14 July 2007

Forum on Teaching Legal Research

I tagged along with a friend to the town hall forum on teaching legal research put together by West Librarian Relations. I'm glad I landed there -- and that there were still seats available -- because the presentations and discussion were really good.

People who had been looking forward to hearing Bob Berring were disappointed. Much as I respect and enjoy Bob, I hadn't even heard of the session, so avoided that disappointment (although of course I'm sorry he wasn't able to come to this year's meeting).

The speakers from West (Anne Ellis, Michael Dahn, and Lezlie Bartz) shared interesting information the company has gathered from roundtable discussions with librarians, from surveys of lawyers, and from observational research of lawyers. For example:

  • Associates in their first year typically spend 90% of their time researching and writing. That portion goes down in the following few years as they become more efficient at those tasks and gain other responsibilities (client development, administration, etc.). New associates spend a lot more time on any given research task, often gathering more cases than they need. More experienced associates have developed more judgment and knowledge of their practice area, so focus better. Firms often end up writing off a lot of the first year associates' research time.

  • Many attorneys find research tasks frustrating and time consuming -- and at the end, they don't have much confidence that they have found what they need. (Librarians surveyed often felt better on all three counts.)

  • Print is still an important medium. Some 90% of West subscribers (ALL West subscribers, from solo practitioners to gigantor firms) have active print subscriptions, not just Westlaw. Among bigger organizations (law schools, courts, big firms) (i.e., organizations likely to have librarians), the number is close to 100%. Lawyers tend to choose print for quick look-ups (e.g., desktop manuals) and material that is highly structured (e.g., statutes). (Lezlie Bartz, senior editor for print and CD-ROM told us about some new print products West is bringing out to fit with those uses: rules pamphlets that brings together key statutes, court rules, and practice tips and expert witness handbooks.

  • A big deficit noted by lawyers and librarians is young attorneys' lack of ability in using print tools and in using them efficiently with online research.
Michael Dahn ably filled the Berring slot by reading remarks that Bob sent, adding his own, and moderating the discussion. (Michael Dahn is responsible for some Westlaw enhancements, including Results Plus.)

Three speakers reported on their experiences in their settings:
  • Monice Kaczorowski (Director of Library Services, Neal Gerber & Eisenberg, Chicago) described the training programs at her firms -- spearheaded and supported by top partners who believe it is crucial for their associates to improve their research skills. (The firm has also hired a legal writing professor to be an in-house resource for young attorneys.)

  • Patrick Meyer (Associate Library Director and Adjunct Professor, Thomas Jefferson School of Law) discussed his advanced legal research class. His teaching is informed by surveys he has conducted of law firm librarians, and he shared results of those surveys.

  • Connie B. Smith (Firm Director of Library Services, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius) talked about her firm -- its summer associate classes are as large as many law school's entering classes! -- and about roundtables she helped organize in Philadelphia (through GPLLA).
In the discussion session, audience members had a lot to say, including some ideas for ways that West could make it easier to teach students. How about giving students a report of what their "free" law school searches would cost in a typical firm? How about putting the Descriptive Word Index online? How about creating a video or other testimonial with comments from some of those attorneys surveyed who talk about how vital research is and how it makes a difference to a young lawyer's career?

At the end, West gave audience members a copy of White Paper: Research Skills for Lawyers and Law Students, a 9-page report with some comments from the panelists (including the panelists who couldn't make it) and some of the results of West's roundtables and market research. Anne Ellis says that this white paper will also be on the Librarian Relations web page (I couldn't find it on the website yet). Today's forum was also videotaped and will be available on the website as well. Watch for it!

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