You can lead a horse to water…but you cannot make him take Advanced Legal Research

Photo Courtesy racineur Some Rights Reserved
Ron Wheeler asked: “How can law librarians play a proactive role in the modern evolution of legal education?”

I could begin this conversation by pointing out that in order to effectuate any kind of progress, we need the law schools to allow us to participate. I could also point out that the number of tenure track, dual-degree positions for research and instructional librarians seems to be dwindling, and that the majority of legal research courses are optional and likely have low enrollment numbers. That would be the little Devil on my shoulder speaking.

The little Angel is taking stock of what we are already doing, what we do have control over, and which of our allies share our values with respect to legal research education. What are the real legal research education needs of our patron base? How can we maintain and expand upon our current offerings in the face of diminishing resources?

If Wishes were Horses…

We wish that our students needed our legal research expertise during law school. But students don’t need legal research to pass contracts. They don’t need it to pass the bar Exam. And most law students are so overworked that they find the easiest way to do research for their seminar papers, and that involves finding Internet sources, not doing research in books. The stark reality is that they do not really need us to get through law school.

Their legal research needs begin only when they have completed their requirements for graduation, have passed the bar exam, and are searching for or have just acquired a job as a lawyer. This is the time when they first realize just how much help they actually need, and this is when we should offer them training.

What if we provided to our recent alumni training on practical research topics aimed specifically at them, such as: Navigating Practice Guides; Using legal encyclopedia and digests in print and on Westpac (or whatever database you have available to alumni); researching Court Rules; and job acquisition focused research, eg. researching local law firms and lawyers?

This is something that we could coordinate with the Law School Career Services Office. It could raise awareness at the institution of what the library can do for law students seeking jobs. This collaborative endeavor also gives us an opportunity to outsource marketing at a time when few libraries have the manpower (or, to be honest, the expertise) to market in a comprehensive and consistent fashion.

What Have We Got?

My little Angel is tugging at my sleeve again and saying that we can collaborate with area law librarians to leverage our joint resources for the good of our patrons. We can offer what we have and ask for what we need. Libraries have different strengths. Some, for instance, have a metropolitan location, near where our alumni work. The downturn of the economy has been hard on all law libraries, but library directors have cut different things in response. Some law libraries have books, but not databases, and vice versa. Others have beautiful new high tech facilities, but limited staff.

Instructional Material

My Angel wonders if we might be able to consolidate instructional materials and instructional offerings. Do we really need five different video tutorials on researching California secondary sources, or could we work together to produce one good tutorial that we can tailor to the print sources available at our individual libraries?

Consolidating the Patron Base

Providing training for only one or two law students at a time seems like an inefficient use of resources. What if we collaborated with the law firm and public law library librarians who are encountering our students “in the wild”? Law firm librarians could point new associates towards the research classes offered by the law school librarians at their respective alma maters.

Might librarians from different schools collaborate to develop a weekend of legal research workshops on various topics? It could be hosted by one school, but taught by any law librarians in geographic proximity. Substantive law professors do this all the time – they organize colloquia, bringing in experts in their field of law. The school building where I work is new and appealing. It would be a perfect place to host a legal research teach-in, but with only one full-time reference librarian on staff, we would need participation from area law librarians to fully staff such an event without burdening our library staff.

What if our Alumni are far away?

If your law school is inconveniently far away from where most of your alumni work, consider providing live or pre-recorded Webinars. Law firm librarians and public law library librarians near where your alumni are working might be willing to host and co-teach an evening of research workshops, especially if law school librarians offered to simultaneously teach alumni and non-alumni patrons of the host library. Even better, try to provide CLE credit.

My Angel insists, that if we want to remain relevant, we must be willing to go where our patron base is when they need us. If we stay tied to the brick and mortar library when only a small percentage of our students ever venture in there and an even smaller portion of those ever need or desire to crack open a print book, we risk becoming obsolete.

If we want to be valued for what we do, we have to create value for our institutions. If we want to be treated like real law professors and offered things like tenure and a reasonable salary, my Angel says, maybe we should start acting like law professors and provide the kind of resources that our students and young alumni need when they need it.

Since we cannot change what our students want, need, or are capable of doing, what can we do to change our offerings to meet the real needs of our real students and recent graduates?

About Catherine "Deane" Deane

Catherine Deane is the full-time Reference Librarian at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library. She performs in depth research for the faculty in support of their scholarship, and assists students with their legal research. She will be teaching the Advanced Legal Research course beginning in Fall 2011. She is also responsible for developing topical legal research guides for the TJSL community. She has created eight research guides since arriving at TJSL in November 2010, and has updated several more. She is also a regular contributor to ThomChat, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library Blog. Catherine Deane spent two years working closely with Vincent Moyer, Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the University of California, Hastings School of Law, where she created and curated ten research guides on varying topics in U.S., foreign, and international law. With Mr. Moyer, she published two book reviews and a foreign law research guide on the Laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (her home country). Prior to working at UC Hastings, she spent a year and a half doing contract work at an international law firm in downtown Los Angeles and she spent a year teaching academic writing at the University of California, San Diego. She has a J.D. with a Certificate in comparative and international law, which she acquired while studying abroad in Ireland, England and Belgium. She also has an M.L.I.S., an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology, and a B.A. from Princeton University in Cultural Anthropology with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Her research interests include Native American Legal Issues, Domestic Violence, and Legal Information Literacy.
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