by Beau Steenken
This week, I am teaching the final classes for this year’s 1L Legal Research. (At U.K., we teach nine classes spread out over the fall, and another six spread out over the spring, but we end early each semester before students start concentrating on exams.) The topic of this last class is cost-effective legal research, and while that topic could probably itself be an entire advanced legal research course, I like ending my 1L class with it for two reasons. First, I think students benefit from being reminded that West, Lexis, and Bloomberg are not the naturally-occurring, free resources that they appear to be in law school. After all, in two scant months the 1Ls will find themselves outside of the nurturing environment of law school (all things are relative) and in various employment contexts featuring different views of efficiency and the “time-is-money” equation. Second, I find that the cost-effective topic serves as a convenient vehicle for a recap of things they have learned throughout the course, because it allows me to stress (one last time) how good research methods lead to more efficient research.
Because of the two different factors I try to cover though, I tend to split my class into two parts (three, if you count the time reserved for course evaluations as our administration likes all teachers to do during our last class periods). Part one of the class quickly introduces students to the use of no-cost or zero-cost alternatives to the full-service research platforms. I remind my students that not all questions require Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg to answer (sometimes I think law students struggle with this concept and end up using their search platform of choice as a crutch), by asking them to find quickly the citation to Marbury v. Madison. Most students realize they can do this with Google, which allows me to also give them a refresher in information literacy and to introduce them to both Google Scholar and the LII. I then transition to showing them Casemaker, access to which comes with bar membership in Kentucky. A number of our students end up working at smaller firms in rural areas of Kentucky that do not subscribe to one of the big platforms, so I think it is important that they be introduced to the alternative. I particularly think it is important to point out the strengths and weaknesses of alternative platforms, as often a cheaper price tag means more reliance on computer-generated content, which users need to be able to recognize in order to use its strengths while countering its weaknesses. I end the first section by reminding them, though, that the ultimate low-cost resource remains their friendly law library.
The second part of the class then transitions to ways to increase research efficiency when one finds oneself using the expensive stuff. I stress to the students that employers do not like Westlaw-flailing that they cannot bill to clients, and so their research needs to be targeted. I sometimes tell my students that this is my soapbox lecture (though I have yet to bring in an actual soapbox… one of these days), in which I get to tell them all the things they should remember as they go off to work over the summer. I usually do it in list form, and usually the students themselves are able to fill it in from things I’ve repeated all year: ask a librarian, consult a secondary source first, use an index instead of full-text searching for initial research, use connections from authorities on point (such as headnotes or citing references) to find other authorities on point, beware over-reliance on natural language searches, and ask a librarian a second time if you get stuck. After the students complete the list, I remind them that the law library remains open all summer should they need reference assistance (though I also remind them to consult their employer’s librarian first, should their employer have one), and wish them luck in their further pursuits.
Thus, while I don’t think one class session can really teach “cost-effective” research, I like having a class devoted to it, because it messages to the students to start thinking about research in a work context and because it allows me one last chance to stress the important stuff before the 1Ls go off on their own (with the reminder that they can always call the library even if they’re off on their own)!