Image [cc] Tulane Public Relations

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?