Transition to Law Firm From Academia

By Catherine Deane



It was time to find a new position. I was not a good fit for the culture in Nashville, TN. I wanted to move back to San Francisco but the academic law library salaries in the Bay Area are so low that it’s almost impossible to find middle class housing within a reasonable commute from San Francisco or Oakland. However, this is where the culture suits me and where my friends are, so this is where I needed to move back to in order to heal. After 5 years of trying to be part of the solution, I was exhausted, my health was in the dumps, and I was generally worn down by the constant barrage of racist and sexist behavior rampant in the American South.


Having spent the majority of my adult life in academia, collecting three graduate degrees and a Bachelor’s from Princeton University, I felt safe in the academic setting. Moving into the lesser known realm of Big Law was terrifying for me. Even after I applied, I wasn’t sure that I would want to say yes even if I got the gig. I had many fears.

Would the hours creep up, would I end up working overtime on the regular? Would the attorney demands overwhelm me, would I be able to find what they needed fast enough? Would I be able to recover from the severe health issues that came with five years of severe depression while also starting a new and unfamiliar job? Would I know what to do to run two local libraries by myself, with assistance available only over the phone or email? Would I be able to handle any emergencies after the Washington, DC and NYC offices close? Would I end up embarrassing myself by racking up thousands of dollars of charges on Westlaw or Lexis? Am I wearing the right dress? Does my hair look professional enough for this job?

How am I doing?

The answers to those last two questions were the easiest to figure out. Even though Shearman is a white shoe law firm, the culture of the offices matches the culture of the city, so when I visit the New York office, I wear a sweater to cover up my tattoos. Also, my hair is fine.

Team Life

One thing that is somewhat different is my position on the team. Being part of a team of librarians across the world where we all have some level of responsibility for research, training, and collection maintenance is really different from other experiences that I have had as an academic librarian. The academic librarians that I have worked with have often had very different job responsibilities and areas of expertise. We often had very individualistic goals, and teamwork meant things like: we all taught the same 1L research classes in the same classrooms at different times of the day; we took turns covering the reference desk; or we had a 3 hour meeting to agree on how to weed our assigned subject areas of the collection. The actual tasks were still very discrete and it was rare that I would collaborate intensely with any other research librarian on a research project where we both worked together to find materials for the same patron.

Now teamwork means that sometimes I come in to work and find that someone on the New York team has already handled a research question from one of my attorneys that was emailed to us in the middle of the night. It also means that when I am swamped, I can get help, so I don’t have to work late to get everything done. And when others are swamped, they can reach out to the rest of us to see if anyone can take on a research task that came across their desk. Since my specialty is foreign and international law, sometimes I am asked to assist with these kinds of research questions from attorneys in New York or DC, so even though no one in the Bay Area is in the International Arbitration practice group, I can still keep my FCIL skills sharp.  Communication is very important when your team members are spread all around the world. It’s possible that I talk to my teammates more now than when my team all worked in the same building.


Research – time allotted

One of the most interesting differences between the law school and law firm library environment is the immediacy of business priorities. Whereas, in the law school environment, I would often exhaust all possible avenues starting with the most likely and working my way down to the Hail Mary’s over the course of days or weeks. In the law firm, information is often only useful until a hard deadline that isn’t far away. So, I have to be more selective earlier on about how I spend my time. I need to avoid chasing tangential issues and I have to understand the research question more deeply. Moreover, because the attorney doesn’t have the kind of time that is available to a research assistant, I need to curate my results more intensely.

Clear Return on Investment

It’s hard to pinpoint, as a law school librarian, just how your work impacts the financial well-being of the institution.

It’s a lot easier to see that you contributed a certain amount of time to this case or that deal that brought in some money. Presumably your research process is faster and cheaper than an associate’s both because of your skill and your salary. It’s easier to demonstrate, for instance, that you saved an associate hours of work by finding them a template for a contract. Had they drafted it from scratch it most certainly would have taken a lot longer.  Similarly, it’s quite dramatic when you use your research skills to quickly find out what is legally permitted in the courtroom, while the requesting attorney is on the phone waiting for an answer in between breaks. It’s a lot harder to prove that you contributed to the income of the law school by teaching a course on legal research, or even by doing research for faculty publications.


The priorities for the collection are also different. At my last academic gig, I worked at a law school library that had a healthy budget, and each week I approved at least ten new books to add to the collection. The collection had value as a foreign and international law collection, independent of whether or not anyone was specifically interested in borrowing those print books right then. Additionally, the value of purchasing these books is connected to ABA ranking of the law school.

By contrast, in the law firm environment, the collection is lean and dynamic. Since the offices are spread across the world and so are the practices, we only buy in print what is absolutely necessary to support the business needs of the branch library.

The collection is dynamic, because the practice groups are dynamic. Attorneys from a particular practice group do not necessarily stay in one location, so if we have a standing order or a loose-leaf service, it’s re-evaluated every time it comes up for renewal, in light of whether or not the attorney who it was purchased for still works in that same office and whether the updates are worth the cost.

With regard to the online collection, the way we handle these subscriptions depends in part on how the subscription agreement is worded. If the subscription is a flat fee across all offices, we usually allow firm-wide access to that resource. If we have to pay a fee per user, then usually at least one or two librarians (in different time zones) get access to the database and then individual users are added from a specific practice group. The cost of the database is spread across the practice groups that are using the database. Westlaw and Lexis database use is billed back to the client, so we avoid using it for non-billable tasks so as to ensure that the specific practice group does not become responsible for covering the cost of the database when there is no client.

Similar Duties

Some of my current duties are quite similar to my former duties. Instead of:

  • creating LibGuides for different groups of students or for different courses, I create and maintain word document with live links to firm resources, tailored to specific practice groups.
  • figuring out how many times a law faculty candidate’s paper has been downloaded, I run background checks on people and businesses.
  • teaching 1Ls and LLMs, I set up database vendor trainings and give the new associates an overview of relevant firm resources.

New duties

Here’s a little secret. I had gotten a little burned out as an academic law librarian. It wasn’t as cerebral as I had hoped for. Most of my work was repetitious and process based. Every year, I showed new students the same techniques for using the same databases so they could write their FCIL papers for the law review or to help a law professor in their role as research assistant.

The research interests of the students and faculty were so varied that it wasn’t really possible to develop in-depth specialized knowledge of any specific area of foreign or international law. The utility of developing this in-depth knowledge seemed less and less every year as I spent more time showing people the process and less time actually doing any in depth research myself.

In-Depth Research and Deep Thought

Imagine my excitement and relief when I realized that one of my new responsibilities is to develop an understanding of what is going on in the world, through the lens of how world events impact the practice groups that I support. In particular, I’ve had the chance to develop a deeper understanding of U.S. fintech regulation and the evolving global law around data privacy.

Working for an international law firm isn’t all cheese and wine soirees (those are only on the first Thursday of the month), but there are many things that make me feel fancy! I can sometimes get help with tasks from people in other departments. I can get help with things like batch processing documents (think, changing font size or making pdfs searchable by full-text).  And I can get training in-house if I need to do small things that are a little outside of my usual job duties, such as making modifications to the Sharepoint based intranet. The other place I can get help is from our databases’ support teams. I would rarely, if ever, call the Westlaw or Lexis research attorneys for help with research when I was an academic librarian. Now, because of the time pressures of the law firm environment, I’m on a first name basis with the research attorneys at Lexis Securities Mosaic, a product that I never saw or used prior to last July.

New Fun Duties

I’m still a little tickled that I am the ILL department. It took me a few months and many emails with my mentor in Washington DC, but I finally figured out all of the steps and now I can place orders and track the process. There are some other fun, easy things that I get to do that I never had to do as an academic librarian, such as: shelf-reading, circulation and basic cataloging, purchasing books and keeping track of which of my two libraries receive looseleaf updates. Yes, believe it or not, some of my attorneys actually borrow print books from the library and I get to write their name on the insert and keep it in a special box. It feels so retro. I don’t think I had even touched one of those cards since my early college days in the 90’s.

Less Fun, but Still OK

One of the things that I have had to perfect over the last seven months since I started working at Shearman is the ability to keep track of my time in six minute increments. As it turns out, it’s easier to keep track in real time than to try to recreate it from memory and email logs later on. Now it’s second nature to me to make a quick note of the time each time I switch tasks. All of that detailed time tracking comes in handy when it’s time to write that self-evaluation.

Things that I’m still learning

Who’s who

Even though there are only 33 attorneys in the combined San Francisco and Menlo Park offices, there are 850 attorneys worldwide and any of them can and do contact me for help either directly or through other research specialists who reach out to me because of my expertise. I’ll probably never meet the attorneys from New York, but come wine and cheese time, I do my level best to match faces of my local attorneys to the photos in the firm directory, and I gather my courage to say hello to them and call them by name.

Who does what and what do they need

With 33 local attorneys divided into six practice groups and two offices in separate cities, it’s taken me awhile to remember who goes together. What I mean is, who is leading which practice group locally, who are the associates who work with them, and what kind of research do they tend to need. The more I learn what they do and what they need, the more I can help them.

How to navigate the law firm departments

What is still shrouded in mystery for me, as I get used to my new work environment, is who knows what, and where decisions are made. I’m sure there’s a great book out there that I’d love to read that would give me the details on how Big Law firms operate, but I haven’t yet availed myself of such edification, so I’m just muddling through, asking questions as issues arise.


In the end, moving to this particular law firm at this particular juncture in my career was the right move for me. My work day is only 5.5 hours and I live in the best city for me. Although I miss working with librarians in person, my team is only a phone call (or email) away and I have a lot of autonomy. It has been so great to learn, from my supportive teammates, the new skills that I needed to effectively run two small branch libraries. Working in academia has its benefits, but right now, I’m enjoying the freedom of never having to come in at 8AM to teach a legal research class to students who also wish that they were still in bed.

AALL 2015 Recap: “International Attorneys and LL.M. Students: Filling Research Gaps”

By Alexis Fetzer

scalesThe late Sunday afternoon session entitled “International Attorneys and LL.M. Students: Filling Research Gaps” targeted librarians working with international students in an instructional setting. Each speaker presented on his or her experience working with foreign LL.M. students.

The first of the three speakers was Jinwei Zhang, Reference and Instructional Technologies Librarian at the University of Tennessee School of Law. Ms. Zhang had a unique experience in that she had been a foreign LL.M. student herself. She began by discussing some of the unique challenges instructors face in teaching these students, such as language barriers, cultural differences, and introducing a new legal system. One cultural difference that Zhang emphasized was a reluctance to ask questions in class. Many of these students are coming from learning environments in which they are not encouraged to interrupt a lecturer with comments or questions. It is important to be patient and encouraging of these students in order to get them to open up in class. One suggestion offered was instituting more one on one meetings with students in order to get them comfortable talking to instructors and to answer any questions that they are too uncomfortable to pose before an entire class.

Nina Scholtz, Head of Reference Services & Instruction Coordinator at Cornell University Law School, was the second of three speakers. Ms. Scholtz spoke on her experience as an academic law librarian instructing LL.M. students in legal research in their Principles of American Legal Writing course. In this course she instructs students in four class sessions and then works with students individually on their research for writing projects.

One challenge she highlighted was the difficulty in overcoming language barriers for legal citation abbreviations. It is important for instructors to keep in mind that what appears to make sense in the English speaker’s mind as an abbreviation for a court or publication may not always translate clearly to the foreign student. An instructor should look for ways to make this easier for students to understand and should be able to point to resources that can assist students in abbreviating or deciphering abbreviations of citations.

Scholtz shared one of the exercises she performed with her students, entitled “Thinking like a Common Law Lawyer.” This exercise focuses on the factual analysis that needs to take place before students can begin tackling legal research. Students are tasked with finding the basis of the case, generating search terms, and looking to other synonyms and antonyms of those terms. After the class performs this exercise together as a whole, students are broken up into smaller groups and given the same type of assignment with a different fact pattern.

The final speaker was Furman Scott DeMaris, Research Services Librarian at Reed Smith LLP, who spoke of his experience as a firm librarian when Reed Smith took on several Chinese LL.M. students as apart of work-study program with Temple University School of Law. One thing the firm did was to offer research refreshers and training for these students. Mr. Demaris found that it was important to let these students know that the librarians were there to assist them, because otherwise they might not have identified the librarians as a resource. Research guides were also offered to students on topics such as how to avoid research pitfalls and how to perform cost effective research. One challenge in hosting these LL.M. students was that, because they were guests rather than employees, they could not be given access to all of the firm’s resources. At the end of their time with Reed Smith, the students were asked to give a presentation on Chinese Law. This was a great way take advantage of the special knowledge of these foreign educated attorneys and to educate the firm’s attorneys on a foreign legal system.

After the final speaker, attendees were asked to discuss amongst members seated at their table the challenges in training foreign attorneys in an LL.M. instructional program or similar setting. The microphone was then opened for attendees to share and for the speakers to answer any questions.