Reaching Out

I recently had a faculty member ask me one of the most perplexing questions I’ve ever received.  This faculty needed some books, and found them not in the law library, but in the main University library.  The faculty member contacted me and asked “[the catalog search system] let me request it, for pickup at the COL library. Sounds too good to be true — can I really get books that way?”  It took me some time to forumlate an answer that was not condescending since to me this was akin to asking “can I really use my computer to search the internet?”  Then I understood something that make just slightly embarrassed: he simply did not know a very important role and service that the library provides.  As I thought more, I then was shocked to realize that when it came to understanding the specifics of the university library, I was also quite ignorant.  I suddenly found myself in a glass house!

There is an easy solution to this problem, which is to simply practice some outreach.  Normally, outreach is thought of as bringing in individuals, groups, or organizations from outside the “organization” to provide services to your exsiting patron groups.  While that is certainly part of it in this context, it also requires simple fact finding missions about the operations of not only the university library, but other departments on campus with either existing (or potential) relationships which would benefit our patrons as well as their members, and which are not being currently being utilized.  Every institution is so much larger than just the law or law library department, and too often these departments are siloed from one another.  It is therefore beneficial, and very easy, to simply contact other departments to find out more about them, which by itself usually leads to added benefits to everyone.

Conversely, outreach does not mean simply reaching outside the institution, but rather reaching out to the patrons as well to make sure that they are fully aware of the services the library provides.  I am very proud of our library’s outreach initiatives within the college of law, which include going into seminars to demonstrate research tools directly to students, providing tutorials on less used and less known resources, weekly slides on a single resource or service, serve as faculty liaisons, as well as any other outreach endeavors which become necessary.  Since I am the “Outreach Librarian” for someone to be unaware of the most simple tool at their disposal cuts to the quick, and really has me rethinking my outreach strategy.

There are two morals to this story.  The first is to never presume that a failure of knowlege is the fault of the person admitting their ignorance (I rule I follow very well with my students, but in this instance failed to do so).  The second moral, and more central to this post, is that when something you perceive as obvious, is simply more obtuse to others, take a hard look at the reasons for the misunderstanding.  Often times it is something that we as librarians can fix.

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Listening & Learning as a New(er) Law Librarian

Recently, I looked at my calendar and realized that I’ve been a law librarian for a little more than two years. This fact snuck up on me for many reasons; mainly, time flies when you’re having fun! But it also struck me because I still feel so brand new in this field.

When I first started working as a law school librarian, I was immediately grateful for the knowledge and expertise of my co-workers. We share a space in the Reference office, so we are all privy to every patron interaction and inquiry. In those early days, every question sounded random and threatening to my budding librarian ears. “How can I answer all these legal questions without first being an expert at everything?!” I wondered.

I listened in awe as my colleagues artfully guided faculty and students alike through complex, thorny requests. I began taking notes – awkwardly, at first. I would surreptitiously scribble patron questions and “answers” on index cards underneath my desk, or during meetings, or even during casual conversations. I tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could, fearful that one day I would get asked “THE” question – the one that would stump me for good and leave me grasping at straws right in front of a patron. My worst fear!

A pink clear box full of index cards with different labels like "Databases," "Admin," "Bluebooking," "LibGuides," "Secondary Sources," and more.

My handy traveling reference card collection.

Eventually, my reference card collection started to grow. I housed them in boxes and kept them near me at all times at the reference desk, like my own little librarian safety net.

My reference cards are divided into categories. They contain everything from information on lesser known legal technology tools, to popular secondary sources, to in-depth hacks and tricks for using Bloomberg, Westlaw, Lexis, and other databases.

I do a lot of listening as a newer law librarian, but I also do a lot of writing. When one of my colleagues mentions a cool new tool or database, or when they are kind enough to share how they helped someone work through a particularly difficult legal research question, I write it down on an index card and store it in my handy little collection.

The funny thing about this collection, however, is that I rarely ever whip it out in front of a patron. I’m usually way too engrossed in making sure we’re working through their inquiry together, and I don’t want to lose their interest or be distracting.

Instead, I find that the physical act of writing helps me retain the information and remember it when I get questions. I periodically cruise through my card collection just for fun, and I often add new cards based on legal information or resources I’ve read in addition to what I learn from my co-workers.

I don’t know when, if ever, I will stop feeling so “new,” but I do love getting creative about listening and learning from my colleagues along the way!

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Beyond the Reference Desk

Image of Dog sitting at reference desk with sign stating "Reference Librarian in Training"
Photo by Seattle University School of Law Library on

A formative experience for me in library school was working the reference desk with the librarians at the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington. I watched in wonder as the librarians each listened to their respective patrons, and through a series of questions, gently pulled from the speaker the details needed to really answer their question and find the correct resource to assist them. When I would inquire as to how they did that, how did they know the questions to ask, how did they know what resource to recommend, how did they know what the patron was really asking, I was frequently told: listen; practice; and you’ll get there.

It’s been a few years, and I think I am getting there slowly, but I’m still fascinated by the process of the reference interview. It’s so much more than simply answering trivia questions all day. As stated by Stephanie Willen Brown, “The reference librarian’s fundamental task is to translate the patron’s question into one that can be answered with the library’s resources.”

It’s in this “secret-sauce” translation piece of reference where experience and technique really shines for librarians. Patrons often approach the desk with all manner of inquiries, inquiries that often don’t touch at the heart of their problem. They may ask for a resource they’ve heard of from someone else, peppering their explanation with terms they picked up from a Google search, or for access to a database they are unsure how to use. By listening and being approachable, I can often figure out which resource is the best fit for what the patron is really asking. Those interactions are the successes. Sometimes, I am relegated to simply pointing out the location of reference materials and making myself available for questions. Those interactions feel less successful. But again, I am listening and practicing.

Employing the strategies we were taught at Gallagher while sitting at the reference desk is second nature at this point. In my current position, a large percentage of the patrons who approach the reference desk are public patrons and 1Ls. I assume when dealing this this patron group that I will need to work extra hard to translate their questions into one I can help them answer because these groups are usually working with the least amount of legal knowledge and background. I purposely employ reference interview skills when working with these groups. When working with higher level law students and faculty, I assume they have the tools and language to ask directly for what they need. I realized recently this isn’t always the case.

I had two interactions in the past month which reminded me that reference and the reference interview are not conducted solely at the reference desk. We carry these tools with us throughout the library and law school.

The first interaction began with a request for a presentation to a group of journal students on the process of researching legislative history. They wanted the basics covered: why we research legislative history, how to do it, and how it can assist them in writing their notes. Great, legislative history is by far my favorite topic to present on. They submitted their note topics to me and I began to prepare the PowerPoint. I then realized very few (none) of these topics would benefit from legislative history research. So, I spent a large portion of my presenting time covering tools that would assist them, such as Research Guides and 50-state-surveys. They later told me this was the most helpful portion of the presentation.

The second interaction involved a faculty member who requested a literature review. She sent a specific question she wanted researched and we went back in forth in email a little for full clarity. I began the research and found some promising leads. I then met with the faculty member in person. We had a nice chat and then it became clear that although she requested a literature review, what she really wanted was me to find specific people in history that fell into a demographic she wanted to write on. Without this clarification, I would have spent weeks compiling journal articles that answered the question asked, but didn’t assist her research in the slightest. This would have wasted my time and have been of little use to the patron.

Both these user groups involved sophisticated researchers asking well formed questions that required library resources to answer. But if I had simply done as they asked, neither group would particularly benefit from my skills or knowledge. By asking follow up questions and actively listening, I was able to translate their initial questions into an understanding of what resources they really needed. It was then that my novice librarian brain realized we should conduct reference interviews every time we are asked to help. We can’t assume a level of communication based on a patron’s knowledge base. The meeting of the minds between librarian and patron is predicated as much on my ability to hear the patron, as it is their ability to ask the question. This realization was a perfect reminder to listen, practice, and repeat. Someday, I’ll get there.

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Working with lawyers

In a law library it’s inevitable, we will work with lawyers.  It doesn’t matter if it’s an academic, court, or firm library – our patrons are lawyers (or future lawyers).  And many law librarians hold a J.D. – so we’re also lawyers.

The interaction with attorneys varies depending on the type of institution.  In an academic law library, librarians and staff are dealing with professors as well as the public.  Many academic law libraries are open to the public, and librarians will encounter attorneys (alumni) as well as pro se patrons.  Plus there are a lot of wannabe lawyers, who may or may not think they know everything about the law.   In a court/government setting, we’re working with judges and their staff, as well as the public, as many county libraries are also open to the public.   That “public” can be attorneys who don’t have their own library, attorneys who need some quick research while at the courthouse, or, frequently, the pro se patron or someone who wants legal advice.  In a law firm, we have attorneys, paralegals, and support staff.

This post isn’t about whether what we do constitutes the practice of law.  That’s an issue for another post.  This is about working with attorneys on various levels.  We’re all familiar with working with attorneys as our patrons – in whatever type of institution.  And, yes, some attorneys are easier to work for/with than others.  Every firm, law school library, or government law library has the one (or two, or more) “problem” patrons and accompanying horror stories.

But, there’s another aspect of working with attorneys that doesn’t arise as frequently.  That’s working with attorneys who are part of the library.  In academic institutions, most of the librarians have a JD as well as the MLIS/MLS.  At the director level in almost any law library, the director has both degrees as well.  But in firms, the librarians often just have an MLS.

Some firms hire JDs to work as legal researchers.  These attorneys work in the library/knowledge management/etc. department, but they’re not librarians.  And this presents unique challenges.

These attorneys are generally very capable researchers.  As long as they are performing legal research.  When they get a request outside of their comfort zone, they seem to lose all rational thought (ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration).  Librarians are told to do a reference interview upon receipt of a research question, and we’re taught the basics of how to perform a reference interview.  Attorneys are not.  A good librarian is curious and, if faced with something unfamiliar, starts digging to find a source.  Attorneys as  a rule are, apparently, not as curious.   On the plus side, they will ask for help.   On the down side, they tend to ask if a “librarian” can get it for them.  That can be a teachable moment, but all too often there isn’t time to show them how to get the information.

Attorneys are smart and highly educated.  You can’t just say “why don’t you go look for the information yourself”.  You probably wouldn’t say that to another librarian, although you would expect a librarian to have tried searching, and to say where they’ve looked.  It’s just how we’re trained.  You can see many examples of this on the law library listservs.  We need to suggest that they look in certain areas, and encourage them to go outside of their comfort zone.  Many attorneys resist training that is offered to “librarians”, so they don’t know how to use resources beyond the traditional legal research systems.    It’s a training opportunity for us.  And a research attorney might be a good test subject for some of our underutilized resources – they think like attorneys, but are a captive audience.  It’s a great opportunity.

Some of the problem is the law firm culture, the “librarian” was not necessarily viewed as an information professional.  That’s part of the reason for the name change from PLL to PLLIP – “information professional” having been added.  Titles have changed, but we still refer to ourselves as librarians, and with pride.  JDs working in a library group understand that someone with an MLS has training and knowledge that they don’t have.  The trick is to get the JD to start thinking like someone with an MLS.

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Class Exercise: Turning Research into a Deliverable Using Analytics


Photoby NeONBRAND  on Unsplash

 It’s spooky season, so dare I bring up ABA     accreditation standards and “experiential   learning”? Maybe it’s just me but it feels like the   initial buzz around the ABA’s experiential learning standards has quieted a bit. However, I serve on our law school’s faculty committee tasked with assessing our stated J.D. learning  outcomes, so for me, the ABA standards are part of my regular vocabulary. And this year in particular has me especially engaged: this is the year our committee is assessing our J.D. learning outcome on legal research (cue the rejuvenated ABA spirit!)

This post is not about our assessment methods, rather what we have so far learned about legal research practice by law graduates. In a meeting with some of our most successful and engaged alumni, we heard that while newer graduates’ research skills are impressive, these same graduates generally need deeper demonstration of what it means to turn a “legal answer” into a “client answer”. Put another way: what does it meant to put that answer into a contract, client email, or proposed solution? With that in mind, I conducted the following lesson and assignment and I’m happy to report that it had great success.

I started by inviting a friend and fellow law librarian, Jocelyn Sagherian, to my class to provide a survey of legal analytics tools, a growing field and increasingly necessary skill in legal practice. She brought her experience from working in law firms, in law schools, and with Lexis. The lesson covered a range of products from Bloomberg, Lex Machina, Monitor Suite, Lexis Context, Westlaw Edge analytics and more. We ran out of time to do her in-class exercise but that’s where the door opened for a little competition in the next class meeting:



Photo cred: Pexels

You are a large firm with a robust IP Practice with experience representing multiple tech players in the Fortune 500. Apple, Inc was recently sued for copyright infringement and you want to retain the company as your client for this suit.

New Firm (team 1): You’ve never represented Apple before and this would be a huge achievement for your firm. What’s your strategy? In 30 minutes, we’re meeting for drinks and it’s your job to sell me your pitch on why I should hire you.

M&F LLP Firm (team 2): You work for Morrison & Foerester LLP and have represented Apple in many other suits, but primarily related for patent and fraud claims. What’s your strategy? In 30 minutes, we’re meeting for drinks and it’s your job to sell me your pitch on why I should hire you.

If they needed guidance, I offered for them to consider:

What is the track record of the firm in litigating certain kinds of cases? 

Which firms have the most experience in this area, and what were the outcomes of those cases?


You secured Apple in the above suit and had great success. Apple retains your firm again for a patent suit filed against them yesterday. The case has been assigned to Judge Davila in the N.D. of California. What’s your strategy?

If they needed guidance, I offered for them to consider:

What are the predilections of Judge Davila? 

Should we seek a change of venue? 

Should we press forward with this case or settle?” (how long will it last?)

As fun as legal research can be, I must say we did have a lot of fun! To boot, their responses were impressive, too. Among the creative and well-reasoned contributions, I heard students:

  • Define success in both legal terms and financial expense;
  • Discuss strategies and track records for motions for summary judgment and motions to dismiss ;
  • Point out the judge’s tendencies and illustrate strategies using citation patterns;
  • Illustrate potential timelines for this copyright suit and relate it to the judge’s current docket;
  • Detail the judge’s experience with copyright issues;
  • Advocate for their business and sell their prior experience in copyright infringement; and
  • Share strategies for obtaining top experts

Truly, the students shined and I think they enjoyed the non-graded competition. I will definitely employ this exercise again and will be sure to make this research lesson a regular part of my course content. Have you taught Analytics in ALR? If so, how have you delivered the content and what assignments did you give to allow the students to practice using the tools? I’d love to know!

Posted in ABA, competitive intelligence, Legal databases, Legal Technology, student engagement, Teaching (general) | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Good Lawyer Should be Living a Good Life

It is common knowledge among legal professionals that law and philosophy are intimately entwined. A detailed understanding of jurisprudence is integral to any law professional’s success. Still, there are many branches of philosophy that can apply to our lives and the lives of our students outside the specific branch of legal jurisprudence.

A few weeks ago, I was casually browsing YouTube and caught this TED-Ed video clip discussing the philosophical practice of Stoicism. The five-minute video inspired me to delve deeper; and, after a bit of preliminary research, I purchased Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

The foundation of Stoicism rests in the belief that we cannot have total control over what happens around us, but we can control how we react to it.  A central tenet of the practice states, “we ought to recognize, and take seriously, the difference between what we can and cannot master.”

While reading Pigliucci’s work, I came across a particularly intriguing passage. In sum, Pigliucci states that in order to live a good life, one must understand (1) the nature of the world (and by extension, one’s place in it); and, (2) the nature of human reasoning (including when it fails). In order to pursue this understanding, Pigliucci said the Stoics of old would have studied physics, logic, and ethics. Physics, in this instance, broadly meaning all of the natural sciences, including metaphysics and even theology. Logic and ethics carried their same meaning as today, respectively defined as the study of formal reasoning and the understanding or idea of character. According to Pigliucci, the basic idea was that one could not properly develop good character, or properly develop good habits, without a combined understanding of all three.

Pigliucci’s passage describes the ideal lawyer. One who is well versed in science, logic, and ethics. A lawyer who is virtuous, of good practice, and of good habits. These are all traits we aim to encourage in our students. Thus, at the base of this, we must encourage our students to reflect on their actions and take seriously what they can and cannot control.

Just before beginning my study of Stoicism, my co-professor and I held one-on-one conferences with our Advanced Legal Research students to discuss with them their first legal research assignment. There was plenty of anxiety to go around. The most common theme among them, and most law school students, was that they did not know when to stop researching. They were never quite sure if they did enough.

design desk display eyewear

Photo by on

My first thought was welcome to the rest of your life –  except, imagine that feeling outside of a hypothetical when a real person’s life, liberty, or possessions are actually on the line. Yea . . . To this day, plenty of legal professionals suffer from high anxiety and stress and permanently carry that fear that they did not do enough.

But our goal is to reduce this stigma before our students even leave our campuses, and I am determined to be more proactive in helping my students more deeply reflect on their actions and understand (and accept!) what they can and cannot control. As of right now, our students are required to submit a self-assessment questionnaire as part of their research assignment. This is a great assignment to subtly emphasize to students what aspects of legal research they have the most control over. For example, questions may include:

  1. Did you follow the legal research process described in class?
  2. Did you give yourself enough time to thoroughly research the legal issue?
  3. Did you have questions arise concerning the assignment? If so, did you ask your professors? Why or why not?

The point is to lessen a student’s anxiety by helping them to understand the specific aspects of legal research that is their responsibility. I would love to never have to say again, “Please stop driving yourself crazy looking for a case that may or may not exist.”

Drawing from Pigliucci’s description of what makes a good life, a good lawyer will always be living a good life. Thus, if we continue to accomplish our goals of producing great lawyers, we can rest assured that we are providing our students with skills to ensure they also live a great life. What more could a law librarian ask for!

Posted in Career, Legal Ethics, Teaching (general), Work/Life Balance | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Facebook Breaks Didn’t Make You Happy! So Move Away From the Screen and Start Juggling…

According to a recent Gallup polls, American are not generally thrilled to be at work. 70% of Americans report lack of engagement at work and 67% report some level of burn out. Although many law librarians seem quite pleased with their jobs, there is no reason to suspect that we are exempt from societal trends. Which means that we, like everyone else in the U.S., are often grumping around at work.

And why wouldn’t we be? Life is not always paradise, and we are no doubt also grumping around before arriving at work, and after leaving. In addition, the modern work world seems unnatural. Throughout the vast majority of human evolution and history, we were running around together outside gathering berries and clubbing animals, so it is hardly surprising that sitting inside on our butts all day staring at computer screens causes stress, boredom, and disengagement.

This is tragic not just for the individual stressed and disengaged employee, it is also bad for the productivity of the organization. What is an employee to do??

Good-Natured Coworker Travis Spence Working Hard During His Juggling Lesson

Play at Work

Jump on the Silicon Valley bandwagon and demand that your library get a ping pong table! There are numerous studies suggesting that playing at work increases…well…nearly everything good (job satisfaction, creativity, social cohesion, problem solving) while simultaneously decreasing everything bad (stress, boredom, burnout). Researchers theorize that adult play improves work performance in different ways – by facilitating stimulation regulation, enabling a flow state, allowing for cathartic release, and creating positive emotions.

Wait….Shouldn’t People Be Working at Work?

Well, perhaps ideally, but in what the kids call IRL (in real life), the American human employee is kind of a slacker.  According to a recent study, the average worker is productive for approximately three hours a day (out of eight). Even the most productive employees (top 10%) typically take a break for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. What do we do during these breaks? The top four unproductive office activities are surfing news websites (65 minutes a day), social media (44 minutes a day), coworker chitchat (40 minutes a day), and job searching (26 minutes a day). These are fine activities, but they have apparently failed to stave off disengagement and burnout.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different results, so perhaps…it is time to try something else?

Okay…What Should I Play?

A survey of the “play at work” scholarship doesn’t give any definitive guidance on what to play at work for maximum benefit since the studies involve a variety of amusements – board games, video games, ping pong, slides, table soccer, pinball machines, fantasy football, musical instruments, puzzles, etc.

Maybe, before we get to that question of what we should play at work, it is helpful to first define adult play. Naturally, researchers don’t agree on a definition, but a reasonable definition in one study defines it as “an activity or behavior that (a) is carried out with the goal of amusement and fun, (b) involves an enthusiastic and in-the-moment attitude or approach, and (c) is highly interactive among play partners or with the activity itself.”

Based on the definition, it makes sense that there is no one recommended type of play, since individuals vary in what they find fun and engaging.

Some Suggestions

If you need some suggestions, you are in luck, as yours truly is perhaps among the living experts in law library play. Below is a collection of my current amusements. (Note: I don’t actually play with the stuffed animals.)

Personally, I think that the secret to playing at work is variety, so I alternate between playing ping pong with students, torturing my coworkers with beginner guitar performances, and my new favorite, juggling.


Currently Available Office Playthings

Work juggling is a new addition to my playing repertoire.  After attempting to learn to juggle for perhaps the fifth or sixth time in my life, I took some old juggling balls to work and finally persevered to the point where I could juggle three balls. While doing so, I noticed that juggling often has a cheering and relaxing effect on me. (After Googling to see if others had similar experiences, I found studies suggesting juggling can help alleviate both anxiety and depression.) Now, when the afternoon office doldrums hit, I try to juggle myself out of the mood. It doesn’t always work, but I got a lot better at juggling and can now juggle four balls!

And I have two new ways to torture my coworkers – my juggling performances and forced juggling lessons. (Good-natured coworker Travis Spence is pictures below.)

For an excellent juggling tutorial (can over one million people be wrong!?) check out this YouTube video.


Even if you are a super productive employee, you still have 15 minutes of every hour for something, so get off Facebook or CNN and give play a try!

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