Notes from the Tech Trenches: More on Factiva; Summer Training Ideas

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. , and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

Factiva Revisited

My February column about the transfer of Factiva database access from Westlaw to Lexis generated several comments from librarians agreeing that not enough information was available to subscribers. Happily, Lexis was listening, and one of the managers behind the rollout invited me to talk to her about it. The conversation we had clearly indicated that Lexis was concerned with the negative comment and doing its best to smooth the choppy waters. While they did make some announcements about the changes in the press, they clearly understood that more information would have been better, especially in writing and distributed to the individual librarians who have to communicate the news about this kind of major product change within firms.

Another item I learned in that conversation was that Lexis was limited to some extent about what information they could share before March 1. Until then, Westlaw still had an exclusive agreement with Factiva that prevented Lexis from publicly mentioning specific databases. So, for instance, they would not have been able to do a publicity tour like that offered by Westlaw. They could not, for example, show the databases listed in a Lexis menu; they could not beta test; they could not publish a list of the new databases. Since March 1, they have done more to publicize the changes, and I am told that actual database lists are available upon request.

Summer Associate Training Ideas

Meanwhile, my attention has turned to summer associate training. Our local law library association has an informal group on training issues, and we met recently to discuss summer programs. Also, I was honored to be invited to speak to the Legal Research and Writing class at Cornell Law School, taught by three of the law school’s librarians, during National Library Week as part of their “Sail into Summer” program. Both experiences have me reviewing the challenges that firm and academic librarians share in trying to help new attorneys prepare for their careers.

Better Communication = Fewer Worries

I have written before about the gap that exists between a law school education and law firm expectations: Law school is mainly about theory, and law firms are all about practice. It’s a difficult dynamic for a student to anticipate. The good news is that law librarians are doing their best to help. I’ve heard about several other programs (George Washington, Georgetown, Inside Look) that make an effort to introduce law students to the practical side of lawyering. Most of these are single-day events that require people to actually show up for seminars and presentations (and if you sponsor one of these events, I’d love to hear from you about it). The downside is that they can require significant time and energy to set up, complicated by the number of people involved.

Other events happen on a smaller scale, like my visit to Cornell. It was a great opportunity to present the summer experience from the law firm perspective, as well as to exchange views with the law school librarians and students. Before my visit, I also polled some of the younger attorneys at my firm, asking what their advice would be to incoming summer associates. They were full of good advice (more on that below), and I shared as much of it as I could with the students.

Nice as it was for me to visit, I couldn’t help but think that the students would have probably been more interested in hearing from the attorneys themselves. That got me wondering, why have I not heard about any email interchanges between students and practitioners? My younger attorneys definitely had valuable lessons to impart and were willing to take a little time to talk to me about them. I know practitioners wouldn’t want to be flooded with student emails in the middle of their workdays, but with firm and university librarians acting as intermediaries, it should be possible to set up some kind of useful interchange between the two groups. At any rate, I think it’s an idea worth exploring, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Preparing In Firms

Once summer associates arrive, law firms and their librarians are doing their best to get everyone up to speed. Many firm libraries offer in-house training on some legal research basics from a firm perspective. Some offer mentoring programs, assigning a librarian to check in regularly with summer interns to help them with any research-related questions they may have over the course of the program. Some try to be a little proactive and survey their incoming summer associates about their legal research skills.

The Skills Survey

The DC office library at Fried Frank surveys all our incoming summer associates in an effort to ascertain their comfort levels with various types of research tools and to help us decide where to focus our training efforts during the short time we have them. You can see a sample version of our current survey online, hosted by Zoomerang. Our survey covers several areas that historically have been of concern among firm librarians.

Legal Research Experience

First, we try to find out how comfortable students are with various legal research tools. They tend to want more training in using secondary sources, regulatory or administrative materials, and in doing legislative research, especially in compiling legislative histories. Law school students simply don’t get much practice with these sources; their research assignments tend to center around casebooks where they always find a definitive answer. The two exceptions to that seem to be clinic work and Legal Research and Writing classes. If you are an incoming summer associate, please note that you will have a leg up on firm life if you participate in these programs.

I was surprised to hear that there are often so many students who want to get into these programs that it can be quite difficult. This floors me because it seems like such a basic necessity. Why isn’t there enough funding to offer these kinds of classes to more students? Theoretical training simply takes precedence. All I can suggest is that students and the alums who will be their coworkers and employers should ask for schools to devote more resources to this practical course work.

In the words of one of our newer attorneys, Brian Sumner:

The assignments you have are not harder or easier than what you had to do in law school — they are just different. They task you with thinking like a lawyer, as opposed to an academician…It means that your written work product should not track your research, but rather work toward the specific goal. In other words, whereas in law school and other educational situations you may have received points for “showing your work,” that phrase as a lawyer does not mean a data dump of your research process (where you looked, why you looked there, why it wasn’t helpful, what you did next, etc., etc.). Rather, “showing your work” as a lawyer means taking the possible outcomes, exploring them logically with the goal in mind…We want to service our clients, which means goals, outcomes, and how to get there.

Sumner also recommends reading Thinking Like a Writer, A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing, by Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell, for great advice on how to consider your audience and your goal as you write for work.

Lexis and Westlaw

Second, we ask about their Lexis and Westlaw training. Firms tend to focus on the costs involved because students are not charged for access in school. Students, in their turn, seem to be either completely unaware of the costs or completely paranoid about them. The first year I asked about costs I was shocked at some of the quotes I got back, pennies per search from some people and prices in the upper hundreds from others. Ultimately, we try to shoot for a healthy awareness of pricing: We want our associates to use these services — they are amazingly powerful tools which can save huge amounts of time and money when used effectively — but we don’t want them used without a little strategic planning. At the same time, we don’t want to focus so much on the price that our interns are afraid to use them.

Oddly enough, it turns out that as practitioners they will probably find themselves using Lexis and Westlaw less than they might expect. Michael Jackman, an associate, notes:

Summers should familiarize themselves with the print resources in the library…Senior associates and partners may scoff at the notion that the American Jurisprudence or case digests are helpful, but…I have been saved from the awkward “I couldn’t really find anything” conversation on more than a few occasions by both. I wrote an entire memo as a Summer Associate on New York contract law on the basis of cases that found in the New York Digest. I could have probably found similar cases on Lexis or Westlaw, but it would have taken twice as long and I would have had no way of knowing whether they were the definitive or most used cases to make my point.

Another associate, Stephen Robinson, puts it this way:

Most of my case-based online research was through Westlaw or Lexis, but you simply can’t find everything there. For instance, I was unlikely to find a good answer on Westlaw or Lexis regarding a Japanese import law issue.

Cost is an important factor, but even more significant is that Westlaw and Lexis are too limiting to rely on for all one’s research — sort of a losing-the-forest-for-the-trees idea. You can sometimes get a quick answer online, but often you need a more broad discussion — or even a discussion on something you didn’t know you needed a discussion on. Treatises, or other books like American Jurisprudence, do a good job of this. You obviously can’t end your research there, but it is a good place to start.

Perhaps the best example of where Lexis and Westlaw, or any other online resource for that matter, fails to provide a good answer is for procedural questions. Often practice guides are the only place to find a good answer — or even calling the clerk of court.

And once an attorney settles in a practice area she may find that while she is doing a good bit of research online, it’s often in a practice-specific source, not through Lexis or Westlaw. Many of our loose-leaf services are now available through a subscription on the Web and they are sometimes more comprehensive than the materials available from either Lexis or Westlaw. Unfortunately, with such a short time available for training summer associates, those resources often get less attention. Until associates have chosen a specific practice as their specialty, Lexis and Westlaw are great options for across-the-board searching.

Internet Use

Last, law firms also worry about the extent to which summer associates rely on the Internet for research. This is an issue for two reason: 1) The Web is perceived as a free resource. The catch there is that in an environment where every six minutes is billed back to a client, nothing is free. 2) The Web is not comprehensive or reliable compared to the sources we pay for. If they weren’t worth it, we wouldn’t be paying. So, our survey covers time spent on the Web and resources used there. During orientations we take pains to promote the “Ten Minute Rule.” No matter what source you’re using, if you aren’t making forward progress after using it for ten minutes, you should stop to reassess your strategy and possibly ask for help. Clearly for Lexis and Westlaw that’s an essential concept that can keep costs down, but in a way it’s even easier to be wasteful with a free source since there is no mental clock ticking money away in your head reminding you to be efficient.

Don’t Stop There

We also ask for feedback from our summer associates as they exit, and we survey our associates again as they come in as first years every fall. Happily, there does seem to be some improvement in skills and comfort level as students go through further training and gain practical experience.

Still want more information on summer training? LLRX offers a host of articles on summer training. Also, take a look at the Lexis Summer Associate Toolkit. Though this came out three years ago, the toolkit is chock-full of great ideas for helping summer associates. This year Westlaw has also introduced the West LegalEdcenter 2005 Summer Associate Readiness Program, though I have not yet seen it. You may need to contact your firm’s Westlaw consultant for access. Also, several of the legal papers do a great job working with librarians to share ideas about summer programming. Check past editions of your local paper for special issues on summer associates and keep an eye out for upcoming articles. Last, be sure to take advantage of the expertise of your local colleagues. Many library associations have email lists: Ask for input on programs in your area or invite other librarians to meet for an informal brown-bag lunch to talk about summer programming.

And if you hear any good ideas, be sure to let me know. More from the Trenches next month.

Posted in: Legal Research Training, LEXIS, Notes from the Technology Trenches, Summer Associate Programs, Westlaw