In which I write about legal research

Minn. Stat. (2010)

Minn. Stat. (2010)

As one does. You know, sometimes.

I recently read an empirical research paper called, “Rebooting Legal Research in a Digital Age,”  which discusses the results of a survey asking new lawyers how they do legal research. This stuff is like catnip to me; I can’t resist these surveys. I’m always looking for insight into how better to teach students legal research skills, like the do-goody, suck-uppy librarian that I am.

So this survey looked at 190 new-ish attorneys (in practice five years or less). I can’t remember enough of my stats class to know if this is a sufficient pool of respondents. They found some interesting things, some of which we’ve heard before: associates think they need more legal research training in school; they do their research online, etc. Here were the parts that most jumped out at me:

Considering the significant amount of time that associates spend conducting online legal research, nearly half surveyed (49%) feel that legal research should be a larger part of the law school curriculum. And, eight in ten feel that there was at least one area of legal research that should have been given more time. Statutory research, administrative law, and public records searching topped the list for specific areas that deserved more time or exposure. A greater law school focus on online research would seem even more critical given that, as previously noted, associates believe employers expect them to have strong legal research skills, they spend the majority of their time in paid for legal research services, and many firms may not be offering professional development in this area.

I have some quibbles with some of their explanations for their findings:

There is wider use of Boolean queries over Natural Language searching as a search method, particularly among associates in practice two or more years (51% use Natural Language, 79% use Boolean with nearly half using both). That said, associates in practice less than two years favor Natural Language, and this trend is expected to continue as a result of Google exposure and the emergence of next-generation research platforms such as Lexis Advance® and WestlawNext®. Certainly, as this trend grows, there will likely be a debate about the effectiveness of research results using Boolean search query compared to Natural Language.

I am perfectly willing to accept that most people do not embrace Boolean searching the way that librarians do. But, could it not also be  the case that, as attorneys become more experienced as searchers, they find that Boolean (sometimes) works better, rather than that newer associates are necessarily younger and more used to Natural Language searching (which, after all, has been around for quite a while, even if it is much more ubiquitous – and, admittedly, better – now)?

And the concluding sentence to this paragraph is interesting – if Natural Language continues to improve, there very well may be a debate about the effectiveness of the two methods (well, it will be a short debate – if it improves enough, and it is easier to do, that’s the method people will use, period). However, at least for me, Boolean searching remains much more effective now, in both Lexis Advance® and WestlawNext®, even though these systems are diligently trying to get me to stop using it. Heck, Boolean is often more effective than Natural Language searching on Google. That’s why power searchers use it.

And I was perplexed by this part:

In general, [for statutory research,] small and large law firm associates both tend to take similar approaches but start out quite differently. Large law firm associates start by consulting an index or table of contents for federal statutes or a particular state, then go to case annotations in relevant statutes, and next link to related materials, ending with a citation validation program. In contrast, small law associates begin by formulating a Natural Language search in statutes, follow the same workflow of reviewing case annotations in statutes, linking to related materials, and concluding with a citation validation program. 20% of associates begin statutory research by running a search in an online case law database to find a case mentioning a relevant statute. One may hypothesize that the variation in research methods is a result of cost recovery. Large law firms typically charge clients for online research and consulting an index or table of contents is a free or inexpensive option. 

(Emphasis mine). If it’s “free or inexpensive,” shouldn’t everybody start their statutory research this way, regardless of whether they work for a small or large law firm (also, wouldn’t small law firms be even LESS willing to pay for the inefficiencies apparently created by not going to the TOC or index??)? I may be misunderstanding this paragraph.

I do think the differences in the way new associates versus not-so-new associates approach research is something to pay attention to – although I think it’s hard to make conclusions about why the differences exist. Is it because newer associates are younger, more “digital natives”? Is it because they are simply more inexperienced? Will their own research habits change as they become not-so-new associates?

And, of course, I need to pay heed to differences between the way I approach searching and the way students/associates do. Do they all need to become power searchers? I don’t know.


For your reading enjoyment …

Sometimes I star things in Google Reader or Twitter or wherever because I want to be sure to mention them in my Saturday Evening Post, and sometimes I do it to remind myself to read something, and sometimes I do it to save “important” things. Then the starred items are automatically sent to Evernote, where I forget about them until Saturday, when I’m looking for something to post. Point is, I cannot remember which particular bucket these items fall into.

This week, it seems especially heavy on the “save ‘important’ things” bucket, so sorry if legal research isn’t one of your major interests. I don’t actually talk all that much about work on my blog, so this provides you with some insight on a lot of the things I think about all day.

    • Slaw, Reflecting on Legal Research Instruction. This is another librarian’s reaction to a post I drew your attention to a few weeks ago, along with her feelings about being in the middle of teaching a first-year legal research class. This point seemed particularly apt:

      To many students, legal research is sort of the broccoli and spinach of first-year law school courses, and research instruction tutorials come at a time when they’re beginning to feel the weight of their workload. Engagement can be a challenge, as can avoidance of information overload.


    • RIPS Law Librarian Blog, Reference Coaching for the Short Attention Span Patron. Aside from blaming “Sesame Street” as the beginning of the slide into short-attention-span territory, there’s a lot of good stuff here.

      I became concerned because of a reference question I recently received. I had a student working on a research problem. I directed the student to the United States Code and helped her with the index. It was a heavily litigated area and I pointed out the annotations. She looked at them. She looked at me. She asked “How would I know the answer? Would I need to read this?”

      Librarians need to craft reference interviews not to be more entertaining, but to coach the researcher to understand that the answer will not be easy, will not appear on the screen or immediately stand out to them in the book. Students need to be explicitly told that research will take hours, not minutes. That they should embrace this.

      Although this part:

      I told her no one would pay her as an attorney if it was easy to find a legal answer. Her face brightened. I also told her that, depending on the payment model, she would get paid for each hour spent researching.

      Reminded me that I thought I read something that said clients were being more circumspect about research fees. I guess I did not bookmark that in a way that would make me easy to find it again, though …

That’s all for now. Am planning on writing tomorrow about a meeting I had earlier today with a group of students I like to call LSOT, who tell me everything I need to know about kids these days.

Saturday Evening Posts

Wet leaves

I really want to get back in the habit of doing these regularly.

These aren’t all necessarily from the last week, but they’re not terribly old yet.

  • Read Write Web, 10 Tips for Using Evernote Effectively. Sigh. I often feel like I’m being haphazard on the web, with my multiple bookmarking utilities and links I’ve favorited on Twitter and Google Reader. I keep meaning to be more thoughtful and deliberate about it, but it doesn’t seem like a fun task. Anyway, I always have Evernote in the back of my mind. I may even have an account I’ve forgotten about. In case any of you feel this way – and are more inclined to actually do something about it than I – this article may interest you.
  • Law Librarian Blog, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I was intrigued by this when it won an Oscar. I think that was the only part of the Academy Awards I saw this year. I guess you can see the whole thing here online, although I think I might see if it’s streaming on Netflix or something where I can watch it with a better picture.
  • RIPS Law Librarian Blog, Powerpoints, Screenshots and Legal Research Training as a Team. Discussion about the virtues of “live” teaching vs. teaching with screenshots on Powerpoint slides. I’m of the “live” persuasion. It seems more realistic, though of course the chances of something being down or otherwise going wrong are heightened (adding to the realism!). Also, I can’t imagine creating a 100-slide presentation. Although I do note her point that doing so gives the students a ready-made handout for their notes. My slides are not terribly useful to students after the class, I fear. Or maybe I don’t? It cuts both ways; perhaps then they pay more attention during the class.
  • Pegasus Librarian, Teaching a Session After They’ve Written the Paper. Another post on teaching. How intriguing:

    They need to know that the research process isn’t linear anyway, so let’s really and truly demonstrate going back to the research steps after having thought critically about their papers.

    She’s a reference librarian at an undergrad institution (my undergrad institution, by-the-by), so I don’t know if it would work as well in law school, but the idea of coming to the students after they’ve written a draft is interesting. It may better address the “time of need” problem. It’s certainly better than talking to them about research before they’ve even picked a topic.

  • Tech Tools for the Practice of Law, Research Guide Examples. This is my library director’s blog for the class he’s currently teaching. I starred it in Google Reader because I like to have student examples on hand. These are examples from another prof’s Advanced Legal Research class; she had the students create LibGuides on a variety of topics – and they are now publicly available on the library’s website.

Happy Saturday! We’re having gorgeous weather here this week, so perhaps I’ll have more photos to post later.

Photos of the week, week 15

I know I promised y’all a more substantive post, but that’s not happening this week. Am still “favoriting” things in my RSS reader, but nothing is striking me enough to post about it later.

I’m working on a project with some coworkers that will engender an (I hope) interesting post, regarding online legal learning, but I left my notes at work! Just for a teaser: Continue reading

D.C. Recap

Madison at the Law Library of Congress

I have a little while before I have to go to the airport, so I’m going to try to type up a little recap of my favorite programs at ASIL. [On edit: am finishing this up Saturday night, surrounded by candles, in honor of earth hour. My laptop is unplugged]. Also on edit: this will be a long post.

On Thursday I attended a panel called, “Espionage and the First Amendment after Wikileaks”. I had thought it would devolve into a shouting match, but everybody was surprisingly pleasant. They did not all agree about everything (although I think there was only one pro-government speaker – in fact, I thought he was a government lawyer, but I was wrong), but they managed to be civil, as well as informative, engaging, and entertaining. Continue reading

Wednesday night miscellany

Admin law slide

I am teaching an internet legal research course this term (basically, teaching students where to find free, reliable resources for legal research, as they likely will not have the unfettered access to Westlaw and Lexis that they enjoy in law school once they graduate) and have been struggling all term with the assignments I’m giving. Continue reading