The Law Firm / Law School Disconnect

The upcoming Elephant Post this week deals with the question of what do law schools need to stop teaching, and replace it with something that the profession sees as more valuable to those entering the legal profession. I have to be one of the first to admit that when I transitioned from a law school job to a law firm job, I was stunned by the extreme differences between the two jobs that were supposed to be of the same profession. Setting aside some of the obvious distinctions, such as Westlaw contracts going from five-figure dollar range to the seven-figure dollar range, there were core areas of distinction between my law school job duties and my law firm job duties. After working in the law firm environment now for nearly a decade, I am constantly reminded of the dichotomy between law schools and law firms.

As I was making my way through my reading list, I ran across Jason Wilson's post on an upcoming paper from Lisa D. Kinzer, a law student from the University of Texas School of Law, where she discusses her survey on the utter reliance that law students have with WestlawNext. When I read a couple of the sentences explaining the thoughts behind the paper, it reminded me once again of the distinctions of "what's important" in the law school setting may not have any importance what so ever in the law firm. Indicating that students have a significant preference of using WestlawNext, Kinzer states:
When one considers that very few practitioners even have access to WestlawNext, the implications for the effective preparation of law students for the workplace are considerable.... In this paper, I review the results of my survey and offer proposals as to how law schools can incorporate the seemingly addictive WestlawNext into their research curriculum while still ensuring that students will be effective when working with the limited resources available at the average law office.
Law schools have an almost bipolar approach to how they prepare students for the legal profession. I know, many of you may think that tri-polar or quad-polar may be more accurate, but I'll just stick to the research approach at this time.  Just think of what the legal research and writing teams have to accomplish, and bring in the law librarians as well. First of all, there is the task of having to teach the basics of reading, writing, and researching based on the traditions of the profession. However, on the opposite end of this spectrum lies the advanced research tools, such as WestlawNext, that work to perform many of those basic tasks for the researcher.

In a way, you can think of it as teaching a teenager how to drive by having them read a book about a Ford Escort with a manual transmission, then taking them out on the road in a high-end SUV with an automatic transmission. I'm sure that the driving instructor would confidently answer that all of the students are capable of driving a manual transmission… although, almost none of the students will have actually driven one. Much like many of the R&W profs and law librarians will say that since students have access to the old "Westlaw.com" platform, they should be able to research on it if they are forced to. If you're a teenager and you have the keys to an Escalade and an Escort… both with full-tanks of gas, and Daddy will replenish the gas tank when you bring it back… which one do you think they are going to drive?

Now, before my friends in academia start drafting hate letters to me, I want to point out that I don't think that the problem rests with the R&W profs or the law librarians at the law schools. I think that the blame for letting students get out of law school without the proper amount of core legal research skills rests mainly on the shoulders of the law firms that recruit students without laying out the standards of what is expected of them when they show up on day one, and pass along that information back to the R&W profs and law librarians. Think about it… when is the last time that a law firm librarian went to the law school librarian and gave them a list of core skill that are needed to work at this law firm? I'm sure it happens, but not very often.

As long as we pretend that law schools and law firms don't really need to work together to improve the skills that law students have when they transition from academics to professional setting, then this problem will persist. I've heard for years, from both academics and firms, that they are hoping that either the Bar or some other association will step up and work out the details of changing how law students are better prepared for entering the profession. Well, guess what. These Bars and associations are made up from the same batch of people wanting it to be someone else's responsibility.

I think that this problem is worked out the same way that many environmentalist look at how everyone could save the world: "Think Globally, Act Locally". If you're really disappointed at the skills that your Summer and Fall Associates have when they come to your firm, draft up what skills you expect these associates to have, and give it to the law schools you generally hire from. At a minimum, it will get the conversation going. There's a saying that I use a lot around the office that kind of fits the situation that many R&W profs and law librarians at law schools find themselves in. "I can create great tools that do wonderful things, but if it doesn't fit your needs, then it is worthless." I usually back that statement up with a call for input from those I work with to tell me what they need. I think it is high time that law firm and law school professionals start talking and telling each other what they really need.

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Sarah Glassmeyer said...

For the record, as an academic librarian, I would love to hear from firm librarians about what they'd like us to teach.

I also acknowledge the fact that academics are not teaching everything we should. We try, but there's a huge disconnect in law schools between the writing and the research curricula (if there even is a formal research curriculum beyond "guest visits" by librarians) and neither are given enough time (credit hours) or money (faculty hours) to adequately do the job by law school admins. I fear that this won't change until state bars start making writing/research a required component of the bar.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can't speak for large firms, except to say that if they can't negotiate contracts with West to get access to Westlaw Next when *I* can do it as a solo practitioner, then I'm not quite sure why anyone would hire them.

Westlaw Next is very nice. I use it daily in my practice. But at the end of the day, it's just a tool and tools can be taught, either in school or in on-the-job training. You still need a foundation in *what* to search for and *why* you want it in order to use any legal research tool. Be it old school Westlaw, Lexis, or Next.

Nicole Snyder said...

As a law firm librarian and member of AALL and the Legal Division of SLA, I'd like to say that both organizations need to continue to devote programming and space in publications on this issue. I don't think we can possibly cover this issue enough.

Carrie Ansell said...

The Law Library Association of Greater New York (LLAGNY) does a great "Bridge the Gap" program every year to help prepare law students for their summer firm assignments. You can see the brochure for the most recent one here: http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/llagny/student_programs/Btg_Law_Student_Flyer_2011.pdf.

I'm in DC and our association tried to do a similar program this year, but there just wasn't enough interest. I think what information law students are lacking varies somewhat depending on what they are doing.

I'm a legislative librarian, so I can speak to the legislative research that summer are doing (and legislative history research is a very popular assignment for summer associates). The summers I speak to have never done legislative history research before and if it's been covered in any class they had, it was for a day at the most.

This is totally okay, I view helping summers through their legislative history assignments as an important part of my job, and I enjoy it, but I do think that they might feel less nervous if they had some basic understanding of how legislative histories worked. For example: That legislative histories are usually made in each firm by the librarian, so the legislative history on a particular law could vary slightly from firm to firm. That the core documents in a history are reports, debate, hearings, bills, committee prints, and sometimes "miscellaneous" stuff such as CBO reports or presidential signing statements.

I also find that new associates often confuse statutes and regulations as well (you know, they are those things that aren't case law), so that's one of those good basic things for new associates to know. When to use secondary sources is another - when you are feeling overwhelmed, CJS or Am Jur are often a great place to start.

Mostly though what I would want summer and fall associates to know is that they should avail themselves of the help offered. If the library is offering trainings over the summer - go to them, they will be on topics that the librarians and/or partners think are important for them to know. Also, the librarians are there to help, and are especially good are recommending cost effective sources (I feel like there is sometimes a belief that a paid source is more "authoritative" on the part of new attorneys and especially with my research (legislative) that is just not true). Finally, most big firms have Lexis and Westlaw representatives visit once a week - go to those visits! The research is free and they are the experts in Lexis and Westlaw searching.

My way more than two cents...

John Hightower said...

At meetings of the Law Libaries Association of Alabama, we have often discussed this issue--even before the advent of WestlawNext. To me, one of the most enlightening observations made about the issue was this: The professors ARE teaching the skills, but the students are NOT learning them. Why? Because the students are focused on passing (or scoring well) on their exams. In "boning up" for the exams, they are not focused on learning what they may need for practicing law. I'm not sure that this observation explains all the ignorance on the subject, but I certainly think it is worth putting in the mix as part of the cause.

I have often found first-year students completely unable to explain three fundamental concepts of U.S. law:

1. Definition of common law (the concept of precedent and distinction, looking for the "four-legged case").
2. Federalism.
3. Judicial review.

A librarian for the federal courts has confirmed this same level of ignorance among judicial law clerks!

Greg Lambert said...


I can see where that would be the case. We train students to be very good at taking standardized tests (whether they be in elementary school, college, or law school), then we turn them loose on the world where they'll never take another standardized test again.

I've seen some calls for replacing the 3rd year of law school for an Apprenticeship year where a student actually learns the profession by being immersed in the profession. (Not that it will ever happen in the age of professional education.)

Catherine Deane said...

Until the Law School Curriculum reflects the value of legal research skills with mandatory Advanced legal research classes or better yet, integrated information literacy in substantive courses, there is very little academic librarians can do to reach students. Their poor research skills do not seem to affect their law school success very much and many students walk around thinking they are excellent researchers because they know so little about what they are supposed to know.

Beyond that, law firms that hire interns also know that those interns have access through school to unlimited research on lexis/westlaw, so students who are doing internships are at risk for being exploited for their access to these expensive databases, and their actual research skills are not reflected, when they conduct this research without the restrictions of the firm's pricing plan and without the restrictions of the firm's paid information resources.

Creighton Miller said...

I love the idea of hearing from firms about the research skills that they want from new associates. However, I'm not sure most firm attorneys or librarians understand the constraints on research instruction in law schools. Even if we know exactly what employers want from our students, the entire culture of law school will have to change before we'll be in a position to give it to them.

At a previous institution, I had 12 or fewer one-hour class sessions in which to teach all aspects of basic legal research. (Librarians don't teach research at my current school.) This is not uncommon. The students taking these classes know full well that research is usually a pass/fail, low credit course, and they do not dedicate even a small proportion of the time it would take to learn the skills properly. I don't blame them--the entire law school experience signals that they should focus every last fiber of effort on their doctrinal classes. Few students take advanced legal research classes, and these advanced classes are usually only one or two credits, too.

Given the time demands and pressures of law school, most students look for any opportunity to simplify and streamline. When a tool like WestlawNext offers that opportunity--effectively or not--the students are going to use it and become reliant on it. I don't see a way out of this feedback loop unless law schools restructure their curriculums to focus on skills like research.

So, if law firms want to help, they'll need to do more than tell us what skills they want. They'll also need to demand and lobby for a radical change in the focus of legal education. Until that happens, research will remain one of the many skills that most lawyers need to pick up on the job.

klasnick said...

As a law firm librarian (and as one who has worked in all the different types of law libraries), the blame can be parceled out. Law schools don't require an advanced legal research class to graduate and they should. Also, when students run all those "free" searches, there should be a list of what the charges would be in the real world: "you just spent X dollars on your research". I would imagine that would open a few eyes. Law firms want the summers and new associates to hit the ground running the day they start. Mentoring from our more experienced attorneys should include making sure that the training I schedule is considered mandatory and there are no excuses for not attending.


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