries still!

      1. One of my concerns is there’s the risk of potentially being asked to provide research on behalf of both parties. Perhaps I’m being overly cautious.

        1. No, probably not. And yet service providers, lawyers included, have been able to manage these sorts of challenges. Courthouse law libraries may just need to flesh out the process, and likes on what the lawyers feel comfortable with.

  3. David, very interesting article. I run the Research Department at a US firm. We have Research Attorneys in our Knowledge Management department, and they partner very closely with our librarians. I have long felt that legal librarians are underutilized as legal researchers. Our team is thoroughly entrenched in legal research and when a project calls for legal analysis or drawing legal conclusions, they have our Research Attorneys to consult with. We have many attorneys who understand that these skills available to them through the librarians, but we are still working to market the invaluable skills found in our library.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. I’ve been here 10 years and I expect in both countries the KM and research roles have blended in similar ways. It’s funny how evergreen the challenge of getting librarians in that loop seems to be.

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