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While visiting the Law Libraries Society of Washington DC chapter (LLSDC) last week, my host, Roger Skalbeck had a group of us sit down for a question and answer session at the group’s town hall meeting. Roger gave us five minutes to cover a question, and then we moved on to the next question regardless of if we had finished addressing the issue or not. It was a lot of fun, and it was challenging to stop talking when his iPhone timer went off… but we did. One of the questions he asked us, however, has stuck in the back of my mind, and I wanted to address it for a couple more minutes here on the blog, and hopefully get some responses from the readership as well.

Should Law Schools Teach Students (legal research) Processes or Products?

Is it enough to teach legal research skills to law students in ways that make them proficient in jumping from legal resource to legal resource, or are firms really wanting newly minted lawyers to be very good at specific tools like WestlawNext, or Lexis Advance? Of course, most of us in the room picked item “B” from the list and said that it is better to teach them the skills that can be used regardless of the product they end up using at the firm. That sounds good on paper, but in reality it is becoming harder and harder to identify what makes up those skills in today’s legal research environment. The skills that worked well in Lexis and Westlaw’s web based products, may not transfer very well to the latest generation of WestlawNext or Lexis Advance. Many students would argue that being proficient in ‘Google-Like’ searching is a much more valuable skill than the Boolean and keyword searching we’ve been teaching for the past twenty-plus years.

If the process of searching is changing, should law schools start focusing on teaching more specific skills based on the big two products of Westlaw and Lexis? One member of the audience chimed in and reminded us that even those two products are now really four products once you brought in the new generations platforms. Not only that, but now there’s Bloomberg Law that is making a play for the law student’s attention. Just with these three players, there are five different platforms, and that’s before you start adding in the secondary resources that may or may not work within those platforms.

My comment on this topic actually took a different angle and suggested what I know to be nearly impossible for law schools to teach their students – don’t let students fall into the vendor’s trap of only learning one platform. The law student that finds him or herself at the end of their third year of law school that hasn’t activated their Lexis ID because they like to use Westlaw better (or vice-versa) has played into the hands of the vendor at the expense of their own experience. Those students that go to their Summer Associate jobs this year and use their Bloomberg passwords to do firm work (which apparently Bloomberg is allowing them to do), is making a tactical error in their understanding how the law firm works, recovers costs, and tracks expenses of the work performed. Students should take the opportunity to learn a broad variety of resources while in school because never again will they have access to so many platforms with no pressure to think about the cost of the product.

Is there a best practices when it comes to teaching law students how to use legal research tools? Is it simply a matter of picking process or product, or is there something else that we should be teaching them? What would you teach?

  • I'm sure you have already considered this, but I suspect the best answer to your question would be to teach students a mixture of both process and product to ensure strong research skills.

    That said, another issue to consider is that major products like Lexis and WestLaw offer customer service numbers where a staff attorney can guide you through how to search for content you struggle to find. Lower cost offerings, such as VersusLaw, do not. It would be wise, then to consider a wider mix of products beyond the major players that might offer young attorneys starting their own practices a more affordable option.

  • I'm not sure if process and product can be separated anymore. I am involved in a post-law schools research refresher seminar that is put on mostly by firm librarians just before r new articling students start (a bit of a Canadian, Prairies slant here obviously)

    This is it 10th year running the program. We have always shied away from vendor training and focused more on LRW process…start with a secondary source, check the footnotes, note up, repeat.

    There are tricks that we as librarians learn that are product specific though. Jason's comment about lower cost options are also valuable to process.

    Perhaps law school training should focus on decision making for legal research.

  • I think it has to be process, but you can't do that without including at least some vendor specific information.

    I advocate everyone having to take Advanced Legal Research and having every assignemnt require the use of a specific resource avialable to them (Wexis, BLaw, Fastcase, print, Checkpoint, whatever).

    Also, have a firm librarian come in to talk about the real world of costs, billbacks, angry partners, etc.

    These students have no assurance of a job when they graduate, much less what resources will be at their disposal. They have to try it all, or at least understand how to get the information they need to use an unfamiliar resource when it's all they've got.

  • I believe there needs to be a combination of process training and product familiarity. Process will enable the student to make informed decisions as he or she needs to do research. Product familiarity will help the student understand which product best meets his or her needs as well as prepare them for what a law firm uses. Covering a range of products will help balance against the "vendor trap" to which Greg refers.

    There should also be education on understanding how and why law firms track usage. Greg made the point, shouldn't the law student understand all considerations (cost management, research support and alternative options). I believe they should. This would not take much time and would really make the new associate much more effective as they work to assimilate into a non-academic environment.

  • Thanks for highlighting this point. I'm glad to see more input on the topic. My thoughts on the product v process question date back to library school for an online searching class taught by Dan Dabney. All assignments were done with Dialog, in its "classic", character-based interface. A few of us asked why we didn't cover other products. The answer was, in effect, that the class covered only process.

    Back then, Dialog had some helpful features for us as students and him as an instructor. With each search, we could see how much it cost (in dollars, not Dialunits), and he could see complete research log, 'warts and all,' to know how well we formulated searches. We didn't cover natural language searching, and Google didn't exist as a reference point.

    Nowadays, I think product and process have to be taught together, though I still favor process. In a perfect world, I would teach legal research to students with an in-depth look at one product (rotating every 2 to 3 years), followed by an assignment for students to repeat the process on another service and write about differences. Unfortunately, in most LRW classes, student research interaction time is limited, especially if a course covers significant ground for legal writing. Interestingly, I'm guessing students never get instruction on writing products (like, pen, paper, Word, Google Docs), instead only covering only process.

    Glad to see the debate continue, and thanks for your input here in DC and online.