The Law Librarian Advisor

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This year, several fellow librarians and I at Texas A&M University School of Law have volunteered to serve as faculty advisors to incoming 1L law students. After meeting with our students, we all got together and informally discussed the advice we gave to our students. We quickly noticed that a theme emerged, and I wanted to share some of the advice we gave our students:

  1. It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to practice;
  2. It’s okay to change your mind about what you want to do;
  3. It’s to ask questions in class to seek clarity; and finally,
  4. Remember that you’re a human being.

It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to practice

I was a bit of an anomaly because I went to law school knowing that I wanted to be a law librarian. My colleagues did not. Most law students, including my advisees, have no idea what they want to practice after law school, but hearing their peers plan out their careers in the first week has put them on edge. I try to remind my students that one great thing about law school is that there are multiple opportunities to gain experience in different areas of the law to find your calling.

One of our professional staff members in the law library, Cara Sitton (she’s a rock star!), is also a full-time law student, the Senior Citation Editor of the Journal of Property Law, and a legal research and writing teacher’s assistant. Cara has offered to assist my advisees in deciding on moot court or mock trial (something she has previously done) by sitting on a panel or working as a witness for a mock trial audition. Even though other librarian advisors at other institutions may not have a Cara Sitton on their staff, what library advisors can do is make connections with 2Ls and 3Ls (perhaps law student workers in your law library) who have experience in potential areas of interest of your advisees. These upperclassmen can serve as mentors.  Most faculty advisors are working at law schools that they did not attend as students, so bringing in a student’s perspective (particularly students who have taken classes taught by the same faculty teaching your advisees) can at times be more valuable to your advisees than your own experiences elsewhere.

My goal is to help my advisees get some experience in their potential area of interest to decide if it’s something they actually want to do. This leads to my second piece of advice: It’s okay to change your mind.

It’s okay to change your mind

One of my advisees has a criminal justice undergraduate degree. She is interested in both criminal law practice and possibly real estate law, but also expressed how she was not sure if she wanted to pursue a legal career in these areas. I explained that I could introduce her to faculty who teach or are clinical directors in her current areas of interest. However, if after working in either of these areas she finds that the particular specialty isn’t a good fit, she can change her mind. We have over 10 clinics at Texas A&M University that are cover other areas of the law including family law, intellectual property, immigration, and more that might be a better fit.  It is okay to say “this isn’t what I want to do.”

A key point I reiterate to 1L students is that it is possible to change your mind. I aim to establish a relationship with my advisees so that they feel comfortable stating that they aren’t interested in what they thought they wanted to do. Moreover, I want to advise them on what other opportunities are out there if they continue to struggle with making a decision.

It’s okay to ask questions in class

Some law students come in with some legal experience, speaking in “legalese,” or with a family legacy of lawyers. This can be intimidating for first generation law school students who have no external resources or support systems outside of their own work ethic and perseverance.

The advice I give advisees is the importance of face time with their professors, especially if they need clarity on something discussed in class. I personally remember having to ask questions several times because I just didn’t get something. There were even times when some students would loudly sigh or roll their eyes if I kept asking questions. So, I would refrain from asking for clarity in class. In hindsight, I did myself a disservice. If I didn’t understand something, I should have sought clarity immediately – regardless of anyone else’s issue with me asking questions in class. I tell my students that the person rolling their eyes or loudly sighing is not going to take your exam for you. My main point is to use professors as an immediate resource for clarity. Lastly, I strongly encourage students to visit their professors during office hours. If you feel uncomfortable asking questions in class, write down your question and seek help later. That’s what office hours are for – use them.

As a librarian, I know that students sometimes feel more comfortable asking a librarian a question about an area of law. As an advisor and a librarian, we can point students toward study aids, practice problems and possible old exams housed in the law library. I also remind students that academic support provides additional assistance to students.

Remember you’re a human being

The first week of law school, I sat down in a chair outside of my last class to rest my eyes for a bit before returning home. I woke up four hours later in the same chair. I hadn’t slept well that entire week and I was just exhausted. I remember waking up upset at myself that I’d slept that long because I hadn’t allocated those hours for sleep in my planner. I cringe every time this memory crosses my mind. I’m human, and humans have to sleep.

I tell all students to remember to be human. My advice is to take a few hours a week to go to the movies with friends, have dinner with significant others, sleep a full night, read a story to their kids, or do some other activity where you are not simultaneously studying or thinking about law school. Law school tends to be all encompassing, and law students sometimes forget that there is life outside of law school. It is important to me that my advisees realize that there are people here to help them. I want to constantly remind them of that and look for signs of issues to get them some help if necessary.

If you are working at an institution that provides opportunities for librarians to serve as advisors, I say do it. Being an advisor lends itself to the very reason I became a law librarian, to help students learn to be the best advocates they can be. Serving as an advisor provides another opportunity for me to do that.

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They’re coming! It’s New Fall Associate Season.

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It’s early September, and to those of us in law firms it means that the new fall associates will start arriving soon. Fresh from law school, and hopefully rejuvenated after taking July bar exams, the NFAs are eager to start working and show the firm partners that they’re a great fit for the firm. But there are a few things that every new fall associate should know already or will have to learn on the job.

We know they’re smart and that they did well in law school, or they wouldn’t have been hired. But how well does law school prepare students for working in a law firm? I’m lucky (no pun intended), and I’m sure many of my colleagues are as well, that all three of the new associates starting this fall in my office clerked here last year. They’ve been introduced to how the law firm works and how the work differs from academia. But there’s still going to be one, or more, who forgets that resources freely available in law school are not free in the law firm. Large online research bills make either the client—or the partner who writes it off or down—unhappy. The biggest hurdle? Not everything in the database is in our contract.

What else don’t you see in law school? Business development. It goes my many names—competitive intelligence, market research, client development—but the bottom line is the same. Create and use contacts to bring in business. Law school does a great job of teaching students (now associates) to find and interpret the law, to draft contracts, and do many other tasks that they’ll be charged with in the firm. But it doesn’t teach them how to use tools for bringing in business.

There’s been a long debate about whether law schools prepare students for practicing law.  More schools are including practice-oriented courses in their curriculum.  Of course, it’s up to the student to sign up for those classes—the old “you can lead a horse to water” line comes to mind. Business development just doesn’t fit into a neat little package that can be offered as a course—it doesn’t really involve research and writing, and it’s not something that is handled by the legal clinics. It just doesn’t fit into the traditional curriculum. But it’s an essential skill that every new lawyer should have or learn.

There is a multitude of other things that firm librarians wish new fall associates would learn before they leave law school. In fact, there are programs at conferences dedicated to furthering the conversations between academic and firm librarians, all with a goal to better prepare new associates. What do I wish they knew? One thing is that not everything is available electronically. Yes, our library footprint is shrinking, but we continue to keep print materials, and associates should be prepared to use them. Equally important is to know not to just blindly click through to a document out of contract when using online research services (as I said earlier, someone will be unhappy). Is this something that will be solved in the near future? Probably not. So I just keep hoping that my new fall associates remember to ask me if they have a question.

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Implementing Opportunities for Self-Evaluation: Part 2 of 3

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Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

By now, most of us are at least a few weeks into another Fall semester. We’ve likely gotten past the initial course introductions and are about to dive head first into the real guts of our courses (did someone say administrative law?!). With this perseverance comes curiosity: are our students receiving the message? Do they get it?

Last month, I shared part 1 of my top tips for incorporating self-evaluation into experiential legal research courses. In that post, I mentioned how traditional self-evaluation assignments take the shape of a reflection paper, which I disfavor. However, I do believe reflections have value, provided they are assigned at the right time and for the right reasons. Identifying those best opportunities for reflections is key, and below are a two opportunities that have worked for me.

After Attempt 1…

Ideally, your legal research courses are offering multiple opportunities for performance and formative assessment – if your course is marked as satisfying experiential learning credit, your course must offer multiple opportunities. And that’s where a reflection paper can come in handy.

In my course, I assign two major research assignments where students have about six weeks for each assignment. Each of these two major assignments is comprised of a are graded research log and a thorough conclusion which is a semi-formal memo with supported analysis. I grade Assignment #1 and we review the assignment in class, both the good and the bad.

After the review, for a participation grade only, I ask the students to self-evaluate their performance on Assignment #1 in the form of a therapeutic reflection paper. Some areas I ask them to address include:

  • Areas where you think you excelled
  • Areas where you could improve
  • Were any particular resources especially helpful?
  • How was your research strategy? Looking back, did you follow it? Forget something?
  • How would you revise your strategy for the future?

Seeking a reflection after a first assignment, but before the next, provides the student with an opportunity to improve performance for round two. The key here is asking for a reflection of this type only when the students have the opportunity to try again. Otherwise, it’s my opinion that students view the reflection paper as busy work.

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Photo by Luke Pamer on Unsplash

Reading their reflections also allows you as the instructor to determine if a student is catching the takeaway e.g. are they agonizing about minor points missed for formatting or recognizing areas where fundamental skills were missed? If a reflection paper suggests to me that a student is missing the big picture, it opens the door for an additional conversation that I might have otherwise missed.

 Surprise! This assignment isn’t over yet…

Have you ever found yourself leaving the office at 5:00pm but your boss stops you dead in your tracks with one leg in the elevator and the other leg miserably letting you down, and then said boss “asks” for your help on a last-minute, “urgent” project? Yeah, we’ve probably all been there at least once, and young attorneys will certainly have this fate many times over. This is why I stress the importance of maintaining a research log or at least some brief notes about the research trail (what worked, what didn’t, what would the next step have been if there had been more time…).

I reiterate this benefit through what I call a surprise assignment and it’s pretty simple: Ask your students to research and answer a hypothetical as best as they can in one class period, approximately an hour. At some other point in the semester (even the next day works just fine), tell them “Ah, I didn’t get to meet with that client after all, but I will tomorrow morning… Can you pick up where you left off and send me anything new by the next hour?” Ok, this might sound stressful and maybe a little mean, but the experience is real and it happens. And I would rather my students rehearse this situation in the safety of my classroom before experiencing it for the first time in an office when an offer is on the line.

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Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash

Here’s where the reflection comes in: Instead of grading their research from the first hour, I grade only the cumulative research. In lieu of grading their first attempt, I ask them to reflect on the experience of picking where they left off. I grade the reflection for participation points and ask the following for the assignment:

You should recall from earlier this semester that one benefit of maintaining a research log is to make research easier for yourself each time you stop and re-start your research.

Please write a reflection of this experience including:

  • Generally, how did you feel having to restart your research for the same matter with a short deadline? Were you concerned that you already forgot what you had researched last week? Or were you confident because you felt like you had a handle on the issue already? Some other feeling? Describe that initial feeling (yes, this is a little like therapy, but it’s ok, I’m not judging). 
  • Which parts of your research log from your first attempt made it easy for you to pick up where you left off? Be specific i.e. search queries, formatting (such as bolding, highlighting text). 
  • Which parts of your research log from your first attempt do you wish you had done better or differently to make your second attempt easier? Be specific.
  • If you considered a game plan before diving in (which I hope you did, at least internally!), did you follow that plan? Why or why not?
    • If yes: Did following your plan work? (it’s ok to say no!).
    • If not: Do you think it would have helped if you had followed your original plan?
  • What suggestions or ideas do you have to improve your research log or notes? i.e. “Having now experienced this kind of research situation, in the future I might include____ in my log” or “Keeping notes about ____ would have made this easier.”

This reflection should be approximately 500 words and formality is not a concern.

This latter assignment is actually one of my favorites. I am consistently impressed with the depth of reflection. The students are honest and appreciate the opportunity to, well,  kind of vomit their feelings out on paper. But more importantly, it’s in this reflection where I start to see students truly connect their work to the lessons of the course. They’re actually getting it.

And there you have it, folks: two methods for generating research practice, self-evaluation, and a learning opportunity, all from one simulation.

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Destigmatizing Mental Health Talk in Law School: Reflections for a New School Year

mental-health-3337026_960_720Earlier this week, my community witnessed an undergraduate suicide. Thomas Lawrence, class of 2021, was originally scheduled to graduate in 2019. His head of college noted in a community message that Thomas had had bipolar disorder. It’s unclear whether Thomas accessed, or tried to access, college resources to treat his mental health. But his classmate, as quoted in the Yale Daily News article, expressed that in these matters, “it’s not always easy to . . . be vulnerable” with authority figures.

This recent New York Times article highlights this disconnect between what students need and how some institutes in higher education treat student mental health. The Times tells the story of undergraduates who have approached their colleges asking for help with serious mental health concerns, but feel that their schools have not helped them. Rather, they feel ostracized, stigmatized, and in some cases, banished.

People who work at law schools should be especially attuned to institutional cultures that reinforce nondisclosure of mental health problems. Law students report high rates of struggling with mental health, yet only a fraction of those seek professional help. They are often afraid that the remedy will prove worse than the disease—that in seeking support and healing, they risk exposure to shame, blame, and censure from peers, professors, and the bar.

The start of a new school year provides a natural inflection point for all of us to practice mindfulness of these issues. What do we do that helps nurture a culture of acceptance and an atmosphere of safety? What do we do that contributes to fear and concealment? How can we better destigmatize these issues? How can we let new and returning students know that we are safe people to talk to?

Students think of librarians as the go-to people for information they dare not seek elsewhere. They might not admit to a professor that they don’t know how to research an RA project, but they will confide in us. While it demands additional emotional labor from us, we should strive to let students know that even though we aren’t doctors and don’t have all the answers, we can provide a safe haven where voicing mental health concerns doesn’t lead to ostracism or shame.

In an ideal world, student mental health wouldn’t plummet during 1L and remain low well after graduation. We should provide any advantage we can to help students start law school with mental wellness and to maintain it throughout their three years here. And, of course, we must listen sympathetically and nonjudgmentally when, inevitably, some of them do slip into murky waters and need a life raft.

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One person at a time

scoutDid you know that I’m an Eagle Scout?  I earned my badge when I was all of 13-years old (so I know a thing or two about helping people cross the street).

I really didn’t know what all I was going to do with my life then, but my skills at helping people would blossom years later, when I became an information god (i.e. Law Librarian).

One of the reasons I went to law school was because I have a visceral need to help people. As a Law Librarian, I constantly get to help a whole lot of people solve a whole lot of different problems.  There was the attorney working on a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan. There was the pro se litigant trying to keep the bank from foreclosing on his house.

And then there was the guy who had been in an accident on the freeway.  He was parked on the 405 freeway during rush hour when a car hit him from behind, then another car hit that car, and on and on resulting in a pile-up of about seven vehicles.

The guy wasn’t looking to fleece anyone; he just wanted to pay for his car repair and medical bills. He spent two years wrangling with insurance companies before he came to me, the law librarian, to ask what he was doing wrong. I said “Let’s go,” and off we went into the shelves.

First, because he waited two years I wondered if the limitation of actions on his case had run (negating his chances of recovery). So I steered us over to the California Code of Civil Procedure (which contains Sections 312-366.3 dealing with the limitation of actions for all causes of action). Guy said, “Why did you bring me here?”  I explained and suggested he look in the INDEX under LIMITATION OF ACTIONS.  You know the Index, that thing that is organized from A to Z?

Apparently, Guy had little experience with indexes or had forgotten how they worked, because after a few seconds fumbling with the code books he gave up and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.  Why don’t you just show me books about settling insurance claims?”

Because Guy is dealing directly with insurance companies pro se, I decided he needed to get into the heads of insurance people to know how they work.  So, I turned around and walked him to the other side of the library to see:

Guy said, “This is all great, but my accident happened in California.  Don’t you have stuff on settling a claim in California?”  We did. We marched over to the other side of the library where I suggested he look at:

At this point Guy got exasperated, saying, “Well, why didn’t we start here? You’re just trying to confuse me!”

Confuse him? I did not run him all over the library just to confuse him. What I did do was show him many different resources to help him solve his own problems.  As a librarian, I can’t give out legal advice. But I can hand people the specific resources they need to find answers for themselves. Guy thought about this for a second, grinned, and got to work protecting himself. Chalk up another served and satisfied customer.

Information god that I am, it’s still a warm and fuzzy feeling to know what librarians can do to make a difference by helping one person at a time in this crazy, mixed-up world. It’s that sense of satisfaction that makes all this worthwhile.

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Working During the Bar Exam? Start Studying Yesterday.

As anyone that sat for any Bar Exam can attest, passing a state’s Bar is no easy feat. The Bar Exam is not simply a test of legal application, but an assessment of one’s stamina and endurance – the haze of the lawyering profession.

Studying for any state Bar Exam is considered a full-time job in and of itself. Popular preparatory programs, like Kaplan and Barbri, schedule a 10-week review period (7 weeks for the February exam), suggesting subscribed students dedicate, on average, 8-10 hours a day reviewing the multitude of topics that can appear on the exam. During this 10-week period, most test takers forego employment in order to focus solely on bar prep. Unfortunately, not every bar applicant has the luxury of forfeiting a regular paycheck for the two-month (or more!) period.

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Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

I was one of those unfortunate test takers.  During the 10-week prep period preceding the Florida February Bar Exam, I continued at my recently acquired, full-time position at Nova Southeastern University, using all my personal and sick days solely for the week of and the week preceding the exam.

I passed.

As a librarian who participates in our bar coaching program, I encounter students who anticipate working full- or part-time while studying for their Bar Exam. Working full-time or part-time during bar prep, while not preferable, is not impossible. Although highly discouraged, there are steps that can increase a bar applicant’s chances at bar passage if he or she must continue their employment. Thus, I decided to share some tips I passed along to my own working students.  I found these tips extremely beneficial while working full-time and studying for the Florida February Bar Exam:

  1. Start Early

In the weeks approaching the Bar Exam, the consensus amongst bar prep professionals is that students should study 8-10 hours a day, for approximately 10 weeks, before sitting their state exam. Our bar coaching program highly suggests a bar applicant complete, at least, 2,500 practice multiple choice questions and 11-12 practice essay questions during the bar prep period to more so increase those odds. These numbers may vary. Regardless, if a bar prepper is working anywhere upwards of 25 hours a week – about 5 hours per day – and topping off with an additional 8-10 hours of dedicated study, even at the minimum total of 13 hours a day, a prepper will more than likely feel strained and overworked, consequently minimizing his or her work efficiency and retention when approaching daily bar prep tasks.

Lessening the 8-10 hour study period to 3-5 hours a by extending the weeks dedicated to bar prep can have a distinguishing effect for full- or part-time employees sitting the Bar Exam. By starting a couple months early, bar preppers can meet their hourly study goals while maintaining focus and a standard of performance that is put at risk when one is overworked. This will ensure realistically conducive study periods, as well as assist bar preppers in completing the suggested number of practice questions and essays needed to successfully prepare for the Bar Exam.

  1. Study Smarter, Not Harder

Many a bar prep student enters into their bar study period expecting to spend their 8-10 hour days single-mindedly focused on their study of the law. In the age of social media, cell phones, and online quizzes that finally answer the largely debated question of, “What Kind of Cookie Are You?” (Double Chocolate-Chip!) it is hardly surprising that a bar prepper’s focus may sometimes deviate from their once anticipated 8-hour study mission.

Instead of diving headlong into each subject, it is best to properly pace daily study periods so as to avoid a burnout or crash later down the line. A popular technique I utilized was the Pomodoro Technique. This technique is a time management method proven to increase productivity and efficiency when attempting to learn large amounts of information in shorter periods of time. The foundation of the technique requires intense, active focus for a moderate period, usually about 20-30 minutes, followed by a 5-10 minute break, then repeating this process for the allotted hourly study period.

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Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

For instance, if a prepper wanted to study for a total of 4 hours, then studying in 25-minute intervals, punctuated by the scheduled 5-minute breaks, will allow time in between studying to rest the brain, process what was learned, and dive back in once the resting period is complete.  By using this method, a prepper can find themselves maintaining greater focus and retaining more information within shorter periods of time. Thus, proving itself a more efficient and useful study process.

  1. Meal Prep

This is something so small that can really make a big difference when every minute counts! Meal prep not only ensures that a prepper is getting the proper nutrition throughout the week to keep those brain cells pumping, but it also saves hours deciding on dinner and lunch throughout the week when one does not have that time to waste.

A healthy diet equating to healthy brain function is not news to many, but how to do within limited time constraints can become an extra stressor a prepper doesn’t need during their bar prep period. For my meal prep recipes, I made sure to include at least one vegetable, one protein, and various carbohydrates in each prepared dish. Each meal was planned and written, by date, into my study schedule. By pre-planning meals, one can save time, thought, and energy by setting aside the few hours, once or twice per week, to prepare healthy, delicious, and nutritious meals to benefit brain function and their overall Bar study experience.

  1. Study Aids
  • MBE Critical Pass Note Cards

These cards are sent from the heavens! Reading and re-reading 30-50 page outlines can be tedious. Words begin to blur, heads start to nod, and suddenly those five pages regarding third-party beneficiaries you just spent 30 minutes letting your eyes glaze over are now simply dust in the wind. Full- or part-time working bar preppers do not have this time to waste.

Flashcards are a classic memorization tool. MBE Critical Pass Note Cards are pre-made flashcards that contain all of the most commonly tested rules of each MBE subjects – organized by topic and outlined by sub-section! The cards are durable, capable of resisting all your highlights and eraser marks, and they even leave space to write out the state exceptions, directly on each card, next to its corresponding rule. These cards are – as they are aptly named – “critical” pieces for memorization, especially when one does not have time to complete monotonous outline review. These can be extraordinarily helpful when studying MBE subjects, and save purchasers time from having to create flashcards from any given outline. Although I can’t exactly call them ‘concise,’ these flashcards are comprehensive and exceptionally organized. I highly recommend these in accompaniment to any bar prep course.

Keep in mind, they are a bit of a pretty penny. At $159.99 a pop, the price can seem steep for newly minted law school graduates. However, I do believe the cost is worth the reward for this prepared set of complete MBE flashcards. Plus, the purchase of the flashcards set also comes with the Critical Pass Mobile App. From this App., purchasers can download the Critical Pass Flashcards to any apple or android device. Just like the print flashcards, bar preppers are able to highlight, note, and quiz themselves via their cell phone, laptop, or any other supporting portable device.

  • Auditory Aids

Other aids I found just as useful – and much better for my wallet – were the auditory study aids offered in disc format on the library shelf, and digitally via West Academic Library App.

When you’re on a time crunch, every minute counts. This can include your daily commute, grocery shopping, or other similar, small and thoughtless activities. These small activities still compound our day-to-day living and grossly interrupt day-to-day study. Commuting to-and-fro a full- or part-time job, be it anywhere between 10 minutes to 2 hours, will add up. It does no good to let this time go to waste. Using auditory aids, like the Sum and Substance Series or Law School Legends, will help consistently refresh the tested material and gain a deeper understanding of vital topics. Instead of precious time wasted listening to the latest cold-case podcast, bar preppers can use that time wisely and listen to one of several MBE auditory aids.

For auditory learners, these are a not-so-hidden gem! Available for check-out in most law libraries, users can easily listen to the application of substantive legal topics on their daily commute, during their daily exercise routine, while completing household chores, or anywhere else one is unable to pick up a book, but is still able to lend an attentive ear.

  1. Practice! Practice! Practice!

Many a test taker refuse to practice multiple choice or essay questions until they feel they have obtained sufficient knowledge to score a 90% or above on each and every trial. This is simply not feasible. Practice test questions, both multiple choice AND essay questions, are still material learning methods and critical to bar prep. The more practice questions read, and answers reviewed, only increases performance on the bar exam. This is because preppers are introduced to specific questions and responses more likely to appear on the Bar Exam, and they are given application examples that will assist their understanding when working through similar problems. Practice questions give insight into the types of questions that appear on the exam, and the more a student reviews those questions the stronger their score will be. It is always important to keep in mind, a low practice score will not be a final testing score – so long as you practice! practice! practice!

  1. Utilize (and Thank!) Your Support System

Although preppers may feel completely isolated from the outside world, there is always a small team working alongside them and pushing for their Bar Exam success. The significant other who checks in to make sure they’re still eating, or a work colleague who offers to take on an extra project knowing that their day to day load is more than most can bear. These individuals who offer care and support during Bar prep periods are integral to maintaining mental stability, and are always underappreciated when a Bar examiner’s central focus remains on the exam itself.

I am eternally grateful to my fellow librarians at the Panza Maurer Law Library. Their support was a motivating factor to practice those extra 15 multiple choice questions a night, and the final push to review just one more essay. The support they showed me is the same support I hope to pass on to my students. Through our Bar Success Program, I am happy to give that same motivation, care, and support to each of our working bar prep students.

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Let Us Not Forget About Bar Association Benefits

This weekend I was fortunate enough to travel to Austin, Texas for the POP Cats Convention. While there, I met up with a law school friend who just opened his own firm in Austin. While he has practiced law for several years, he spent his early career at medium to large firms that had information professionals at their disposal. Now that he is a solo practitioner, I was naturally curious about what he was doing to satisfy his legal research needs.  Was he using Westlaw, Lexis Advance, Fastcase, or Casemaker? Did he have anyone helping with this task? His answer: “No, I don’t need anyone to help; I find that if I Google for a little while I can come to most things that I need just fine.”  Using Google Scholar as a preliminary information-gathering method to save money would be okay. Unfortunately, he was not using Google Scholar, nor had he even heard of Google Scholar. bar-621033_960_720

The point is not to chastise or embarrass my friend. He is a very brilliant man and was having a bit of a go at me. When he saw the look on my face, he conceded that Google was not his only avenue for research. My friend was paying to use Lexis Advance. Which is fine—but it is an expense that can make or break many solo practitioners. My friend did not know that the State Bar of Texas offers its members free access to both Fastcase and Casemaker. It is the only bar association to offer both legal research databases; typically bar associations that offer this benefits provide only one or the other. It’s bad that my brilliant friend did not know about this amazing resource, but what’s worse is that it was not the first time I have heard of a lawyer’s ignorance of what their bar association has to offer.

More than 50 bar associations offer free access to Fastacse, and nearly 30 state and local bar associations offer free access to Casemaker. I have lost count of the number of times that a member of the bar here in Louisiana has come to the reference desk to complain about the prices of legal research databases, not realizing they had free access to Fastcase. The sheer number of legal research options can overwhelm a new practitioner who only learned about a few in law school. The same applies to more seasoned lawyers used to having staff perform research for them, or who have failed to keep up with the rapid changes in legal research technology.

But who is responsible for educating these lawyers about their bar membership benefits? I have emphasized this point in my Advanced Legal Research Class when we discuss low-cost and free legal research resources. But is it the librarian’s job to make sure budding lawyers know about these benefits? Or is it the job of the Bar Association to properly inform their attorneys of the benefits they offer? How about the lawyer? Is the onus wholly on the lawyer to know and understand the legal research resources they have at their disposal? I think it’s a combination of all three: law librarians, bar associations, and lawyers. Ultimately, unless people hear it from many different sources, the information will not stick. It’s hard to absorb all the information out there, especially for people who just emptied their brain of anything that did not pertain to the bar exam.

This is not a trivial question. Lawyers who do not completely understand the legal technology at their disposal risk violating ethical rules. Failing to understand and use available legal research databases runs the risk of future sanctions. The ABA’s very first Model Rule of Professional Conduct requires technological literacy, and thirty-one states have adopted an ethical rule imposing a duty of technology competence. Further, the Model Rules prohibit excessive fees. A lawyer who fails to take advantage of free legal research databases could be charging fees inflated by unnecessary costs.

Is Google-fu a good skill? Sure. Do you think a judge (or a client) will be happy if they ask how you prepared for litigation and the only answer you could provide was Google?—probably not so much. We can all help avoid such unfortunate conversations by educating local lawyers about the hidden treasures that come with bar association membership.

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