Reference From Coast to Coast: Are They Finding What They Need?

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is Reference Librarian with Dickinson Wright PLLC.

Margi Heinen is the Manager of Library Services at Sherman and Howard.

Summer associates and law clerks around the country are completing their summer experiences in the “real world”. Just as they will evaluate their time at the firm, we will take stock – noting types of questions asked, sources used, if there seemed to be general unfamiliarity with particular material. Our evaluation will also include our interaction with them as well as their interaction with us. Well, how did they do? Did they ask lots of questions about print sources or did online usage go up? One of the truly difficult aspects of legal research during a summer clerkship is trying to determine what is really needed. A lack of familiarity with practical materials or local resources may be involved. Or sometimes this difficulty translates into a question of format: online vs. print sources; sometimes into cost vs. free sources; sometimes it is difficult to even get that far. So, we ask ourselves, how do legal researchers, especially novices, find the materials they need? Are we providing sufficient and appropriate direction for them to do so? And how do we communicate the need to see the big picture in our legal research world?

Legal research training programs for summer associates are often provided by both their academic and firm librarians as well as commercial database vendors. These programs are an adjunct to the law school formal legal research and writing programs and try to acquaint students with practical tools as well as research costs. And as private librarians, we’re still fighting the good fight – trying to illustrate not everything is online and if it is online, it may not be free [of charge, worth your time, without strings attached]. And therein lies part of the big picture. Evaluating any source, be it print or electronic, is key to research success.

Another part of the big picture? Will only the latest and greatest do? Are we sacrificing access and availability because of our preoccupation with format? Are we librarians sometimes reluctant to suggest sources because of personal preference or disdain for a particular format? One of the most valuable sources Colorado legal researchers can use is the Colorado Lawyer. Articles often have a practical bent that help fill the void in a summer clerk’s experience. Yet, the most familiar online sources either don’t have this publication or have only selected articles or limited retrospective coverage. The Colorado Bar Association recently added Casemaker to its member benefits providing the entire run of the Colorado Lawyer along with statutes and case law. Do we disregard a gem of a resource because it is packaged with other databases that perhaps do not meet our requirements? Since the search strategies are more primitive and other vendors may seem more comprehensive for case law research, do we librarians fail to introduce this particular database to new lawyers?

Attempting to get new researchers to move from one source or one format to another is not an easy task. The thought-provoking article by Thomas Keefe, Teaching Legal Research from the Inside Out, 97 Law Library Journal 117 (2005) describes the difficulty of explaining research as a process rather than a single event. The process is not being adequately assimilated by many law students (and library students) and therefore it feels safer for the novice to just stick with familiar sources. One might say that the advent of online research encouraged us to think of research as “flat-screened” rather than multi-dimensional.

Sometimes the format issue is simpler than online vs. print vs. CD. For some researchers it is as simple as “How do I find this section of the I.R.S. Code-in school (or in my office) I always used the paperback edition.” Questions like this often indicate the researcher isn’t thinking of where in the larger world their question fits. If they saw their section as a statute, a whole world of research options would open to them-court and agency annotations, legislative history, articles (many leads available in an annotated United States Code).

Often for summer clerks finding older material seems especially complicated. How often have you heard the surprise in the new lawyer’s voice when they learn that volume 1 of the Harvard Law Review isn’t on Westlaw or Lexis. Part of our task as firm librarians is to help people evaluate familiar sources in light of unfamiliar needs. HeinOnLine has come to the rescue with retrospective law reviews, statutes-at-large, supreme court cases and classic treatises.

As our consumer culture continues its slide towards total self-service, the influence can be felt in our legal research world. No, you can’t always go online to find the answer or pay the bill. But it’s so very handy when you can. There is a need to recognize that legal research comes in different formats and these formats often work together. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. Another part of the big picture. Several recent articles have addressed this continuing issue from somewhat different perspectives: Web Surfing Lawyers Won’t Sink Paper and Ink, Anne Ellis, Legal Times, July 26, 2006 and Revising Law Review: Journals struggle for Relevancy in a Field Redefined by the Internet, Terry Carter, ABA Journal, July 2006.

Emphasis on evaluating sources, integrating formats and making ourselves and our expertise available to summer associates is the way we insure that summer associates find what they need. Recognizing the process of legal research as well as knowledge of its sources and materials and determining which questions need to be asked are part of our big picture.”

Posted in: Legal Research, Legal Research Training, Reference from Coast to Coast, Summer Associate Programs